Will We All Speak Emoji Language in a Couple Years?

These little pictures are all over the place: people tell relationship stories in them, moms use them, and the heart emoji ♥ was named the Global Language Monitor's word of the year. There's even a translation of Moby Dick into emoji.

But are emoji actually a reasonable substitute for words? Let's take Emoji Dick as an example—it made a lot of headlines, but what does it look like to read? Here's the first sentence:

Any guesses what that means? Telephone man sailboat whale okay?

It's the iconic opening line, "Call me Ishmael." So, the telephone could mean "call", and I suppose the narrator is a man, but I don't know how sailboat whale okay = Ishmael.

But perhaps it's unfair to try to say proper names in emoji. So here's another sentence, with only common nouns:

Go ahead, try it.

Man taxi poutyface syringe arrow cop heart cyclone?

Give up yet?

"It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation."

So, I guess driving is the taxi, regulating is the cop, a heart is close enough to a spleen, and the cyclone swirl is kind of like circulation. That's quite clever—but still not obvious from the emoji alone. And if we keep reading, it doesn't get any clearer.

I think it's really cool that someone tried to translate Moby Dick into emoji, and it's not like I could have done a better job. But that's the problem—no matter how good you are at emoji, or whether Unicode eventually adds a "spleen" icon, there are some things you just can't say clearly in any combination of little pictures. And I think the creator of Emoji Dick also realizes that it's a problem: the book was ultimately printed with the original English sentences interwoven with their emoji "equivalents"—something that you'd never find in a book translated into French or Arabic.

But it's not even just Melville's elaborate prose—how would you design an unambiguous emoji for "yesterday"? Or "parent," as distinct from "mother" or "father"? What about verbs ("run" as opposed to "a runner") and adjectives ("independent")? Or all those little words in between, like "the," "or," "of," and "me"?

Calling emoji language is like calling a whale a fish. Sure, there are certain similarities—both language and emoji can communicate things, and both whales and fish swim around in water. But whales and fish don't actually do the same thing in the water. For one thing, fish have gills while whales have to swim up to the surface to breathe. And emoji and language don't do the same thing either.

So what's the point of emoji? If you look at how people actually use them, we're using emoji as a supplement to language, not replacing it entirely.

Emoji and other forms of creative punctuation are the digital equivalent of making a face or a silly hand gesture while you're speaking. You'd feel weird having a conversation in a monotone with your hands tied behind your back, but that's kind of what it's like texting in plain vanilla Standard English. But typing exclusively in emoji is like playing charades—it's fun for a while, but if you actually want to say anything complicated? 

Part of a new series on internet linguistics.

Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?

by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?

Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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