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Emoji and Pictographs

Q: What are emoji?

A: Emoji are “picture characters” originally associated with cellular telephone usage in Japan, but now popular worldwide. The word emoji comes from the Japanese (e ≅ picture) + (moji ≅ written character).

Emoji are often pictographs—images of things such as faces, weather, vehicles and buildings, food and drink, animals and plants—or icons that represent emotions, feelings, or activities. In cellular phone usage, many emoji characters are presented in color (sometimes as a multicolor image), and some are presented in animated form, usually as a repeating sequence of two to four images—for example, a pulsing red heart.

Q: Where can I find out more about emoji in Unicode?

A: See Unicode Emoji, which introduces the Emoji Subcommittee and its processes, and has links to many emoji-related charts. Unicode Technical Report #51, Unicode Emoji (UTR #51) is the technical introduction to Unicode emoji and their implementation.

Q: Are emoji the same thing as emoticons?

A: Not exactly. Emoticons (from “emotion” plus “icon”) are specifically intended to depict facial expression or body posture as a way of conveying emotion or attitude in e-mail and text messages. They originated as ASCII character combinations such as :-) to indicate a smile—and by extension, a joke—and :-( to indicate a frown. In East Asia, a number of more elaborate sequences have been developed, such as (")(-_-)(") showing an upset face with hands raised. Over time, many systems began replacing such sequences with images, and also began providing ways to input emoticon images directly, such as a menu or palette. The emoji sets used by Japanese cell phone carriers contain a large number of characters for emoticon images, along with many other non-emoticon emoji.

Q. What is the difference between emoji and pictographs?

Pictographs are symbols, such as U+26E8 ⛨ BLACK CROSS ON SHIELD, that are pictorial representations of objects, sometimes quite simplified. 

The set of Unicode emoji intersects, but is not the same as the set of pictographs in the Unicode standard. Some characters are both emoji and pictographs, such as U+1F32D 🌭  HOT DOG. Some characters are emoji but not pictographs, such as U+203C ‼ DOUBLE EXCLAMATION MARK. Some characters are not emoji but are pictographs, such as U+26E8 ⛨ BLACK CROSS ON SHIELD.

Q: What are the most popular emoji characters?

A. The emojitracker.com site tracks the realtime use of many emoji in Twitter, so you can see the most and least used emoji characters there. The Instagram and Swiftkey reports on Emoji Press are also interesting.

Q: Can you point me to some examples of emoji characters in Unicode?

A: The emoji are spread throughout many blocks of Unicode. See Unicode Emoji Charts for a listing of the emoji characters.

Q: Do emoji characters have to look the same wherever they are used?

A: No, they don’t have to look the same. For example, here are just some of the possible images for U+1F36D LOLLIPOP, U+1F36E CUSTARD, U+1F36F HONEY POT, and U+1F370 SHORTCAKE:

emoji example

In other words, any pictorial representation of a lollipop, custard, honey pot or shortcake respectively, whether a line drawing, gray scale, or colored image (possibly animated) is considered an acceptable rendition for the given emoji. However, a design that is too different from other vendors’ representations may cause interoperability problems: see Design Guidelines in UTR #51.

Q: What about diversity?

A: As with the examples of emoji characters representing food items above, The Unicode Standard does not require a particular appearance for characters that depict people or body parts, such as U+1F474 OLDER MAN or U+270B RAISED HAND. In fact, UTR #51 recommends that such depictions be as neutral or generic as possible with respect to physical appearance, for example using non-realistic colors for skin tone. Similarly, characters whose name does not require a particular gender, such as U+1F477 CONSTRUCTION WORKER, should be depicted in a gender-neutral way.

However, many emoji users desire to use emoji for people and body parts that display a variety of more realistic skin tones. To support this, many such emoji may be followed by an emoji modifier character that can indicate one of 5 skin tones, based on the Fitzpatrick scale. See Diversity in UTR #51.

Of course, there are many other types of diversity in human appearance besides different skin tones, including different hair styles and color. It is beyond the scope of Unicode to provide an encoding-based mechanism for representing every aspect of human appearance diversity that emoji users might want to indicate. The best approach for communicating very specific human images—or any type of image in which preservation of specific appearance is very important—is the use of embedded graphics as described in What is the longer term plan for emoji?

See also What about characters whose name specifies a color?

Q: How were emoji originally encoded in Unicode?

A: See the introduction in Unicode Technical Report #51, Unicode Emoji.

Q: Do emoji characters have single semantics?

