Linguists also love the symbols

Laugh, grin, sun. Bouquet of flowers, thumbs up, kissing mouth: emojis are omnipresent on smartphones. The figurative characters, according to the literal meaning of the Japanese word emoji, have long ceased to be a phenomenon of the youth language, but have gained a permanent place in informal everyday communication.

Billions of them are sent worldwide every day. The pictograms and ideograms only found their way into the Apple iPhones , 2013 Google moved to its Android operating system.

A very short period of time – if you think in scientific work cycles. Nevertheless, the new forms of expression have also reached the universities as research objects. In the past three years, a real emoji boom has even broken out in some disciplines. What interesting insights do the signs have – apart from the fact that they tend to be misleading and gradually overcome their lack of diversity?

Das beliebte Emoji lächelnder Kackhaufen und das neue Emoji Fliege.

In addition to beer and pizza, the cute poop heap is one of the most used emojis. New in the repertoire: the fly. Photo: Emojipedia / Illustration: Sabine Wilms

“Emojis are a relevant phenomenon, many scientists agree,” says Christa Duerscheid. The professor of contemporary German at the University of Zurich is one of the pioneers of German-language emoji research (“Writing digitally. How the Internet is changing our everyday communication”, 2016, with Karina Frick). Already 2014 she has started to collect mass chat histories. “Since then, our questions have changed and differentiated.”

Linguists were initially interested in why and how emojis are used – in competition or rather as a supplement to the words? Is there a lingua franca, a universal language that can be understood everywhere? And could it happen that the pictures gradually replace the letters?

These hypotheses have not been confirmed. Today we know that emojis are mainly used to generate emotions and to replace punctuation marks. They structure sections of text and make dots and commas superfluous, which many users avoid when chatting anyway. In addition, it is now widely documented that women use the picture elements differently and more often than men, that they play an important role in the initial phase of relationships and are interpreted very differently – depending on the gender of the sender.

In Dürscheid says that private communication has probably reached the peak of emoji use, “even if we have more variants available every year.” In the context of business and politics, however, there is still room for improvement. Companies, parties and state institutions have only recently started using emojis in newsletters or on their social media channels in order to be more approachable and create a good mood. This would result in further interesting research fields, among others for sociologists, political scientists and psychologists.

“Those who use a lot of positively connoted emojis appear warmer and more likeable,” explains Wera Aretz, professor of business psychology at the Fresenius University in Cologne. She recently carried out a study based on intentionally manipulated chat histories. The result: “Someone who does not use emojis appears more distant, but is perceived by the other party as more assertive.”

hand signals in the job mail : It is meant nicely

These findings could be transferred to the business world and used strategically there, says Aretz. If you want to emphasize your demands, you should avoid using smileys. Conversely, superiors could garnish unpleasant email messages to employees with apologetic gestures or friendly faces to alleviate the harshness of the message.

“Well-known emojis have a trust-building effect,” says Aretz. They suggest communication to the recipient at eye level. Apart from that, emojis memorize better than words – in advertising psychology one speaks of the image superiority effect.

This effect gave Markus Dürmuth an idea. The professor of computer science at the Ruhr University Bochum wanted to test emojis in completely new contexts. Dürmuth is concerned with how to make computer systems more secure. The problem: If the passwords are long and complex, they are difficult to remember. A simple, short password stays upside down, but offers little protection. There are therefore large security gaps, particularly when it comes to authentication on smartphones.

“Unfortunately, PIN numbers that users choose themselves have a lot of structure,” explains Dürmuth. The codes are often predictable because people prefer sequences of numbers like 0000, 1234 or choose your birthdays.

“We asked ourselves whether a sequence of four emojis could fix this security problem and at the same time be better remembered.”

Palette neuer Emojis, die im Sommer 2020 eingeführt werden sollen.

Range of new emojis to be introduced in the summer 2020. Photo: Emojipedia

Dürmuths team programmed an emoji PIN program and tested it with 800 participants. The results were promising: apart from a few uninspired standard combinations – four times sun, four times heart – the users' emoji PINs proved to be quite difficult to crack. The researchers were only surprised by one thing: Why, besides beer and pizza, the brown poop heap was one of the most used characters.

The small poop heap comes from a manga

Elena Giannoulis can explain where the motif comes from. The professor of Japanese Studies at the Free University of Berlin is also researching emojis, recently her anthology “Emoticons, Kaomoji, and Emoji: The Transformation of Communication in the Digital Age” was published.

Giannoulis is interested all for cultural origin: at the end of the 1990 years, designer Shigetaka Kurita designed the first for a Japanese mobile operator emoji set. The new additions have now been approved and published by the Unicode consortium, an association based in California. This serves global standardization.

Nevertheless, the early influences remain noticeable. Some emojis “allude to Japanese cuisine and festivals or to Japanese popular culture, such as the small, cute grinning poop from a manga,” says Giannoulis.

Incidentally, there has been a return to the creative emoji country a new code has been established that is still largely unknown in Europe: the Kaomoji. They are mainly made up of special characters and are a further development of the laterally tilted emoticon faces ;-). The sequence (> _ <) stands for shame, for example. "Kaomoji are extremely popular in many online communities in Japan," explains Giannoulis.

This is because users can expand them as they wish. The FU researcher therefore considers it possible that the variable Kaomoji could spread alongside the rigid emojis.

Emojis will soon become “historical” Use of language “?

Christa Dürscheid can also imagine an end to the emoji era. New digital trends or channels could make text messages – and with them smileys and hearts – obsolete. The linguist is not afraid that the research subject would literally melt under her fingers. “Then we still made an important contribution to researching historical language use.”

Because what is taken for granted today could be an almost forgotten cultural technique tomorrow. So did the SMS, which revolutionized private communication around 20 years ago – and of which hardly anyone speaks.