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Emoji aren't ruining language: they’re a natural substitute for gesture

By Lauren Gawne, David Myers Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Gestures and emoji don’t break down into smaller parts, nor do they easily combine into larger words or sentences. Shutterstock

We’re much more likely to be hanging out on social media than at the watercooler these days. But just because we’re no longer face-to-face when we chat, doesn’t mean our communication is completely disembodied.

Over the last three decades, psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists, along with researchers from other traditions, have come together to understand how people gesture, and the relationship between gesture and speech.

The field of gesture studies has demonstrated that there are several different categories of gesture, and each of them has a different relationship to the words that we say them with. In a paper I co-authored with my colleague Gretchen McCulloch, we demonstrate that the same is true of emoji. The way we use emoji in our digital messages is similar to the way we use gestures when we talk.




Read more:
What your emojis say about you


What gestures and emoji have in common

We can break speech down into its component parts: sentences are made of words, words are made of morphemes, and morphemes are made of sounds.

Signed languages have the same features of grammar as spoken languages, but with hand shapes instead of sounds. They have some advantages in complex expressions that spoken languages don’t have, but there are gestures as well as grammatical features when people sign.

By contrast, gestures and emoji don’t break down into smaller parts. Nor do they easily combine into larger words or sentences (unless we’re using a clunky version of the grammar of our language).

While there are preferences, there is nothing “grammatical” about using


Originally published in The Conversation.