A: No. Because emoji characters are treated as pictographs, they are encoded in Unicode based primarily on their general appearance, not on an intended semantic. In fact, when used as emoji, many of these characters acquire multiple meanings based on their appearance; for example, an emoji character for “bank” which includes the letters “BK” has taken on in Japan the secondary meaning “bakkureru” (a slang term for evading one’s responsibilities). The meaning of each emoji may vary depending on language, culture, and context. For the curious, Emojipedia is a good source of information about the current meanings of various emoji.

Q: Does the Unicode character name define the meaning of an emoji character?

A: The character name is a unique identifier, but may not encompass all the possible meanings of an emoji character, and in some cases may even be misleading. There are annotations in the Unicode Charts and in the Emoji Charts that help to define the intended meanings and usage.

Q: How many emoji characters are in Unicode now?

A: See Which Characters are Emoji in UTR #51.

Q. Which characters​ should an emoji font or keyboard support?

A: Any font or keyboard whose goal is to support emoji should support the characters and sequences listed in the data files referenced by UTR #51.

Q: Will more emoji characters be added?

A: Yes. It is anticipated that roughly 60 characters would be added per year, until longer-term solutions come into play. Moreover, the Consortium may decide that some other current characters should be treated as emoji. Other features may change, such as the characters used as emoji modifier bases. Much of this depends on how emoji are handled by vendors, since developing customary usage is important in determining the Unicode recommendation and guidelines for interoperability.

Q: How should emoji be displayed?

A: While emoji symbols may be presented using color and animation (“emoji presentation”), they can also be presented as using a plain black & white “text presentation”. For guidelines on which characters should be displayed with an emoji presentation and how, see Presentation Style in UTR #51.

Q: Is there any way to control the emoji presentation?

A: Certain characters can be followed by a special character called a variation selector to request a particular appearance: U+FE0F for the emoji style (typically colored), and U+FE0E for the text style (black and white). For more information, see Presentation Style in UTR #51.

Q: What about characters whose names include WHITE or BLACK?

A: Names of symbols such as BLACK MEDIUM SQUARE or WHITE MEDIUM SQUARE are not meant to indicate that the corresponding character must be presented in black or white, respectively; rather, the use of “black” and “white” in the names is generally just to contrast filled versus outline shapes, or a darker color fill versus a lighter color fill. Similarly, in other symbols such as the hands U+261A BLACK LEFT POINTING INDEX and U+261C WHITE LEFT POINTING INDEX, the words “white” and “black” also refer to outlined versus filled, and do not indicate skin color.

Q: What about other colors in the name?

A: Other colors in names, such as BLUE HEART or ORANGE BOOK, are the recommended appearance when the characters are rendered in color. (The black and white images in the Unicode charts use various shading techniques as a stand-in for color.)

Q: What is the difference between emoji and dingbats?

A: Most of the characters in the Dingbats block are derived from a well-established set of glyphs, the ITC Zapf Dingbats series 100, which constitutes the industry standard “Zapf Dingbat” font currently available in most laser printers. Emoji and dingbats have some similarities (and a ​few ​characters in the Dingbats block​ are treated as emoji​). However, while there is often a great deal of flexibility in the range of glyph shapes that may be used for presentation of emoji, most characters in the Dingbats block are expected to be presented with glyph shapes that closely align with those shown in the Unicode Standard, when shown with a “text presentation​​”.

Q: Does the Unicode Consortium design the emoji used on my phone and elsewhere?

A: No. The Unicode Consortium provides character code charts that show a representative glyph (in a black-and-white text presentation), but the colorful emoji presentation on phones and computers is up to each vendor.

The Unicode Consortium is not a designer or purveyor of emoji images, nor is it the owner of any of the color images used in emoji documentation, nor does it negotiate licenses for their use. Inquiries for permission to use vendor images should be directed to those vendors, not to the Unicode Consortium. See Emoji Images and Rights.

Q: I’d like my favorite emoji added to my phone. Can the Unicode Consortium add it?

A: The Unicode Consortium does not make or sell fonts, images, or icons. For concerns about the emoji and flag symbols available in any particular application or mobile platform, please contact the manufacturer. Their software determines what characters are available on your device.

Q: How can I get the Unicode Consortium to add a Unicode emoji?

A: To submit a proposal for an emoji, see Submitting Emoji Character Proposals. That page also describes the process and timeline.

Q: Why is the process so long and complicated?

A: Unicode is the foundation for all modern software: that’s how all mobile phones, desktops, and other computers represent all text of every language. You are using Unicode every time you type a key on your phone or desktop computer, and every time you look at a web page or text in an application.

It is thus very important that the standard be stable, and that every character that goes into it be scrutinized carefully.

Q: Once the Unicode Consortium encodes an emoji character, when will it appear on my phone?

