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'The Emoji Code': It's So Much More Than Just a Smiley Face

Linguist Vyvyan Evans digs into background and possibilities of Emoji. For lovers of language, it’s a worthy expedition.

The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats

Publisher: Picador
Length: 256 pages
Author: Vyvyan Evans
Price: $16.94
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-08

Emojis are a joke, right? At least that’s the current thought surrounding the ubiquitous little symbols. Sure, they can be helpful when you’re texting a sarcastic message to an unsuspecting parent, but I would never dream of attaching one to a serious message. It would destruct the intent of the message almost instantly. Could you imagine attaching a crying face emoji to a message like, “Sorry for your loss”? Oh my, that just would not work because Emoji are still seen as light hearted and infantile.

After reading Vyvyan Evans’ The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, your mind will probably not be changed about the current status of the Emoji. Evans’ offers the reader a deep look into the background and possibilities of the Emoji. For lovers of language, it’s a worthy trip.

Evans seems to be the current go-to guy on the topic of Emoji. He's a professor of linguistics at Bangor University and he received his PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University nearly 20 years ago. He also writes a ton of books, and they are deep dives into language. Some titles include, The Structure of Time: Language. Meaning, and Temporal Cognition and The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. After being assigned an article on the criminal implications of a message made from Emoji, he became stuck on the subject, and it became his primary subject for study. That brings us to the book.

To begin, Evans sets us up with the history and current state of Emoji, and it turns out to be some of the most enlightening information in the book. Any assessment of the value of a book should include the number of valuable conversation pieces presented within. This information given early in the book is where I found myself telling friends, “Did you know…”, or “I read today that…”, every time I left the house. This is where the reader learns about the existence of Unicode and all of its peculiar intricacies. This is where Evans dumps all the huge data points concerning current smartphone and Emoji usage. It’s a great set-up for a book on the topic, but unfortunately, it gives way to a stretched out middle portion that may have you feeling like the sleeping emoji.

Apparently, Evans felt the need to justify his study of Emoji quite heavily because an overly large chunk of the book is dedicated to just this topic. Near the 50 page mark, Evans tells us, “A fundamental feature of human communication is that it is multi-modal in nature -- we use, and require, multiple modes to signal intentions and create meaning, with different modes contributing different sorts of meaning to the whole.” Nearly 100 pages later, he states, “To assert that Emoji will make us poorer communicators is like saying that using facial expressions in conversations makes your ideas more difficult to understand.” One hundred pages after that quote, he again states a support of Emoji, “…the doom and gloomers have got it all wrong. Emoji enables and enhances our communicative smarts. And this is something we should all celebrate.” The point to sharing these three quotes is this: they are nearly 200 pages apart and basically say the same thing, that Emoji are useful in textual conversations.

That’s not to say that Evans offers nothing throughout the bulk of the book. There's some deep digging going on here. Evans is a linguist at heart and a language lover in general, so we get the history of multiple languages, an analysis of how languages morph over generations, and the historical precedents for Emoji. Here, as earlier, some great little nuggets of info are presented. A cursory history of punctuation is given here, and there are definitely some illuminating tidbits worth knowing. Also, did you know that Vladimir Nabokov suggested the creation of a smiley face emoticon in 1969? There’s a fun little conversation starter right there.

So, who was this book written for? Because of the pop culture status of Emoji, it may scream populism, but that would be wrong. This is a book for language lovers first and foremost. It’s too heavy on research and history to be a light read. If Evans was looking to write a lighter book, he would have included more basic, funny anecdotes illustrating the ups and down of Emoji use. He could probably sell millions of copies of a book called The Emoji Code: How to Score a Partner with The Use of Emoji. But this guy is a language nerd, so of course, dating tips are not his goal. He gave us a linguistic analysis of this "new" language called Emoji. We should expect nothing more or less.


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