Symbols and Emoji

The emoji symbols (literally picture characters) introduced by Japanese cell phone carriers have captured the imaginations of computer users around the world. So much so that occasionally many symbols created long before the emoji are now being treated as emoji. This post addresses the history of symbols in general and how emoji symbols fit in and have enhanced this area. Note that emoji means symbol in Japanese and is a very general term, while in this post emoji means Unicode emoji, a symbol often rendered as an image or with multiple colors.

Hieroglyphics are very early examples of pictorial writing along with other logographic scripts. The Bing dictionary defines logogram as a “symbol representing word: a symbol that represents the meaning of a whole word or phrase, e.g. the symbols used in shorthand, or the symbol ‘&’ used instead of the word ‘and’”. Chinese ideographs are also logograms, although Chinese words often consist of more than one Chinese ideograph. As such emoji are logograms. What distinguishes emoji is their common rendering via images or colored fonts.

Math symbols are examples of logograms. Detailed discussions of how math symbols originated are given in Florian Cajori’s two volumes of A History of Mathematical Notations (1928). In particular, he notes on p. 231 of Vol. 1 that the + sign is probably a short hand for the Latin word et, in this case meaning to add. So two logograms, + and &, emerged from et.

My old computer language SCROLL is an acronym for string and character recording oriented logogrammatic language. I wrote the SCROLL program in 1969 and it was the first program able to display built-up mathematical text on a computer. The word logogrammatic appears because the functions in the language were represented by single letters, which acted as logograms describing things like built-up fractions, square roots, etc.

The Unicode ranges 2100..2BFF have a plethora of logograms, including almost all mathematical operators. The Miscellaneous Symbols block (2600..26FF) includes 3 emoticons ☹☺☻ as well as ♥, all of which are now considered to be emoji. Dingbats (2700..27BF) have many other symbols, and Unicode recently expanded to include all the Microsoft Wingdings and Webdings symbol sets.

As such emoji follow in the steps of great symbol traditions. People have always liked to use pictures to describe things. For many years there have been tee shirts and bumper stickers with the words “I ♥ New York City” and other places. Emoji are a natural extension of this practice. You can find URLs with emoji in them, such as♥-attract-mode/. On cell-phone touch keyboards, a single-line window containing suggested words might include emoji characters as possibilities. For example on Windows Phone 8.1, if you choose “love”, you’ll be offered ♥ as a possibility. Touch screen keyboards have an emoji/emoticon key that opens up a set of galleries of emoji characters.

As discussed in my earlier post on emoji, these symbols can be rendered in text mode or in an enhanced mode depending on an overall setting or by following each symbol with the emoji text (U+FE0E) variation selector or the emoji enhanced (U+FE0F) variation selector, respectively. One can imagine that the enhanced variation selector could be used to request special renderings of symbols in general. By default, XAML text boxes render emoji with colored fonts even for the plain-text TextBox control. The emoji choices for such rendering are a little selective. For example, the TextBox doesn’t render ‼ with an emoji color font, since that symbol may well be ordinary text or mathematical, rather than emoji.

What we’re experiencing with all this is the ability to input characters in much more powerful ways than possible before the advent of modern computers and smart phones. Now we can use images chosen from large galleries to represent words and ideas. We can use Input Method Editors (IMEs) to enter any Chinese, Japanese or Korean character. In Microsoft Office applications, we can use the math linear format to enter arbitrary built-up mathematical expressions. We’re living through major paradigm shifts in how people can display language. It’s pretty exciting!

Naturally when people see emoji symbols for animals, people, food, etc., they think of still other things that they feel are important and want to add symbols for. This want is hastened by the introduction of skin color and gender, since diversity is such an important part of modern living and it wasn’t addressed in the original Japanese emoji sets. There are potentially lots more emoji symbols since there are slews of things on the earth. Probably the Unicode Technical Committee and WG2 (the working group that maintains ISO 10646) should be conservative in opening the flood gates. For an idea of where this may go, check out iDiversicons.

For further information about emoji, search the Internet for emoji. You’ll find cool web sites such as Also on the Unicode web site, look for the final version of Unicode Technical Report #51: UNICODE EMOJI, by Mark Davis and Peter Edberg. You might also want to follow Mark’s blog posts, such as this one on emoji food symbols.