Did you know that today is World Emoji Day?

Emojis have become an important part of modern writing systems, especially as used online. They may not (yet) be accepted as playing a role in a formal register of writing, but that does not mean that they are not valid written signs.

In fact, emojis are in some ways similar to ideograms, the term we use for individual written signs (e.g. in ancient writing systems such as Linear B) that refer to whole concepts. A smiley face conveys that you are happy or have been made to smile, but instead of writing this out in a sentence you can convey it with a single written sign.


LB horse

The Linear B ideogram for a horse.


Another way of looking at them is to see them as markers of tone. By adding a smiley face or a sad face, you are giving the reader some important information about the tone you would use if you were speaking the sentence – very important in a world where technology allows us to have immediate conversations online without talking to each other face-to-face.

A marker that adds extra information could be thought of as a kind of determinative, the word we use for a sign in some ancient writing systems that might tell you whether you interpret this word as a man’s name, a woman’s name, a country’s name or a god’s name, or what part of speech this word is. Determinatives were used in a number of cuneiform systems as well as in Egyptian hieroglyphs.


DINGIR, the determinative used in cuneiform writing systems to indicate that a word it is attached to is a god’s name.


The determinative used in Egyptian hieroglyphs to indicate that a word refers to a woman.

So next time to are typing something and add an emoji, remember that what you are doing is not entirely new – people have been thinking about how to use special written signs to convey extra information for thousands of years!



~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)


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