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Linguists have always been intrigued by pictorial and symbolic languages. Consider the Egyptians and their hieroglyphs, the Mexicans and their Aztec language or we can even go as far back to a time when spoken language hadn’t fully evolved and humans would communicate with cave paintings. And now, the dawn of the digital age - with its plethora of revolutionary technologies - has brought with it a new pictorial language: Emoji.
History bite: In 1999 Shigetaka Kurita was inspired by the symbols found around him, like in weather reports, and created Emojis for Japanese mobile operators.
Let’s face it – who among us hasn’t used or received one, just in the last day or so? In recent years, thanks to the social media revolution, Emoji has gathered pace and momentum, with current estimates indicating that usage is prolific: up to 6 billion Emojis are sent every single day via text messages, emails, social media platforms and in marketing and advertising campaigns. It is big business too, with numerous brands and celebrities commissioning bespoke Emojis of their own. No wonder it is starting to impact and inspire Market Researchers worldwide.
Do Emojis affect all global markets equally?
Can pigs fly? Who knows, maybe advancements in genetics will make that possible one day – much like linguistic advancements with Emoji might eventually make the answer to that question ‘yes’. For now, deciphering the use of Emoji symbols across the globe really does require a speaker who is immersed in the target culture. A 2016 study by SwiftKey explored the Emoji preferences in different countries:
See: https://www.scribd.com/doc/262594751/SwiftKey-Emoji-Report for actual report and more information.
Using Emojis in research
Nowadays, you can almost guarantee that you’ll find some form of emoji when monitoring social media, during online marketing campaigns, or in online forum or community verbatim/transcripts. In research terms, it may be seen as a social media- and digital platform-savvy way of listening to what people are trying to say.
As a language service consultancy, we are seeing Emoji crop up more and more frequently in verbatim from open-ended online surveys, and there certainly appears to be a buzz for it with some research companies who are looking at ways to revolutionise ‘accurate’ sentiment measurement and increase engagement.
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’
Besides the initial stumbling block that Emojis are essentially images used to capture those ever-beguiling ‘emotions’, ‘thoughts’, ‘feelings’ or feedback, we also must be aware of the difficulties in translation. Not only does Emoji have to be translated in our heads, into character-based text but also several cross-cultural variants exist within this new language as well (enough to rival our Chinese variants).
So how useful is Emoji in gathering universal data that will transcend individual languages and cultures?
Step aside Esperanto - some headway has been made in making Emoji a competing universal language. In 2010, the Unicode Consortium (UC) incorporated Shigetaka Kurita’s symbols into Unicode, allowing them to be used outside of their country of origin, Japan. The UC currently sets Emojis and their meanings, which are being standardized across different languages and cultures, as well as various operating systems. This truly is history in the making. The reality of a Universal language, however, is still just a twinkle in the UC’s eye.
Emoji is not yet truly global – beware the challenges and differences…
There are some notable challenges that you should bear in mind… Mobile platforms interpret emoji code differently so they don’t always look the same on our array of gadgets, gizmo’s and networks (see the small example below which highlights the cross-platform non-conformity):
As mentioned, meanings are also not always fully universal – they are subjective to an extent, with polarized views allowing the same emoji to be interpreted as both positive and negative by similar cultural groups.
Add these challenges into the multi-lingual, culturally-sensitive hot pot and it's worth asking “Are we all speaking the same globally universal language here?”. Is the thought/feeling/emotion/intention being represented consistently to people all over the world?
Different language / culture interpretation
This is just a handful of examples that contribute to the linguistic minefield that seems to be creeping ever closer to our front door. Naturally, respondents and researchers alike have fallen foul of the intended meanings, which can easily be misconstrued or seen as insignificant across the wealth of languages and cultures we have on our planet.
So what does this all mean for Emojis in Multilingual Research?
We cannot avoid them, particularly in consumer research. It is crucial to have a true and full understanding of what Emojis are actually depicting and the intended meaning being conveyed. If you really want to understand the full picture in your target market, then it is essential that any translations are only completed by those that understand the different meanings of Emoji in their culture, and the nuances of the thoughts, emotions and feelings in their native mother-tongue. This is probably where the super-power of the professional human translator brain comes into its own – machine translation alone is currently incapable of accurately extracting inferred meaning.
It looks like Emoji is here to stay for the foreseeable and there are at least 6 billion reasons a day as to why we will have to find ways to adapt to this new language phenomenon. The hard facts are these – Emoji is HUGE. Emoji is GLOBAL. Yes, there are indeed challenges with it, and it is going to need more work before it is fully multi-lingual. Maybe, just maybe, it could be the new revolutionary global language that we have all been waiting for… to get ahead of the game, please get in touch with me - RPT’s indisputable Emoji Expert 😎 - for even your most verbose online response translations.
A note from the editor: We hope that you enjoyed our article – if you’ve got the Emoji bug, why not try this Emoji quiz too! Plus there is a fascinating article called ‘The Deeper Meaning of Emojis: What You Need to Know on How Social Media is Changing Communication’, written by Ash Readby, that is well worth a read to explore this subject further. As part of our research we also found a pretty cool site that gives comprehensive definitions of emojis along with different contextual meanings: http://emojipedia.org/. Finally please get in touch if you’d like to see our full references and reading list 😊