English Journal Article

The “Face with Tears of Joy” Emoji. A Socio-Semiotic and Multimodal Insight into a Japan-America Mash-Up

Hermes |


The blog site of the Oxford Dictionaries features a post dated November 16 2015, which announces that, “for the first time ever”, their “Word of the Year” is not a word, but a pictograph: the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. The term emoji, which is a loanword from Japanese, identifies “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication” (OED 2015). The sign was chosen since it is the item that “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”. Indeed, the Oxford Dictionaries’ President, Caspar Grathwohl declared that emojis are “an increasingly rich form of communication that transcends linguistic borders” and reflects the “playfulness and intimacy” of global digital culture.

Adopting a socio-semiotic multimodal approach, the present paper aims at decoding the many semantic and semiotic layers of the 2015 “Word of the Year”, with a special focus on the context of cultures out of which it originates. More in detail, the author will focus on the concept of translation as “transduction”, that is the movement of meaning across sign systems (Kress 1997), in order to map the history of this ‘pictographic word’ from language to language, from culture to culture, from niche discursive communities to the global scenario. Indeed, the author maintains that this ‘pictographic word’ is to be seen as a marker of the mashing up of Japanese and American cultures in the discursive practices of geek communities, now gone mainstream thanks to the spreading of digital discourse.