1963 – 1982: Smiley Face, Emoticons, and Japanese Kaomoji 綽荊肅珮_()_/簪


Tyler Schnoebelen, a Stanford linguistics Ph.D., explains that we are only just learning how to convey the speed of talking through written word, without physical contextual clues, and emoji can go beyond representing simple internal states to creating interactive variants and propositions for readers.Furthermore, given that 7% of communication is verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% nonverbal according to a seminal study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, we are effectively losing 93% of our communicative potential. Even Nabokov, arguably one of the greatest novelistsof the 20th century, acknowledged as early as 1969 the need for emoji: “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smilesome sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”



And so, beforeour currentassortmentof skeumorphicemoji designs filledthe void of cold, screen-based interaction, we hadthe classicSmiley An ad man named Harvey Ball created the original yellow smiley face symbol as part of a 1963 campaign to boost company morale for State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, MA. He was paid $240 for the design and slogan Have a Happy Day, including $45 for the rights to the image. The image was never copyrighted by either Ball or State Mutual.

The smiley face symbol was quickly appropriated from early-70s to late-80s acid house culture and soon became a ubiquitous symbol in pop culture. Bernard and Murray Spain, two brothers who owned Hallmark card shopsin Philadelphia, sold over 50 million buttonsbased on the classic smiley design by1971. French journalist Frank Loufrani registered the trademark as Smiley World in 1972 and launched a smiley T-shirt licensing company which today makes more than $130 million annually.


As with the marginalia of the medieval century, the Smiley’s “fixed facade of childlike contentment (…) was ripe for subversion.” Early political statements using the smiley include the Dead Kennedy’s 1979 album California Uber Alles, with its Nuremberg-style rally with Smileys instead of swastikas, and blood-stained smiley face motifs pointing to a dystopian world of depressed superheroes in the comic Watchmen. The Smiley took on political undertones as a “visual metaphor for a narrative that examines guilt, failure, megalomania and compromise with a corrupt power structure.” Itbecame a staple of“Corporate Rock Whores” Nirvana T-shirts in the 90s and ecstasy PSAsdenouncing youth culturealike.


Scott Fahlman, creator of the smiley face emoticon

The first digital emoticons were smiley faces created by Carnegie Mellon computer Scientist Scott Fahlman in 1982. The sideways smiley face was invented out of a need to distinguish serious messages on the online bulletin boards, or bboards, used by the university in the 1980s.The first emoticons were used as “joke markers” after someone posted a fake mercury spill message. The wordemoticon isa portmanteau of “emotion icon,” and it is defined asa typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. Emoticonsare distinct from emoji because they use characters from the Latinalphabet whereas emoji require specific encoding and designs vary cross-platform.



Kaomoji were independently invented in Japan around the same time as emoticon and use the fuller character set to create facial expressions from punctuation marks. The word Kaomoji 憿摮 means “face letters.”The first kaomoji was (^_^) and appeared in a Japanese forum in 1986. Kaomoji are an extension of Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture influenced by manga and anime, with a greater focus on eye expressions than mouth. They range from the simple(*_*) to complex designs like (嚝栽)嚝*:嚚伐. or 鉦_鉦 or even (純售‾堆荔葭 領 and it is estimated that there are over 10,000 of them.

One of the most popularkaomoji is the shrug


Kaomoji and emoticons arose from the need to communicate intent more clearly on message boards. A complete list can be found here.


1041-1450: Printing Press 


Long beforeall the tech jobs were outsourced to India, scribes experienced an early instance of creative destruction with the advent of the printing press. In 1041 AD Bi Sheng brought movable type printing technology to China, and by 1450 it had been improved on by Johannes Gutenberg. Hand-lettering was replaced by character serialization, a data format that could be stored and reused, and language was reduced to its most basic components: graphemes, phonemes, and punctuation marks. As mentioned in myemoji prehistorypost, a grapheme is the smallest unit that makes up a word. Graphemes are written representations of phonemes (groups of 2, 3 or 4 letters), and phonemes are the smallest units that make up a sound. In the English language, for instance, there are approximately 44 phonemes.


Because English today is based on phonograms, or symbols that represent spoken sound rather than concrete images, it may seem counterintuitive that wefind ourselvesin the throws of a digital pictographic obsession whenthe emoji fad has very much ended in its country of origin. So how did the appropriation of Chinese kanji symbols and the phonetic system pave the wayfor an army of delightful cartoonish symbols? How hasemoji grown to supplement our blandEnglish vocabulary?