A: As part of normal software release cycles, platform vendors periodically make decisions about which Unicode characters to support in new versions of their software. Supporting new emoji characters involves additions to fonts, enhancements to emoji input methods (keyboards or palettes), and often updates to libraries that determine character properties and behavior (such as word selection or line breaking). Depending on release cycle length and timing relative to a Unicode release, it may take ​a year or so​ for new Unicode characters to appear on phones and other platforms.

Q: Are there any cases where it is faster than that?

A: Yes, in some cases vendors prepare ahead of time, and are able to release new emoji right around the same time as the Unicode release. Some vendors did this with some of the new emoji modifiers in Unicde 8.0, for example.

Q: Why can’t I find my national flag in my mobile application or on my smart phone?

A: For concerns about the emoji and flag symbols available in any particular application or mobile platform, please contact the manufacturer. Their software determines what characters are available on your device.

Q: But the Unicode Standard includes other flags, why don’t you include my flag?

A: The Unicode Standard encodes a set of regional indicator symbols. These can be used in pairs to represent any territory that has a Unicode region subtag as defined by CLDR, such as “DE” for Germany. The pairs are typically displayed as national flags: there are currently 257 such combinations. For more information, see Annex B: Flags in UTR #51.

Q: What is the longer term plan for emoji?

A: The Unicode Consortium encourages the use of embedded graphics (a.k.a. “stickers”) as a longer-term solution, since they allow much more freedom of expression. See Longer Term Solutions in UTR #51.

Q. Are emoji a new language?

A. Emoji aren’t really a “language”; they don’t have the grammar or vocabulary to substitute for written language. But in social media, people like to use them to add color and whimsy to their messages, and to help to make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

They also add a “useful ambiguity” to messages, allowing the writer to convey many different possible concepts at the same time. You can probably view them more like borrowings of foreign words rather than a language by themselves.

Q. But aren't emoji universal?

A. ​No, emoji are not necessarily "universal". ​The images represented by emoji ​​can have or develop very different overtones and usage depending on a user's language and culture. People can use combinations that refer to specific words in their language, such as a bombshell movie in English:

bombspiral shellmovie camera

People also use emoji for verbs or adjectives as well as nouns; when they do, they often follow the order used by their language. Some languages put verbs at the end, for example; others put adjectives after nouns.

Q. If I include an emoji character in a document, will someone accessing it 100 years from now be able to read it properly?

A. Let's consider the broader question of any character, not just emoji. Consider the "@". That character was already commonly included on typewriters manufactured in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. It was used for prices on shop signs or advertisements and for accounting: "tomatoes @ 12¢/lb" (tomatoes at 12 cents per pound) and so forth. Back in the 1960s, in the "ancient" history of computers, it was encoded in ASCII as the commercial at sign. Email had not really even been invented. This particular symbol got picked up for other uses, including marking identifiers in some programming languages. Today, the most common use is in email addresses: chris@example.com. That change in function could not have been anticipated, but such changes occur all the time for various symbols—including, of course, emoji symbols.

For the Unicode Consortium, the important thing about the stability of "@" is that in 1963 it was 0x40 COMMERCIAL AT in ASCII, and at present in the Unicode Standard it is U+0040 COMMERCIAL AT, as it will remain. Software still clearly identifies it as the same character today, some 50 years after its first use with computers. There is no reason to suppose that 50 years from now, U+0040 will not still be clearly interpretable in text data stores as the same thing, even if people invent additional uses for it.

Q. What keeps these characters stable?

A. When new characters are added to the Unicode Standard, they are added in a way that does not invalidate anything in the prior versions of the standard. This is called forward compatibility. Everyone developing any kind of computing system, from laptops to phones to some future quantum computing cyborg implant has very strong incentives to ensure that is the case. At this point, nearly 90% of all text data created and interchanged on the internet is already in Unicode (using the UTF-8 format: https://w3techs.com/technologies/details/en-utf8/all/all), and that percentage keeps growing. Even larger volumes of data are generated and maintained in servers and computers not directly visible on the internet. There are vast, growing quantities of such data. It would require a complete collapse of the information technology structure worldwide for all that stored information to suddenly become uninterpretable. The Unicode data is actually much more robust and stable than the particular hardware it might be stored on in any given decade.

Q. What about my emoji question?

A. Just like the commercial at sign, emoji can have and take on different meanings. For example, U+1F336 HOT PEPPER is a plant symbol that represents a food item commonly called a hot pepper or a chili pepper. It’s also frequently used as a menu symbol to indicate the degree of spiciness in menu items, like the stars used in movie reviews. It could take on another entirely different meaning in the future, but even if it does, it will remain stable as the encoded character U+1F336, with that same numeric value and with the "HOT PEPPER" name, so anybody could still look it up in the standard, and could interchange it accurately via whatever future version of software and hardware might be involved in exchanging textual data.

 


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