A Hidden International Language

25 11 2014

Into the universal realm of the Unicode, the symbols for a weightlifter, a spiderweb and the Mona Lisa have now been accepted. These are three of the more than 250 emoji considered significant enough that their computer encoding is being officially standardized for use by Apple, Google, Microsoft and others.

new_emojisThese three join hundreds of emoji facial expressions, hand gestures, food items, weather and plant elements, on and on, used to replace or augment words.The non-profit Unicode Consortium regulates embedded computer code for every character in every living language, and is “the foundation for all modern software” according to their official website (Unicode.org). Begun by Xerox and Apple leaders in 1987 as an “international/multilingual text character encoding system,” today Unicode sets officially recognized computer code standards in coordination with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Changing the standardized code for any symbol – even if that code accidentally includes a misspelling – is not possible once it is in use, because stability of past programming with present and future programming is Unicode’s fundamental reason for existence. However, adding symbols is an ongoing process: ancient scripts for example, or new currency symbols, and the ever-increasing number of popular emoji.

The formal petitioning process for the acceptance of new symbols is lengthy and complex. The first criterion is that new characters must be in widespread use as textual elements (for a glimpse of the most-used emoji, check out a real time tally of their Twitter use at emojitracker.com). When that is established, petitioners are asked to engage in discussion via Unicode forums and email exchanges to refine (or eliminate) their proposals.

Such discussions may well include cultural, political, and social concerns (see for example, “What about diversity?” at Unicode.org under FAQ), involving issues like the color of your symbol or its origins. One Unicode emoji petition argued: “Of the more than 800 emojis, the only two resembling people of color are a guy who looks vaguely Asian and another in a turban. There’s a white boy, girl, man, woman, elderly man, elderly woman, blond boy, blonde girl, and, we’re pretty sure, Princess Peach. But when it comes to faces outside of yellow smileys, there’s a staggering lack of minority representation.”

Juxtaposition of computer code standardization with a conversation including yellow smiley faces in a tally of racially diverse symbols seems impossibly odd. But this is, after all, the formative stage of a sort of international language, and human beings are incurably attached to the significance of their symbols.

The Unicode 7.0.0 symbols added this year and 8.0.0 symbols in the process of adaptation are described and listed at Unicode.org.
What do they mean to Americans? What do they mean to Swedes or Peruvians? How is the use of such symbols changing our conversations?

 

 J. McShulskis

 

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