Emojis, a very political sign language

Placed under the sign of inclusivity, the latest batch of emojis added to the smartphone library has not failed to cause controversy. Among the thirty new pictograms available since February, the drawing of a pregnant man seen in profile has triggered the wrath of the arguers. The essayist Paul Melun evokes on RMC a “gender theory propaganda”a “form of dystopia”, while the journalist Eugénie Bastié points out, in an article by Figaro, “an insidious revolution in mentalities” and curb wokism. For its part, the reference online encyclopedia, Emojipedia, defends his new emoji in explaining that “Men can be pregnant. This applies to the real world (trans men) and fictional universes (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior). Regardless of gender, a person can be pregnant. Now there are emojis to represent that.”

Since the first limited set of yellow pictograms, these symbols at your fingertips have become as diverse as they are ubiquitous, punctuating our messages and flooding our social networks by sometimes representing facial expressions – crying with laughter, sticking out your tongue -, concepts – love, peace, assent –, sometimes activities – swimming, biking –, objects, animals… Simple and, one might think, negligible little drawings adorning digital texts, emojis nevertheless crystallize many contemporary debates because their popularity and their presence in both private and public spheres.

Since the mid-2000s, these characters have spread exponentially in our conversations: 92% of the connected population uses them and nearly 5 billion of these symbols are sent daily. This is how in 2015 the Oxford Dictionary boldly decided to elect 😂 word of the year. The laughing crying face is the most used emoji on Twitter, with more than 3.6 billion occurrences – according to the site emoji tracker, updated in real time. How to explain such a craze for these whimsical figures, and what is their weight in language?

Reinstate emotion

Before being used and shared worldwide, emojis begin their history in Japan. In Tokyo, at the very end of the 1990s, interface designer Shigetaka Kurita developed icons for the mobile operator NTT Docomo. At the time of the first messaging services, texts were limited to 250 characters and it was difficult to convey emotions and their nuances », reminds the creator. To remedy this, he elaborates small yellow faces of 12 × 12 pixels in order to specify the tone of a message and, paradoxically, to get straight to the point. The new way of communicating induced by mobile phones soon makes emojis necessary to clarify one’s thoughts. “This is a real necessity when communicating remotely and synchronously,” assures Pierre Halté, lecturer in language sciences, who devoted his thesis to the use of emoticons in different corpora of chats.

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Emojis, a very political sign language