Thousands of years after the Egyptians wrote the first hieroglyphic scripts, the spread of emoji seems to be bringing us back to a picture-based writing system. That may look like a retrograde step to a more primitive, childish form of communication. But it isn’t, because both hieroglyphs and emoji are far more powerful than they appear.
The hieroglyph for a mouth, for example, did not simply mean “mouth”; it also meant “towards”, a different word that was pronounced the same way (like “write” and “right” in English). Crucially, it could also be read as a sound (“r”), just as a pictogram of an eye can be read in English as “i”. By combining multiple hieroglyphs with special symbols to indicate how they should be read, it was possible to write any word. Hieroglyphs were a complete writing system that could express complex ideas.
That may not be true of emoji. But while they can’t be used to accurately convey the Declaration of Independence, say, they too have a potent expressive range. Sending a heart emoji, a shrug or an eye-roll is different from writing text. What do they mean, precisely? It is often hard to say in words. Emoji are useful in part because they enact emotions, rather than stating them. Surveys show many people (including a third of American millennials) find it easier to communicate feelings with emoji than words. And unlike hieroglyphs, they can be used and understood by anyone.
Emoji also have less visible benefits. New ones are added to the global digital character set, Unicode, every few months. Nobody wants to be left behind when their friends start sprinkling their texts with lobsters, so they update their software and get the latest security patches with it. Emoji have made the internet safer.
Demand for emoji means more software is becoming Unicode compatible, allowing users to access not just new emoji but unusual alphabets such as Cherokee that are released alongside them. That can help keep endangered languages alive. The Egyptians’ use of hieroglyphs thousands of years ago meant that knowledge which would otherwise have been lost was preserved. Our use of emoji today may end up having a similar effect.•