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Toronto Semiotic Circle Lecture Series

TSC Danesi Lecture: The Semiotics of Emoji

Prof. Marcel Danesi

University of Toronto

Emoji have gone from being virtually unknown to being a central topic in internet communication. What is behind the rise of these winky faces, clinking glasses and smiling poos? Given the sheer variety of verbal communication on the internet and the still‐controversial role of English as lingua mundi for the web, these icons have emerged as a compensatory universal language.

This lecture looks at what is officially the world's fastest‐growing form of communication. Emoji, the colourful symbols and glyphs that represent everything from frowning disapproval to red‐faced shame, are fast becoming embedded into digital communication. Controlled by a centralized body and regulated across the web, emoji seems to be a language: but is it? The rapid adoption of emoji in such a short span of time makes it a rich study in exploring the functions of language. The rise and spread of this seemingly new visual writing code was acknowledged in 2015 by the Oxford Dictionary, which chose the emoji known as “Face with Tears of Joy” as its “Word of the Year.” The growing use of emoji in other domains of communication, from political campaigns to brand advertising, raises a fundamental question: Is alphabetic writing disappearing, to be replaced by visual forms? The Internet Age is, clearly, making new kinds of demands on writing practices, relegating the traditional views of writing and literacy more and more to the margins.

Is this a passing trend? Or is there something more revolutionary unfolding before our eyes (literally)? This talk looks at questions such as these, given that emoji are becoming increasingly popular across the world, characterizing communications among individuals of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and seemingly transcending various constraints of language‐specific structures. In the global village, the emoji code—if it is a veritable code—might well be (at last) the universal language that can help solve problems of international communications. As an alternative to the vagaries of phonetic writing systems, the emoji code may be a sign of how writing and literacy are evolving; on the other hand the whole emoji phenomenon may be just a passing fad.

Whatever the case, the study of emoji is significant. The lecture is based on basic semiotic principles of analysis, enlisting data collected from 100 young people who use emoji on a regular basis. Although there are precedents for the use of visual symbols within phonetic texts in previous eras, as can be seen in the illuminated texts of the medieval ages, perhaps never before in history has phonetic writing been transformed by a visual component that adds considerably to the meaning and communicative functions of texts, from emotional tone to simple verbal protocols. Understanding how and why this has occurred spontaneously has significant implications for understanding the broader question of the evolution of communication in the Internet Age.

This lecture was hosted in partnership with the Department of Philosophy at Ryerson University and organized by the Meaning Lab in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

A Bit About Me

Date & Time

Wed, 19 October 2016

5:00 PM – 6:30 PM EDT


Ryerson University

341 Yonge St, POD469

Toronto, ON M5B 2K3

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