And while that framing can itself occasionally read as overly two-dimensional—there are few people, at this point, who seem to believe that emojis will be the death of English, or any other language—it also situates The Emoji Code well with the ideas espoused by the linguist John McWhorter, and by the linguist Gretchen McCulloch, and by so many other canny observers of English as it lives and grows in its new digital environments: Language, breathing free, is its own kind of democracy. And that is evident online, in particular, where a good turn of phrase, or a new meme, or indeed a cleverly deployed emoji, can be so easily amplified and adapted and woven into the language. Emojis, in particular, are elastic in that way: They can mean whatever the writer, and whatever the recipient, decide they mean, together.
That can lead to a productive kind of ambiguity. Remember that tattoo Drake got a few years ago, which could be read either as two hands, praying, or as two hands, frozen in a high five? The star, as New York’s Adam Sternbergh pointed out, finally settled the matter: “I pity the fool who high-fives in 2014,” Drake clarified on his Instagram. But there would be many more debates in that vein. Are those dancing twins, symbols of female friendship, or Playboy bunnies, symbols of female objectification? Is that a toothy mouth-gape a grin or a grimace? When I texted “Drinks?” and you texted back, “🐙,” what did you mean?
This kind of ambiguity, Evans suggests, also gives way to useful flexibility. It allows emojis the kind of semantic suppleness that helps them to humanize, and augment, and otherwise expand, our text-based communications. Emojis can function as punctuation. They can work as pictographic versions of “lol.” They can convey personality—identity—with notable economy. Slack, the group-messaging service widely used for professional chatting, recently offered users the ability to add emojis to their handles, as a kind of status update—a 📅 would mean “in a meeting,” a 🚌 would mean “commuting,” a 🌴 would mean “on vacation,” and so on. Almost immediately, though, the service’s users expanded on Slack’s idea: They began using the emoji-status capability to augment their handles in more playful and expressive ways. Suddenly, Slack chats proliferated with people whose names were accompanied by screaming cats and expressionless faces and tiny, squared portraits of Jay-Z. The emojis had been used for a different purpose than the one originally intended. They had been made at once more fun and more expressive of users’ identities. They had been, in their way, democratized.
It’s a small point when it comes to emojis but a bigger one when it comes to the political power of language. Emojis are part of a broader phenomenon playing out across social media: English is exploding, at the moment, with new words and new grammars and new modes of human expression. It is alive—not in the way the creators of The Emoji Movie have imagined on our behalf (hey again, Gene), but in a much more meaningful way. As Evans puts it:
While Emoji will surely continue to evolve, and other systems and codes will be developed that will complement and, doubtless, replace Emoji as it currently exists, its emergence provides the beginning of a more or less level playing field, between face-to-face interaction and digital communication—better enabling effective communication in the digital sphere.
The Emoji Movie is notable in part because, in its very conceit, it pushes back against all of that buzzing evolution. It tries to brand it. It tries to turn it into intellectual property. As Alex French reported in a fantastic piece for The New York Times Magazine, there’s a booming business in Hollywood right now, one that involves taking existing intellectual property and, through the insistent alchemy of the studio budget, converting it into a Story. Angry Birds. Battleship. Fruit Ninja. Jumanji. And on and on.