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Midwifing Emojis

1-s1P3JIBwuxsbq2lAD8SOOAI ignore a lot of messages on my computer. Life is easier that way. Recently I ignored an update about texting on my phone that had to do with emojis. For years, I’ve been ignoring the little note when I’m replying to certain emails: “This message must be sent as Unicode.” Go ahead, I tell the computer. Send it that way. Whoever wrote me must have done something in Unicode; it’s not my fault.

But now a connection arises between the emoji-related messages and the Unicode-related messages, and the detective in me rises to the fore.

For some time now, at least since the appearance of Emoji Dick, people have been debating whether emojis are, or could become, a language unto themselves. But before you can get into the meat of that argument, you have to ask what emojis are and where they come from. Most people agree that these little pictures started in Japan and may have originally leaned on Japanese references. But now that texting has wrapped its arms around emojis, frequent texters apparently need hundreds of icons available to them on their phones. Using combinations of colons, semi-colons, slashes, and brackets doesn’t cut it any more; we want full-color images, often with moving parts. Someone has to make those little pictures available, and it turns out the people who do it are the Unicode people.

And who, you might ask, are the Unicode people?

The Unicode Consortium, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, defines itself as “devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.” As I (in my lame layperson’s way) understand it, by encoding the underlying graphemes, the smallest units in any writing system, Unicode enables various scripts and symbol sets to appear consistently across computer platforms and languages. Without Unicode, someone’s blog written in Cyrillic would appear on my web browser as gobbledygook. In keeping track of these encodings to be sure they meet “software globalization standards,” the Unicode Consortium finds itself confronted with the task of standardizing both how and what emojis appear. The New York Times calls the consortium the “midwife to new emojis.” Already it has standardized almost 1,300 emojis that have rapidly been made available to smartphone texters, and right now they have a batch of 67 new images to be approved or nixed in the spring of 2016.

These are the pictograms, if you will, that would form the basis of an emoji lexicon, if such a thing were to gain widespread acceptance. And when you think of an actual language, or at least a writing system, sprouting up, the kerfuffle over the proposed inclusion of an emoji rifle (justified, apparently, because many of the proposed emojis focus on sports, and shooting is an Olympic sport) seems kind of weird. How would one debate guns in emoji-ese with only the image of a pistol and none of a rifle? Not to mention that the emoji of an eggplant can apparently mean something about ratatouille or something about sex. Lots of room for misunderstanding there.

I still don’t quite understand why I get that message about the occasional email’s needing to be sent in Unicode, and I’m not losing sleep over it. Nor have I taken to emojis. In the discussion of the forthcoming vote on new emojis, including the infamous rifle, strips of bacon, Mother Christmas, an avocado, and a clown face, one linguist noted, “In text, you’re less expressive if you don’t have emojis.” Somehow, I don’t find that to be true. I have a new iPhone 6 with the new iOS 9.1. I don’t anticipate an occasion where I’ll want to insert a hot dog, taco, or middle finger emoji, and I don’t expect my expressiveness to suffer. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I still don’t know how to punctuate these things.

But then, there are plenty of languages I don’t speak. If and when I find myself permanently settled in Emoji Country, maybe I’ll take a beginner’s course.  Meanwhile, I’ll leave the decision-making to those Unicode people. May they 6dd903806a16f502b1f03a9b664f7abf steady through the 1fea3621dd2af067dd61cfa909a64d2f.

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