How do we use emoji?

Those of you who know me may know that I’m a big fan of emoji. I’m also a big fan of linguistics and NLP, so, naturally, I’m very curious about the linguistic roles of emoji. Since I figured some of you might also be curious, I’ve pulled together a discussion of some of the very serious scholarly research on emoji. In particular, I’m going to talk about five recent papers that explore the exact linguistic nature of these symbols: what are they and how do we use them?

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Emoji are more than just cute pictures! They play a set of very specific linguistic roles.

Dürscheid & Siever, 2017:

This paper makes one overarching point: emoji are not words. They cannot be unambiguously interpreted without supporting text and they do not have clear syntactic relationships to one another. Rather, the authors consider emoji to be specialized characters, and place them within Gallmann’s 1985 hierarchy of graphical signs. The authors show that emoji can play a range of roles within the Gallmann’s functional classification.

  • Allography: using emoji to replace specific characters (for example: the word “emoji” written as “em😝ji”)
  • Ideograms: using emoji to replace a specific word (example: “I’m travelling by 🚘” to mean “I’m travelling by car”)
  • Border and Sentence Intention signals: using emoji both to clarify the tone of the preceding sentence and also to show that the sentence is over, often replacing the final punctuation marks.

Based on an analysis of a Swiss German Whatsapp corpus, the authors conclude that the final category is far and away the most popular, and that emoji rarely replace any part of the lexical parts of a message.

Na’aman et al, 2017:

Na’aman and co-authors also develop a hierarchy of emoji usage, with three top-level categories: Function, Content (both of which would fall under mostly under the ideogram category in Dürscheid & Siever’s classifications) and Multimodal.

  • Function: Emoji replacing function words, including prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, determinatives and punctuation. An example of this category would be “I like 🍩 you”, to be read as “I do not like you”.
  • Content: Emoji replacing content words and phrases, including nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. An example of this would be “The 🔑 to success”, to be read as “the key to success”.
  • Multimodal: These emoji “enrich a grammatically-complete text with markers of
    affect or stance”. These would fall under the category of border signals in Dürscheid & Siever’s framework, but Na’aman et all further divide these into four categories: attitude, topic, gesture and other.

Based on analysis of a Twitter corpus made of up of only tweets containing emoji, the authors find that multimodal emoji encoding attitude are far and away the most common, making up over 50% of the emoji spans in their corpus. The next most common uses of emoji are to multimodal:topic and multimodal:gesture. Together, these three categories account for close to 90% of the all the emoji use in the corpus, corroborating the findings of Dürscheid & Siever.

Wood & Ruder, 2016:

Wood and Ruder provide further evidence that emoji are used to express emotion (or “attitude”, in Na’aman et al’s terms). They found a strong correlation between the presence of emoji that they had previously determined were associated with a particular emotion, like 😂 for joy or 😭 for sadness, and human annotations of the emotion expressed in those tweets. In addition, an emotion classifier using only emoji as input performed similarly to one trained using n-grams excluding emoji. This provides evidence that there is an established relationship between specific emoji use and expressing emotion.

Donato & Paggio, 2017:

However, the relationship between text and emoji may not always be so close. Donato & Paggio collected a corpus of tweets which contained at least one emoji and that were hand-annotated for whether the emoji was redundant given the text of the tweet.  For example, “We’ll always have Beer. I’ll see to it. I got your back on that one. 🍺” would be redundant, while “Hopin for the best 🎓” would not be, since the beer emoji expresses content already expressed in the tweet, while the motorboard adds new information (that the person is hoping to graduate, perhaps). The majority of emoji, close to 60%, were found not to be redundant and added new information to the tweet.

However, the corpus was intentionally balanced between ten topic areas, of which only one was feelings, and as a result the majority of feeling-related tweets were excluded from analysis. Based on this analysis and Wood and Ruder’s work, we might hypothesize that feelings-related emoji may be more redundant than other emoji from other semantic categories.

Barbieri et al, 2017:

Additional evidence for the idea that emoji, especially those that show emotion, are predictable given the text surrounding them comes from Barbieri et al. In their task, they removed the emoji from a thousand tweets that contained one of the following five emoji: 😂, ❤️, 😍, 💯 or 🔥. These emoji were selected since they were the most common in the larger dataset of half a million tweets. Then then asked human crowd workers to fill in the missing emoji given the text of the tweet, and trained a character-level bidirectional LSTM to do the same task. Both humans and the LSTM performed well over chance, with an F1 score of 0.50 for the humans and 0.65 for the LSTM.

So that was a lot of papers and results I just threw at you. What’s the big picture? There are two main points I want you to take away from this post:

  • People mostly use emoji to express emotion. You’ll see people playing around more than that, sure, but by far the most common use is to make sure people know what emotion you’re expressing with a specific message.
  • Emoji, particularly emoji that are used to represent emotions, are predictable given the text of the message. It’s pretty rare for us to actually use emoji to introduce new information, and we generally only do that when we’re using emoji that have a specific, transparent meaning.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are all the papers I mentioned in this post:


Barbieri, F., Ballesteros, M., & Saggion, H. (2017). Are Emojis Predictable? EACL.

Donato, G., & Paggio, P. (2017). Investigating Redundancy in Emoji Use: Study on a Twitter Based Corpus. In Proceedings of the 8th Workshop on Computational Approaches to Subjectivity, Sentiment and Social Media Analysis (pp. 118-126).

Dürscheid, C., & Siever, C. M. (2017). Beyond the Alphabet–Communication of Emojis. Kurzfassung eines (auf Deutsch) zur Publikation eingereichten Manuskripts.

Gallmann, P. (1985). Graphische Elemente der geschriebenen Sprache. Grundlagen für eine Reform der Orthographie. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Na’aman, N., Provenza, H., & Montoya, O. (2017). Varying Linguistic Purposes of Emoji in (Twitter) Context. In Proceedings of ACL 2017, Student Research Workshop (pp. 136-141).

Wood, I. & Ruder, S. (2016). Emoji as Emotion Tags for Tweets. Sánchez-Rada, J. F., & Schuller, B (Eds.). In Proceedings of LREC 2016, Workshop on Emotion and Sentiment Analysis (pp. 76-80).


2 thoughts on “How do we use emoji?

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