Research

‘It’ll Never Stop!’ Linguistics Scholar Warns of Great Emoji Flood

May 22, 2016

Guillaume Paumier
Michael Everson: "Emoji, emoji, emoji. It’s all about emoji."
Michael Everson, a linguist living in Ireland, is responsible for helping the literary history of the human species survive in the digital age.

He is also responsible for helping you give somebody the finger through your iPhone.

Mr. Everson is a prominent member of the Unicode Consortium, a group that works on the underlying 1’s and 0’s that make letters and characters from various alphabets show up properly on computer screens. (One of the consortium’s close collaborators is the University of California at Berkeley’s Script Encoding Initiative, with which Mr. Everson has worked.) Historically this has meant slowly populating Unicode’s all-encompassing library with obscure characters from Vedic Sanskrit or Babylonian cuneiform.

But lately the consortium has been dealing with what some see as a more urgent cause: empowering modern people to send one another tiny pictures of tacos, clocks, and smiling piles of poop.

The demand for new emoji has made the work of the Unicode Consortium more relevant to nonscholars than it has been in some time. But it has also raised questions about the group’s priorities, many of which have been asked by Mr. Everson himself.

"I can tell you that many people are thinking that the UTC has lost the plot," wrote the linguist in one of several critical emails about the consortium’s recent work, which were reported last month by Buzzfeed. "Emoji, emoji, emoji. It’s all about emoji."

Mr. Everson’s frustration grew from his inability to get feedback on an array of medieval punctuation characters that he was looking to have encoded. But he says emoji pose a larger problem for Unicode.

“How many food items we need, I'm not really sure. Do we need dinosaur heads?”
The tiny illustrations are not like an ancient alphabet, which has a set amount of characters and symbols, he told The Chronicle. Rather, the people who are demanding emoji, and those who are lobbying Unicode on their behalf, are limited only by their imaginations.

So where does it end?

That is the question the gatekeepers are wrestling with, and it is liable to send Mr. Everson into a rant about coleslaw and cowboy hats. "It’ll never stop!" he said. "How many food items we need, I’m not really sure. Do we need dinosaur heads?"

Mr. Everson’s scholarly interests may face toward antiquity, but he has nothing against the present and future. Yes, he uses emoji when he texts. Professionally, he has worked on emoji for years, claiming responsibility for the middle-finger emoji and the "Live long and prosper" emoji, among other contributions.

When the rebuslike images started to become popular outside of Japan, where they originated in the ’90s, the linguist helped the form evolve. At first that meant adding alternate zodiac animals. Then it meant expanding the emoji of a human couple to include same-sex pairings. He was also involved in an effort within Unicode to deal with the fact that all the human characters were white.

"In my personal opinion, if they had been yellow, or blue, or gray, or something, no one would have noticed," said Mr. Everson. He expects that the consortium will refrain from adding any more emoji with pigmented skin of any shade, opting instead for variations on the smiley face.

He likes smiley faces. But as a keeper of obscure languages that have few champions, it can be difficult not to feel frustrated by the demand for emoji and the efforts made to accommodate it. "There are characters that I would like to invent," he said. "There are some Latin letters that don’t have capitals."

Perhaps they will get them, in time. But "right now," said the linguist, with a note of exasperation, "we are inventing pickles!"

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.