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Why emojis are a no-brainer for digital communication

Published:Monday | February 15, 2016 | 12:00 AM


When the Oxford English Dictionary declared an emoji as its 2015 word of the year, it was a bit of a head-scratcher.

The emoji it singled out - an image of a laughing yellow face crying tears of joy - did not fit most people's definition of a word. To some, it was even less of a word than shortlisted nominee "lumbersexual" (a young urban man who cultivates an appearance and style of dress suggestive of a rugged outdoor lifestyle).

But for linguists around the world, the announcement wasn't about whether the Oxford English Dictionary had lost it. (It hadn't - most linguists agree that a word is a discrete unit that is meaningful; emoji fit that definition.) Rather, it was a recognition of the enormous effect yellow smiley faces and other colorful emojis representing food, animals and hand gestures have had on the way people talk online.

Don't believe them? A 2015 study by Bangor University linguistics professor Vyv Evans found that 80 per cent of smartphone users in Britain use emojis. When the research focused on people under 25, almost 100 per cent of smartphone users text with emojis. According to a SwiftKey report, 74 per cent of Americans use emojis every day.

Aside from widespread adoption of the icons, which began after Apple made emojis available on its iOS mobile operating system in 2011, with Android following in 2013, emojis have been one of the biggest communication breakthroughs since people took to the Internet.

"Look at it this way," Evans said. "There are estimates that as much as 70 per cent of the meaning we derive from a face-to-face encounter with someone comes from non-verbal cues: facial expressions, intonation, body language, pitch. Which means words account for only around 30 per cent of what we say."