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  • The semiotics of emoji: The rise of visual language in the age of the internet by Marcel Danesi
  • Gretchen McCulloch
Marcel Danesi. 2017. The semiotics of emoji: The rise of visual language in the age of the internet. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp. 208. US $22.95 (softcover).

The Semiotics of Emoji is a monograph that attempts to show that emoji are a new visual language. The 10 chapters approach emoji from different linguistic levels. Chapter 1 compares emoji to alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems from history. Chapter 2 looks at the different uses of emoji, focusing on emotional, phatic, and cultural functions, while Chapter 3 argues for an emoji competence found primarily among young people. The next three chapters look at linguistic features of emoji, including semantics (Chapter 4), grammar (Chapter 5) and pragmatics (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 provides a discussion of emoji change, while Chapter 8 looks at the spread of emoji. Chapter 9 draws on some rather contrived examples to discuss emoji in the context of universal languages like Esperanto, while Chapter 10 provides a lackluster conclusion that "Every book needs a conclusion. But in this case, it is difficult to find one." (p. 181).

In an effort to show that emoji are a new visual language, Danesi draws on three primary data sources. The first is a corpus of 323 text messages contributed by 100 undergraduate students (50 male, 50 female) at the University of Toronto, which are quoted both in aggregate and as illustrative examples throughout the book. The second is a series of interviews with the same students about their emoji use and attitudes. The third is various screenshots of text messages which were found by a research team of four students from around the internet and are presented by Danesi–with little or no indication of their origins–as evidence for some of his most interesting claims.

The first and second data collection methods are relatively standard, if somewhat sparse in their execution for a full-length book. They enable Danesi to make several reasonable (though not especially novel) arguments, such as that most emoji [End Page 141] accompany words and are interpreted as markers of tone, that the smiley face is the most common emoji, and that books like Alice In Wonderland, when retold in emoji, are more difficult to understand than hybrid word-emoji passages.

However, there remain several shortcomings in terms of data methodology. For the corpus side, it is a pity that Danesi did not take inspiration from the excellent "big data" corpus work that is common in studies of Computer-Mediated Communication, such as Tagliamonte and Denis 2008, Pak and Paroubek 2010, Schnoebelen 2012, Pavalanathan and Eisenstein 2016, Tagliamonte 2016, and McSweeney 2018, all of which draw on datasets in the tens of thousands of entries rather than in the mere hundreds. For the interviews, the questionnaires would have benefited from a more focused approach on explaining participants' own specific communicative practices rather than repeating their general assertions about emoji, taking as a model the insightful works of danah boyd (2014) and Kelly and Watts (2015).

An illustrative example of the limitations of Danesi's approach is in his analysis of the following sequence of emoji (p. 124), which is attributed to an undated "Partnership for Drugs Free Kids" campaign aimed at Millennials.

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Danesi claims that this sequence "can be reformulated in words as follows: 'I'm tired of drinking or doing things to fit in (like an ant).' So, 'I need to be strong and eat the right things and not to take drugs.' [...] The text is indeed interpretable, as we found out with our informants, who easily read it and derived the underlying message from it instantly. [...] One informant put it as follows: 'I know my younger brother would understand this' ".

As a fluent emoji user, I questioned the claim that the text was "easily" read and so endeavoured to verify it with my own group of informants, which comprised over a hundred emoji enthusiasts from the Millennial, Gen X, and Gen Z demographics. After many interpretations involving suspicion, ants, working out, and sexual innuendo, several participants...


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pp. 141-145
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