Semantics and Pragmatics of Emojis in Digital Communication

Principal Investigators:
Prof. Dr. Patrick Georg Grosz, University of Oslo
Jun.-Prof. Dr. Tatjana Scheffler, University of Bochum

Postdoc Researcher:
Lea Fricke, University of Bochum

Project description:
This project studies emojis (pictographs that can be used as Unicode characters) as a prime example of an emerging tool of visual communication. While emojis are a recent human artifact, their shape, use and very nature is clearly codetermined by human cognition, an idea that is corroborated by the speed with which they have found broad acceptance across cultures and age groups within the two decades since their introduction. The most frequently used type of emojis in digital communication are face emojis (😊, 😠, 😔, 🤢), which represent stylized representations of human facial expressions, and thus correspond to important communicative devices both in sign languages and to the speech-accompanying facial expressions of non-signers. This project will focus on the formal semantics and pragmatics of face emojis as our object of study, and addresses the question whether face emojis are best analyzed as stylized pictures of the author’s face or as conventionalized (para-)linguistic entities that have meanings stored in the mental lexicon of their users. This difference has important theoretical implications, e.g. for the division of labor between semantics and pragmatics. A picture-based approach assumes a minimal semantics, under which face emojis are nothing more than pictures, which is coupled with an independently motivated pragmatic machinery that derives the more fine-grained and rich patterns that have been observed for the interpretation of emojis. By contrast, a convention-based (lexicalist) approach treats emojis as a variant of emotive expressions, which also include interjections (‘yay’), exclamative intonation, swear words (‘damn’) and evaluative adverbials (‘unfortunately’). A particularly important question in this regard is the role of resemblance-based (iconic) vs. convention-based (symbolic) semantics. We expect that neither extreme approach (iconic or symbolic) can account for all kinds of emojis and emoji uses. While certain face emojis can easily be mapped to faces that they look like, such as the ‘beaming face with smiling eyes’ 😁, there are also face emojis that lack counterparts in actual facial expressions, such as the ‘zipper-mouth face’ 🤐.
In this project, we investigate the explanatory power of iconic and symbolic approaches to emoji semantics via corpus analysis and a set of experiments that explores the continuum between pictorial and symbolic emojis. Starting from the hypothesis that face emojis are composed of (iconic or symbolic) minimal units, we study how existing and novel emojis are processed semantically. This empirical basis will allow us to differentiate between the proposed iconic and lexical approaches to emoji meaning and develop a hybrid semantics. The project will closely interact with a range of proposed ViCom projects, including projects on facial expressions, gestures, sign languages, online communication, multimodal literacy, visual emotion expression, iconicity, and multimodal pragmatics.