The Semiotics of Emoji

The Semiotics of Emoji

Emojis have reached the mainstream and are become a language of its own. 

This means feels like a significant acknowledgement that the way a large number of us communicate is shifting.

How our language and communication has changed over recent years as we’ve adapted to interacting through social networks and apps, and we’ll also look at what this shift means for marketers.

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The function of language

Before we dive into how social media has changed the way we communicate and use language, it’s first important to understand the key functions of language.

So we use language to connect with one another, to get an idea across for example, or to influence attitude and behaviours. But more importantly, we use language to SHARE ideas and feelings, to share experiences and tell stories. To reassure, or simply to bond.

Every language has its sounds, grammar rules, idioms and culture. But with emoji, because they're visual, we can express a crystallised concept that transcends language barrier. They can be useful for learning another language and they can be a second language of its own.


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Emoticons have been around since 1982, but only actually moved into mainstream communication over recent years as social media has grown and emojis reached phone keyboards.

Now, 6 billion emoji’s are sent every single day

How people are using emojis

Twitter found that the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji is by far the most popular emoji used in TV tweets:

It’s typically used to convey laughter, but it doesn’t just see prominent usage in tweets about comedy programming: it’s the top emoji across all genres, as well as all times of day. Another popular emoji is: ?

What this highlights is that we’ve moved beyond the simple smiley face and we’re now turning to emoji to convey extra meaning and emotion within the messages we send.

How emojis are replacing words

It feels like we’ve reached a point where in some cases, emojis have started to replace altogether, the words we send each other digitally, whether in an email, IM or tweet.

For example, here’s how the expression of laughter has evolved:


(Chapeau to Marcus for this excellent example)

This evolution is backed up by a study from Instagram. In fact, Instagram found that many popular emoji have meanings in-line with early internet slang and have been adopted as a way to replace many words. It has also found that the rise in emoji popularity also correlates directly with the decline of internet slang.

Emoji as a way to complement words

Communication is very visual and when it comes to text-based communication everything becomes tricky because there are no physical contextual clues. When we are talking to someone face-to-face, we don’t need an additional word or symbol to express “I’m smiling” because you would, presumably, be smiling.

The same is true when speaking a second language, especially if we are still learning it and are not very fluent. How difficult is it to communicate in the target language over the phone? It very difficult to understand someone when we miss our visual clues of body language and lip reading!


This pie chart shows exactly how visual is the way we communicate. So, Emojis have become a way to convey the tone and non-verbal context behind our texts, IMs or tweets and work amazingly alongside snippets of text as a way to give more context to a message.

And be careful how you use your emojis as some meaning can be of a very sensitive nature, as this video points out... 

If you want to know more about the importance of using Emojis for your marketing campaigns click on the link to follow

And what about you? Do you use emojis to help you with your English? What are your 3 most used emojis when you communicate in your language or in English?


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