Many people find new emojis an exciting way of communicating. Most words we use have an entirely arbitrary relationship with the external, ‘real’ world, and so does the way that we write them down. This is especially true in the case of alphabetic scripts. Some other writing systems, such as Chinese characters, preserve at least an echo of pictorial relationships between the symbol and the thing it represents. Emojis, by design, make a direct link between written communication and the ‘real’ world, by using (very conventionalized) pictures or icons. We also don’t necessarily substitute an English word for an emoji when we read a text that contains one.
So then how should we consider emojis collectively? Are they a ‘language’, albeit one that is only used in writing? You can send someone an entire message consisting of emojis. But you probably can’t use emojis by themselves as a self-contained way of communicating with people without sooner or later needing to resort to English or another language (or alternatively choosing to keep your communication very restricted in its content). In this way emojis differ from languages like English or more specialist languages like British Sign Language or American Sign Language, and this is why most linguists wouldn’t say that emojis constituted a language in the strict sense, even though it’s impressive how much content people can often manage to communicate using them.
However, people do use the word language metaphorically – as is the case when people talk about programming languages, body language, and the language of dance – to describe all sorts of codes and methods of communicating that don’t meet all of the criteria for a linguist’s definition of a language like English, and hence it’s not surprising that people also often refer to emojis as a ‘language’.
Learn more about why an emoji was picked as Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2015.