Is Emoji ready to transcend cultural and multilingual barriers?

Author // Becky Kinnersley Categories // Language and Culture

Read Time: 4 minutes

Is Emoji ready to transcend cultural and multilingual barriers?

Linguists have always been intrigued by pictorial and symbolic languages. Consider the Egyptians and their hieroglyphs, the Mexicans and their Aztec language or we can even go as far back to a time when spoken language hadn’t fully evolved and humans would communicate with cave paintings. And now, the dawn of the digital age - with its plethora of revolutionary technologies - has brought with it a new pictorial language: Emoji. 

mini quiz

Let’s face it – who among us hasn’t used or received one, just in the last day or so? In recent years, thanks to the social media revolution, Emoji has gathered pace and momentum, with current estimates indicating that usage is prolific. Up to 6 billion are sent every single day via text messages, emails, social media platforms and in marketing and advertising campaigns. It is big business too, with numerous brands and celebrities commissioning bespoke Emojis of their own. No wonder it is starting to impact and inspire as a new worldwide language.

Emoji history bite

Where are we finding multi-lingual Emoji use?

Nowadays, you can almost guarantee that you’ll find some form of emoji when monitoring business emails, social media, during online marketing campaigns or in online forums or communities. As a language service consultancy, we are seeing Emoji crop up more and more frequently in international business communications. There certainly appears to be a distinct marketing buzz building here, with some companies actively looking at ways to revolutionise ‘accurate’ sentiment measurement and increase engagement, and others spending millions for bespoke designs. 


So how useful is Emoji at transcending individual languages and cultures?'

'A picture is worth a thousand words’

party emojiStep aside Esperanto - some headway has been made in making Emoji a competing universal language. In 2010, the Unicode Consortium (UC) incorporated Shigetaka Kurita’s symbols into Unicode, allowing them to be used outside of their country of origin, Japan. The UC currently sets Emojis and their meanings, which are being standardized across different languages and cultures, as well as various operating systems. This truly is history in the making. The reality of a Universal language, however, is still just a twinkle in the UC’s eye.

Thumbs Up

Do Emojis affect all global markets equally?

Can pigs fly? Who knows, maybe advancements in genetics will make that possible one day – much like linguistic advancements with Emoji might eventually make the answer to that question ‘yes’. For now, deciphering the use of Emoji symbols across the globe really does require a speaker who is immersed in the target culture. A 2016 study by SwiftKey helps to demonstrate the differences of emoji use in a selection of different cultures, for which we translate:

Findings of Note SwiftkeySee: for actual report and more information.

Emoji is not yet truly global – beware the challenges and differences…

emoji poopBesides the initial stumbling block that Emojis are essentially images used to relay those ever-beguiling ‘emotions’, ‘thoughts’, ‘feelings’ or feedback, we also must be aware of the difficulties in translation. As attempted by the Unicode Consortium, not only does Emoji have to be translated into character-based text, but several cross-cultural variants exist within this new language as well (enough to rival our Chinese variants.

As well as this, there are some other notable challenges that you should bear in mind… Mobile platforms interpret emoji code differently so they don’t always look the same on our array of gadgets, gizmo’s and networks (see the small example below which highlights the cross-platform non-conformity):

grinning face variationsImage from:

As mentioned, meanings are also not always fully universal – they are subjective to an extent, with polarized views allowing the same emoji to be interpreted as both positive and negative by similar cultural groups.

Add all of these challenges into the multi-lingual, culturally-sensitive hot-pot and it’s worth asking “Are we really all speaking the same globally universal language here?”. Is the thought/feeling/emotion/intention being represented consistently to people all over the world?

Different language / culture interpretation

emoji uk vs row

This is just a handful of examples that contribute to the linguistic minefield that seems to be creeping ever closer to our front door. Naturally, people have fallen foul of the intended meanings, which can easily be misconstrued or seen as insignificant across the wealth of languages and cultures we have on our planet.

So what does this all mean for the globally universal Emoji language?

Well, we certainly can’t avoid Emoji and it is crucial to have a true and full understanding of what intended message is being conveyed. If you really want to understand the full picture in your target market, then it is essential that any translations are only completed by those that understand the different meanings of Emoji in their culture, and the nuances of the thoughts, emotions and feelings in their native mother-tongue. This is probably where the super-power of the professional human translator brain comes into its own – machine translation alone is currently incapable of accurately extracting inferred meaning.

Thinking ahead

Is Emoji ready to transcend cultural and multilingual barriers? It certainly looks like Emoji is here to stay for the foreseeable and there are at least 6 billion reasons a day as to why we will have to find ways to adapt to this new language phenomenon. The hard facts are these – Emoji is HUGE. Emoji is GLOBAL. Yes, there are indeed challenges with it, and it is going to need more work before it is fully multi-lingual. Maybe, just maybe, it could be the new revolutionary global language (in it’s infancy) that we have all been waiting for… to get ahead of the game, please get in touch  with me for even your most verbose translations.

mini quiz answersThis was an extract taken from:

A note from the editor: We hope that you enjoyed our article – if you’ve got the Emoji bug, why not try this Emoji quiz too! Plus there is a fascinating article called ‘The Deeper Meaning of Emojis: What You Need to Know on How Social Media is Changing Communication’, written by Ash Readby, that is well worth a read to explore this subject further. As part of our research we also found a pretty cool site that gives comprehensive definitions of emojis along with different contextual meanings: Finally please get in touch if you’d like to see our full references and reading list 😊


About the Author

Becky Kinnersley

Becky Kinnersley

Becky lives and breathes translation and technology, often bringing the two together in new and innovative ways for the translation industry. In her spare time, Becky likes to polish her 'Project Manager of the Year' Award.

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