1320 – 1340: Medieval Symbolism and Manuscript Marginalia  

Sometime between 1320 and 1340, the psalms collection Luttrell Psalter was commissioned by Geoffrey Luttrell in England. It is notable for containing paintings with vivid colors and inventive decorations accompanyingthe text at the margins, often contrastingtheir austere subject matter, known as manuscript marginalia. Manuscript marginalia contained a great deal of detail and often provided images that ranged from subtly humorous to downright bizarre. Some examples are “wrestlers, hawkers, bear baiters, dancers, musicians, throwing games, a mock bishop with a dog [jumping] through a hoop- and a wife beating her husband with her spinning rod” and what was then known as the “grotesques”: hybrid creatures that combined a human head with an animal/fish/bird body and plant tail. 劾

luttrell.jpgIt is within medieval imagesthat we find the first inklings of rich symbolism, word associations and hidden meaning. For instance, floreat,which meant “to flourish,” was represented with a blooming rose in the psalms. Similarly, nocte, or “night,” is followed by a black bat in the margin.This gave the text a mnemonic purpose which made the manuscript “memorable and meditative.” Aside from mnemonic function, however, scholars cannot agree onwhether the marginalia were purely decorative or had symbolic meaning. As with emoji, marginalia served as a shorthand for ideas, and especially grotesque or obscene images were interpreted as a kind of satire and subversion of the human condition.

12,000 – 2700 BC: Paleolithic cave paintings, Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and Chinese logograms 踱鳶瘀


Emoji have been extensively compared to a modernized version of Paleolithic cave paintings, estimated to be over 17,300 years old. Homo sapiens emerged on the African landscape 200,000 years ago but, leavingbehind no archaeological recordofthe brain northe development of our cognitive abilities, we lookto abstract artistic relics to determine how our wiring has changed over time. The pictograms of horses and stags found at Lascaux were the first real shift in using visuals to represent larger abstract ideas, purportedly memorializing past hunts or shamanic ritual instruction, along with 32 geometric shapes ranging from dots to circles. Despite the low number of geometric shapes created over thespan of 30,000 years, each symbol had a distinctive usage pattern.


Paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger explains that stenciled hands appear at less than 20% of the sites and were very common before fading out of use at the end of the Ice Age, while dots and lines appear less than 75% of the time. Tectiforms (roof-shaped symbols), however, only appear in the Dordogne and Huesca regions of France between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago and seem to have been a clan sign used regionally only. The fact that the symbol is not found anywhere else points to either a trade network for goods such as flint or obsidian between the two places or a tribal relocation, perhaps through intermarriage. The significance of the Paleolithic comparison is in the experimentation with visual marks which enables usto create a new kind of typology.



Fast forward to 5,500 years ago, theSumerians created the cuneiform writing system to communicate using pictographs. Cuneiforms use a wedge-based tool or reed to mark wet clay. Dr. Kate Wiles of the excellent linguistics podcast Allusionsexplains that initially, the language was used for tracking bartering of livestock and the yearly agricultural harvest. Wilesgives the example of shipping three cows, a goat, and a bale of hay, and knowing that they arrived at the other end by using the shorthand system. Eventually,graphemes, the smallest units of written language, became more abstract and helped expandourmeans of self-expression, much like emoticons werecombined creatively to form new meanings. The Sumerian cuneiformsystem was in use for 3,000 years, on par in cultural significance with the Roman alphabet.


Perhaps the greatest historical analog to emoji has been the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which is the subject of multipleuninspired articles by anxiousjournalists insisting that we are evolving backwards and we ought to stick tothe language of Shakespeare.Bangor University linguist Vys Evans explains that as a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop.” Hopefully that will serve as some reassurance that if we have eclipsed Egyptian civilization, surely we can’t be too far in the perceived regression spouted by hyperbolicemoji detractors…


The comparison to ancient hieroglyphics, as with the Mayan hieroglyph system used from 250 BC to the 1500s, is inevitable in that they rely on a series of small symbolsto express a complete idea rather than phonetic sounds, and their emotional and cultural assessment is subject to interpretation. Mayan hieroglyphs were used to convey historical, literary, religious, and mythological information, as well as a complex mathematical knowledge. Fittingly enough, the Unicode Consortium has been awarded the Script Encoding Initiative grant to include Mayan hieroglyphs as Unicode characters by2017.


Finally, emoji issimilar to written Chinese and its pictorial origins spanning 3,500 years. By 1,000 BC, around 3,000 characters had been created primarily to record oracle predictions on turtoise shells and cow bones. Some Chinese characters which were later adapted to Japanese were visually modeledon familiar objects, most notably (ki) which is a pictograph of a tree,鈭 (hito) which looks like a person from the side, and撅 (yama) which shows a series of mountains.

To conclude, emoji is alogogramatic system, where a concept rather than a sound is represented pictorially, with comparable historical examples ranging from the Stone Age cave paintings and Sumerian cuneiform to ancient hieroglyphics andthe Chinese written system.

Emoji History Series 


Because this is a blog about all things emoji,it would be incomplete without a history of emoji and how we got here. It is well known that emoji owes a lot to its Japanese heritage but what ofthe sacred carvingsthat arose at the dawn of Sumerian civilization and their naturalevolution to money-with-wings emoji marking successful drug deals on Venmo ?In the following series, I will identify major milestones that have contributed in some way to our understanding of the semantic wonderthat is emoji!