Emoji as Digital Gestures – returning the body to disembodied communication

Emoji were born in Japan in 2010, six years later they were in use by over 90% of the world's online population. Dr Lauren Gawne says their popularity lies in the human need to gesture.

Lauren’s career in linguistics began by happy chance.

“I needed a class on Tuesdays in Semester One and a friend said she was doing linguistics. After the first week, I never looked back. This is one of things I really appreciate about the Bachelor of Arts, it allows you to explore a whole range of subjects, expand your horizons and try new things,” Lauren explains.

Lauren works across two fields of research: the grammar of Tibetan languages in Nepal and how people use all languages online, which was particularly pertinent during the recent lockdowns.

Some people claim that emoji are ‘ruining language’ however Lauren’s research shows that people use them to enrich text, not to replace it. They use emoji as digital gestures.

People were already moving social interaction online even before COVID-19 forced the world into social distancing.

As Lauren explains “We’re much more likely to be hanging out on social media than at the watercooler these days. But just because we’re no longer face-to-face when we chat, doesn’t mean our communication is completely disembodied.”

We all gesture. People who have been blind since birth will gesture, even though they have never seen another person do it. Gesture is a strong compulsion in human communication.

Typing is disembodied, online chat is disembodied, but emoji allow us to return the body to the online conversation. This basic human need explains emoji’s creation and rapid rise.

Lauren finds linguistics is a fascinating field. “We know so little of the scope of the human languages. We don’t even have a good idea of how common gestures are used across the world. There are so many fundamental questions about how humans ‘do’ language that we are still asking.”

Lauren looks forward to building on her article on emoji as gesture, and working with Unicode – the world standard for text and emoji - to fill gaps in common hand shapes in the emoji set. She has worked with collaborators Gretchen McCulloch and Jennifer Daniel to design three new emoji including the Palm Up Hand, Palm Down Hand and Face with Peeking Eye.

Want to learn more?

Lauren co-hosts the podcast Lingthusiasm with Gretchen McCulloch and runs the linguistics website Superlinguo. She also writes ‘By Lingo’ a regular column for The Big Issue (Australia) about the history of everyday words.