LINGUIST List 28.3397

Fri Aug 11 2017

Review: Pragmatics: Danesi (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 17-Apr-2017
From: Christopher Sams <>
Subject: The Semiotics of Emoji
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Marcel Danesi
TITLE: The Semiotics of Emoji
SUBTITLE: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet
SERIES TITLE: Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Christopher D. Sams, Stephen F. Austin State University

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet by Marcel Danesi is a welcome addition Bloomsbury’s series on advances in semiotics. The aim of the book is to examine the role of emoji within text communication. The book is written in “a nontechnical style, so that a general audience can engage with its subject matter” (vii).

The Preface explains that the data in the book comes from a database that was compiled by a research team of four students at the University of Toronto. They selected a group of 100 undergraduate students (50 male and 50 female), all between 18 and 22 years old, from whom they were able to collect 323 samples of electronic text containing emoji. The participants who were identified in advance as “regular users of emoji” were also interviewed by the undergraduate students to obtain qualitative data.

Chapter 1, Emoji and Writing Systems, discusses the origin of emoji, the fundamentals of writing systems, writing as a social practice, and stylization. Danesi defines emoji as “picture-word[s]” (2). Danesi ties the use of emoji to writing systems by discussing the connections to “prehistoric art;” he takes the reader though arguments presented by Vygotsky (where written language is “evolutionary residue from the distant past that unconsciously guides language development”) (6) and Bloomfield (where vocal language precedes written language and writing is a means of recording vocal speech) (6) as well as anthropological and cognitive theories. As a social practice, the reader is walked through the time when the written word was used “across time and cultural spaces to record important ideas, such as those found in sacred texts and scientific and philosophical treatises” (10). This discussion includes graffiti found in ancient ruins all the way to the present day where we see how writing is used in the digital age in both synchronous and asynchronous mediums. The section on stylization addresses that the forms of writing are iconic. The author also addresses emoticons--a predecessor to emoji.

Chapter 2, Emoji Uses, explains the use of emoji. The first use covered is the phatic function, which is equated to “small talk” and subcategorized as an utterance opener, utterance ending, or silence avoidance (19). The next use covered is the emotive function, which Danesi explains is the “primary discourse function of some, if not most, emoji” (21). In essence, the majority of emoji tell the interlocutor of the state of mind of the sender. Also covered in the chapter are the standardization of emoji by technology developers and ambiguity—including the fact that emoji meaning can vary across cultures. For example, the thumbs-up emoji, construed by many to carry a positive connotation, is the equivalent of the middle finger in a number of wide-spread cultures.

Chapter 3, Emoji Competence, focuses on knowledge of “how to intersperse emoji images into a written text in order to imprint a positive emotional tone to it or to maintain phatic communion with the interlocutors” (35). Here, Danesi refers to the linguistic idea of “communicative competence.” He goes on to claim that “implicit in emoji use is rhetorical structure” (39): Inventio (invention) is the search for a topic, Disposition (arrangement) is the order of the forms in order to achieve maximum persuasion, Elocutio (style) is how the arguments are presented, Memoria (memory) is how the text can be memorized and delivered without the use of notes, and Actio (delivery) deal with gesture and tone (39-40). Finally, he discusses core emoji (a concrete lexicon) and points to the work of Swadesh, who attempted to define a universal lexicon vs. particular lexicon (42), the peripheral lexicon, and compression, that “the emoji code allows one to deliver nuances of meaning in more compact and holistic ways” (47).

In Chapter 4, Emoji Semantics, Erving Goffman’s notion of framing is discussed. Where in conventional text the interlocutor’s frame of mind must be derived from word choice and syntactic ordering, with emoji, the visual aspect can lend efficiency and clarity to semantics and pragmatic considerations. Connotation is covered in addition to the thesaurus effect--the idea that multiple emoji can convey the same general sentiment, but slight nuances in the emoji can create connotation. For example, Danesi points out that the smiling emoji, winking emoji, and heart-eyes emoji all convey a general sense of happiness, but each contains a different connotation--one that is culturally-specific at that. Danesi then introduces the concept of metaphor and blending (e.g., the snake emoji could connote that someone is two-faced or deceptive).

Chapter 5, Emoji Grammar, addresses emoji competence (see chapter 3) of how emoji fit into the structure of a natural-language grammar. For example, in calquing, an emoji sequence of a microphone with musical notes surrounding it and an umbrella with rain drops can signify “singing in the rain” (78). Danesi points out the systemic nature of the construction of phrases containing emoji grammar. He explains that “emoji grammar is…a ‘placement grammar,’ based on…the superimposition of emoji in slots where verbal structures would have occurred” (77). Danesi posits that the conceptualization of emoji is that the more their use is seen in marketing, branding, politics, and pop culture, and as texts become more frequent, a kind of “second-language grammar” will increase (81). He then draws on the work of Ronald Langacker and cognitive linguistics when he writes, “Linguistic expressions and grammatical constructions embody conventional imagery, which constitutes an essential aspect of their semantic value” (82).

In Chapter 6, Emoji Pragmatics, Danesi focuses on the ability of the interlocutor to “code switch” between alphabetic and emoji writing. He also addresses salutation, punctuation, and other pragmatic functions, such as “attitude, mood, and point of view” (107). The end of this chapter addresses some questions, including whether males or females use more emoji, politeness, and familiarity. Danesi argues that “the most basic pragmatic function of emoji…is to add emotional tone and to emphasize certain phatic aspects of communication” (100). To that end, he points out that many emoji are used for starting and ending messages.

