Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Hey guys! So, the iOS 9 update for iPhone came out today and finally (FINALLY) we were blessed with the new emojis we've been promised for what seems like an eternity. After years of struggling to truly identify with any one emoji character, the day has finally come. Ladies and gentleman, behold: the sassy eye-rolling emoji.

third row down, second from the left

Sassy eye-rolling emoji is not to be confused with the shifty eye emoji. Just saying. Also, middle finger emoji, 'nuff said.

But anyways.

What does this have to do with structuralism, you say? Well, a whole heck of a lot actually.

Structuralism, which goes hand in hand with semiotics, is a theory that examines the relationship between concepts/things and how they are represented through language. Emoji is arguably its own language, originating in Japan as a mode of expressing unique cultural ideas and symbols.

The emojis themselves are what we refer to as the signifier, or the word, image, or representation that is used to designate the signified. The signified is the object or idea that the signifier is referring to.

For example, this is an emoji of a tree. An evergreen, to be more specific. This treemoji (see what i did there?) is the signifier, a symbol that represents the living thing that supplies us humans with oxygen and on occasion something that we put in our house and decorate. That bauble covered, lit up tree in your living room being the signified.

The "arbitrary nature of the sign" is the famous phrase that defines structuralism, coined by Ferdinand De Saussure. The phrase basically boils down to this: the sign has no real relation to the signifier or the signified. This addresses the question that I'm sure many people (including myself) have pondered: How are there so many words to describe the same thing? 

When somebody looks at the tree emoji, they know what that image is referring to. (If you want to be technical, yes, perhaps not everyone on the planet is familiar with this specific kind of tree, but they at least have a general idea of what the image is supposed to represent.) However, two people can look at the same tree emoji and exclaim either, "Arbre!" or "Arbol!" This goes back to Saussure's claim that the nature of the sign is arbitrary, as signifiers and the signifieds are not consistent across all languages.

Since we are on the topic of different languages, let's backtrack for a second and remember that the origin of emoji can be traced back to Japan. A country where they speak Japanese  and the culture is radically different than say the United States, where emoji are extremely popular. As anyone who uses emoji has probably realized by now, there are quite a few characters that the typical American isn't able to identify. Because the relationship between the signifier (the emoji character itself) and the signified (whatever that character is supposed to be representing) is unknown in this circumstance, the emoji takes on a life of its own, as determined by the user.

In an era that is driven and defined by technology and communication, language evolves quicker than ever. Emoji has become like a second language to those who communicate virtually, but this shift to a non-verbal way of conveying emotion and information is still very much consistent in the way it interacts with structural concepts.

until next time,


  1. Tweeting this one out. Right. Now.

  2. I strongly agree with you that the interpretation of signs and codes depends upon the social and cultural knowledge of individual users.


  3. Great analysis! I'll totally compromise my cred as a graphic designer and say I knew this was coming, blanked that it had actually occurred, and may or may not have spent the last ten minutes sending everyone I know tacos, champagne, and unicorns because...who doesn't need that as a visual to head into Monday?

    While I get the emoji connection to structuralism and semiotics I'm curious what you think about how literacy developments in this arena. Are people picking up appropriate decoding clues by the message that are sent to them thus then go on to use emojis in the same manner? Or does effective emoji usage first require some sort of written word scaffolding before it becomes significant? You mentioned that emojis take on a life of their own when they have a lack of context, would an emoji with some sort of significance would translate into a physical item having equal significance? For example, I habitually send baby farm animal emojis to a friend on Twitter...does this action make me think of her when I see baby farm animals in person? I don't know that it did until I typed this sentence but...who knows now!

    The fluid nature of language is pretty dazzling!

  4. Pictures can indeed still be structuralist... great point! I wonder about the non-faced emoji and their uptake in the U.S.... I know that not many of my acquaintances in the U.S. would even know how to begin understanding what is meant by treemoji, when it stands on its own and without other context clues surrounding it. Can context provide structure?

  5. Hi Shannon,
    This is a very interesting post and a much more creative way to think about structuralism. It was brilliant how you connected the use of emojis as a way of being a signifier representing a signified.
    I really liked your post!


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