In the age of digital media, emojis have become commonplace as supplements for standard text, and their use has exploded since their conception. Whether coinciding with or replacing texting lingo such as LOL, the visual aspect that sets emojis apart from script is part of their popularity. Emojis allow for emotion and other cues used during face-to-face interaction to be imbued into text-based conversation. With the focus on pictures in emojis, there have been claims they are the modern incarnation of Egyptian hieroglyphics. A current exhibit in the Israel Museum entitled “Emoglyphs” attempts to display a link between hieroglyphics and emojis. However, emojis are not exact recreations of hieroglyphics for the modern world. “Emoglyphs” is an example of how some people are connecting the two communication systems, but emojis and Egyptian hieroglyphics may not have the straightforward connection that the exhibit and others argue to exist. Taking cultural variation in emoji usage into account, the relationship between the ancient and modern pictographic systems becomes murky.
Egyptian hieroglyphics emerged approximately 5,000 years ago and became the dominant written language in ancient Egypt. More than 700 hieroglyphs were in usage, some representing sounds and other purely grammatical functions. These symbols were inscribed on temple walls and used as decoration for objects utilized in daily life. But hieroglyphics did not forever stand alone as the only writing system used by the ancient Egyptians. Other scripts — Demotic, Coptic and Ancient Greek — were common near the end of ancient Egyptian civilization. The last known hieroglyphic inscription is dated to the 5th century C.E. when the writing system fell out of use. The thousands of years of Egyptian writing are not a story of just hieroglyphs but a myriad of scripts that facilitated communication throughout the civilization.
The history of emojis is not measured in millennia but in decades. Emerging from Japan, the first emojis were put into use during the late 1990s and they became immensely popular among the Japanese. This led to an increased interest from international communication companies in incorporating emojis into their platform. By 2010, Unicode — a group whose purpose is to establish text standardization across digital platforms — adopted and expanded emojis. Ever since then, emoji use has increased with new users, and new emojis are born on the regular.
What the Israel Museum’s “Emoglyphs” exhibition is attempting is a definitive linkage between these two histories. The exhibit is described as presenting “the metamorphosis of picture-writing” from ancient Egypt to today — from hieroglyphics to emojis. The walls of the exhibit include side-by-sides of emojis and Egyptian hieroglyphics that resemble one another. The stress on the similarity is in terms of the visual aspects of the characters. And while this is useful to convey the connection of modern and ancient writing systems, relying on just the image of the symbols is not enough to draw an intimate relationship between the two. To claim emojis as modern hieroglyphics based on evidence of visual similarity is not enough. What needs to be evinced is the similarities in how the two writing systems are used.
The debate over whether there’s a concrete evolution from hieroglyphics to emojis rests on one question: Are emojis pictograms or ideograms? Ideograms are symbols that represent things or ideas. They are used in abstract manners as well as literal. Pictograms are more literal, representing objects and ideas as they appear in reality. For example, a common ideographic symbol is the no-smoking symbol of a lit cigarette inside a red circle with a line aslant. This shows the concept of not smoking abstractly. A pictogram for the same use would be a person being ticketed for smoking. Hieroglyphics are a mixture of ideograms, not restricted to literal senses, and logograms, which are symbols with a phonetic component. So, the question for emojis now becomes whether emojis are literal or abstract. And, if they are literal, then we can draw a clear distinction between how hieroglyphics and emojis communicate ideas.
In interactional usage, emojis have the ability to be pictographic or ideographic with the determining factor for how an emoji is used often being generational. Younger generations use emojis in more abstract ways when compared to their older counterparts, whose emoji usage is more literal. Emojipedia, an online emoji encyclopedia, confirms this through analysis of TikTok comments. Trends show that emojis from TikTok commenters, who tend to be younger in age, are typically employed conceptually rather than concretely. This is more in line with ideographic writing, whereas literal emoji use by older generations fits a pictographic description. This complicates the image of hieroglyphics and emojis being ancient and contemporary incarnations of the same communication system. Emojis in interaction hold the potential of being ideographic and pictographic. The difference comes down to who is typing the emoji characters.
It is incorrect to assume emojis descend from hieroglyphics based purely on the visual similarities of the two systems. How the systems are applied in communication is what should be looked at to argue such claims — but even that does not provide a unified answer. Due to generational differences in use, emojis have qualities of both pictographic and ideographic systems. All of them have completely coherent interpretations in both a literal and an abstract sense. It all depends on the person communicating with them. Will emojis evolve to become completely ideographic as younger generations’ abstract emoji usage increases? It’s too early to tell. What can be said is that the relationship between the ancient writing system of the Egyptians and our texting characters is not a cut-and-dried situation.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.