Chapter 7, Emoji Variation, examines the cross cultural use of emoji via cross-cultural variation, usage according to nation, cultural coding, visuality, adjacency pair variation, and cartoon-style literacy. As people around the world have access to Unicode and various technologies, the demand continues to grow for more and more variation. One such example of this variation given by Danesi is the eggplant emoji to refer to male genitalia. The eggplant is a concrete and seemingly “straightforward” emoji, the group in the study interpreted it that way as several online sites confirmed (117). Online sites have emerged such as emojipedia to “keep track of the additions and provide and overall inventory” (118). Danesi makes a crucial point here that what was meant to be a variation-free code has evolved, as natural languages do, to a variable code.

Chapter 8, Emoji Spread, examines the use of emoji-only writing and emoji translation. The chapter explores how emoji are becoming more interwoven in everyday culture: the Oxford Dictionary selected an emoji as its Word of the Year, and, at the time of this review being written, Sony pictures recently released The Emoji Movie. Danesi further explores emoji-only writing in terms of texts, advertisements, news, and even an emoji translation of Alice in Wonderland. It also examines the connection between emoji use and effort--the idea that writing systems trend toward ease. Informants in the study commented that they used emoji to convey emotion to the locution of their utterances.

Chapter 9, Universal Languages, deals with the theoretical idea of a universal language and what it may look like. Artificial languages, such as Esperanto, are included in this discussion. Danesi asserts that if emoji were to have a chance at becoming a universal language, “it cannot be fractured through usage too become too diversified through cultural coding” (157). He suggests that such a system would “facilitate ease of reading, not inhibit it” (157).

The final chapter, A Communication Revolution?, examines the potential future of emoji as “a real revolution” or “ a passing fad” (171).


Overall, the book achieved the goal of examining emoji under the lens of semiotics and, in a more broad sense, linguistics, communication, and philosophy. Particularly welcome was Danesi’s treatment covering concepts in Conversation Analysis, Discourse Analysis, and Translation Theory--all in addition to syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and first and second language acquisition. Students and teachers of any of the above areas would find the text useful. The author relies on extensive relevant references (both classic and modern) in each of the chapters and provides ample examples for each concept introduced. This book also provides an example to newer scholars as to the use of protocol when dealing with data (all data used in the book was screened for ethical content).

The book ties together numerous studies on emoji (it alludes to the fact that the majority of emoji in studies are positive--rather than neutral or negative). In my comments above on Chapter 3, it could be made more clear from the onset what the results of these studies have shown.

In the definition of emoji competence in Chapter 3, it overlooks the fact that emoji need not always be positive. “As discussed schematically in previous chapters, it [emoji competence] implies in part knowledge of how to intersperse emoji images into a written text in order imprint a position emotional tone into it or maintain phatic communion with interlocutors” (35). There are numerous emoji in the inventory that can be used to express annoyance, anger, sadness, or even sassiness.

Another potential problem area is in one of the book’s strongest chapters: Chapter 6 Emoji Pragmatics. No evidence was found that emoji are “gendered” (i.e., there is no evidence that one gender uses more emoji than another). The chapter concludes that “[s]ince the research group consisted of an equal number of males and females (50 each), there is no reason to believe that our finding will differ significantly in comparison to other research projects” (113). With such a small sample size, this seems like a bold comment to make. In their study, Briton and Hall (1995) found that women were believed to use more expressive and involved non-verbal behaviors than men. Numerous other studies confirm this fact; thus, a larger sample size and replication (not to mention having the study done in other cultures) would be needed to confirm this prediction. In the same section, politeness is explained, yet no clear question or finding is presented (the section is entitled “Some relevant questions and findings”).

One general criticism of the book’s design and layout is the resolution of some of the images--many of them can be difficult to read due to resolution or contrast with the background. This happens often with screenshots of text messages and online posts and the emoji translation of Alice in Wonderland (147).

Central to this book is that it doesn’t claim to be an in-depth qualitative or qualitative study, but rather “is simply a starting point” (16). The students who collected the data were able to catch a glimpse of what seems to be an infinite corpus via text messages, Facebook, email, Twitter, and various other social media sites. The qualitative comments provided to the “research team” (in the book the term is in quotes) give some interesting insight into the future study of this topic.

Throughout the text, Danesi does an excellent job of writing in a non-technical style, and, as he assures the reader in the preface, defines any technical terms and provides a layperson’s explanation. As he also points out, he does not shy away from controversial theoretical debates. For example, he addresses numerous theories on the origin of writing in Chapter 1, presenting the ideas which have been the common ground and gained the most acceptance in the scientific community. Of particular note is Danesi’s constant sensitivity to culture. As he points out in Chapter 1, the creators of facial emoji have tried to remain as culturally neutral as possible (hence the color yellow); however, many other variants have emerged.

Danesi’s goal was to provide readers with a look at emoji that was accessible to everyone. With this book, he reached that goal by providing a great balance of information coming from his vast experience in various fields, not too reliant on theory but not avoiding controversial subject matter, and a book driven by data.


Briton, Nancy & Hall, Judith. 1995. Beliefs about female and male nonverbal communication.
Sex Roles, vol. 32, no. 1-2, p. 79-90.


Chris Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. His research and teaching interests are second language acquisition, forensic linguistics, linguistic typology and universals, language description and documentation, Romance linguistics, historical linguistics, and translation studies.

Page Updated: 11-Aug-2017