Language evolves... now with emojis?

Oct 16, 2017

Madison Harwell, Pepperdine student

Emoticons are a product of technology that has ingrained itself in our society. These harmless electronic pictures have extended our language in surprising and mysterious ways. In Cohen v. California, the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction against Paul Robert Cohen in 1971 for allegedly disturbing the peace in courthouse displaying the phrase "F--- the Draft" on his jacket. The Court ruled that because it didn't constitute an incitement to violence or offense directly at a particular person it was permissible and he was unjustly indicted for "offensive conduct". In wondering how Cohen v. California can be applied to present day a seemingly innocuous form could be the answer: Emoticons or colloquially Emojis. These symbols have become a crutch of modern society in communications.

At the inaugural Emojicon, a conference dedicated purely on that: Emojis, linguist Tyler Schnoebelen spoke these seemingly gibberish words to open the conference, "Ides aglæcwif yrmþe gemunde, se þe wæteregesan wunian scoldeld, cea e streamas, siþðan Cain wearð to ecgbanan angan breþer, fæderenmæge." The linguist had been quoting a passage from Beowulf in its original Old English translation, by doing this Tyler hoped to emphasize the point that language isn't static, "we know that language changes, right? This is just a thing that happens. It is inevitable, and in fact, desirable." Tyler Schnoebelen, who wrote his Stanford doctorate thesis on the subject says in that dissertation,

"[Emojis] act like punctuation, providing cues about how to understand the words that came before them, as an exclamation point might. Emojis typically add to ideas rather than replace words." I believe the notion that Emojis serving as additions and not replacements to written words is key here.

Additionally, these symbols were hi-lighted in a newscast went viral this past year from Seattle's Q13 Fox News directed towards alerting parents to start monitoring their children's emoji habits and attempted to warn them about hidden messages in the cute pictures. The broadcaster cautioned "if it's a fox, that could mean, 'Let's go sneak out of the house'... as parents, we can look at these and have no idea, but this could lead to cyberbullying," Then referencing the pink hibiscus flower emoji and the green frog emoji, "this could mean drugs. [The frog emoji] could mean, you're ugly—I'm telling you you're ugly."

The evolution of this form is not recent and actually comes from a Japanese telecommunications planner Shigetaka Kurita credited with inventing emojis in 1999, but widely the emoji of today is considered Unicode's application in Apple's iOS program. While Apple's emojis are purposefully generic, some apps like Bitmoji you're able to create a character in someone's likeness and use it as an avatar. On the most basic level it seems absurd that these emojis could aptly signify the expression of thoughts or ideas that could make its way into a court of law, but while the concept of emojis may seem infantile, they certainly constitute this exchange until you define what classifies an emoji.


Madison Harwell, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:In Cohen v. California, the Court protected two elements of speech: the emotive (the expression of emotion) and the cognitive (the expression of ideas). How do emojis come into play? Are they expressions of emotions? Of ideas? Some hybrid or would it be fallacious to even draw the connection?

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