Emoji is the fastest growing language in the world. But it’s not as evocative as it seems at first glance. Many of the icons can be used for more than one word or idea, homogenizing creative writing.

In case you can’t read the sentence in the image below, I’ll translate it for you: “I love the snows of Antarctica and the glaciers of Greenland. And so, my adventures in ice began.”

I wrote that statement with the help of an online emoji translator. Emojis are defined as “any of various small icons, images or symbols used in text fields in electronic communication to express the emotional attitude of the writer, convey information succinctly or communicate a message playfully without using words.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the function of emojis is to add subtle emotional emphasis to a sentence in text. Emojis are similar to emoticons, the frowny and smiley faces [such as :-)] that people have been making out of punctuation—or keyboard characters—since the mid-1990s.

What’s so surprising to me is that emoji is now the world’s fastest-growing language. And these fun, little icons are changing the landscape of 21st-century linguistics—perhaps, even, how we’ll soon be writing about landscapes themselves.

And that’s not as far-fetched as you might at first believe.

Adventure-travel books, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” about climbing Mount Everest, brought places to life with location descriptions that were as integral to the story as any human characters. ©Goran Hoglund (Kartlasarn), flickr

A new language for a new age?

In recent decades, adventure and travel writing has often been of the literary variety: articles such as those you see in Outside magazine, for example, or in the books of writers such as Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Jon Krakauer or Peter Matthiessen. These authors, by skilled crafting of their words, are able to bring a place to life and make a destination as much of a character in their tales as any human protagonist.

So, what will happen when authors who follow them inevitably turn to the language of emoji?

Emoji has come a long way since 1999 when Japanese telecom employee Shigetaka Kurita and his team created 176 icons to be used on mobile phones and pagers. The 12-by-12-pixel images quickly caught on in Japan; and by 2010, they had become an indispensable part of global communication. In that year, Unicode and ISO/IEC 10646, which together form the standard for correct encoding and representation of text across operating systems, incorporated hundreds of emojis, which meant that the illustrations would be displayed on every compliant device. Today, the number of icons has grown to 1,800.


In 1999, there were 176 icons for use on mobile phones and pagers. By 2017, there were 1,800.

Last year, the first person in the world with the title of emoji translator was hired. An author recently transcribed Lewis Carroll’s 1865 adventure book Alice in Wonderland into emoji, and there are hundreds of articles online that will advise you on how to describe your travel experiences in emojis. Because the pictograms look the same in China as they do in Connecticut, emoji is on track to be the language for the Internet Age.

Do emojis express emotions—or expunge them?

There are downsides to writing using emojis, however. Some images connote more than one thing, such as the snowflake pictures employed for the word snows as well as ice in my example above.

Another drawback is more sinister: emojis may be interfering with our cognitive skills. Some high school teachers have noticed that students are relying on emojis when writing assignments. At an age when they are just learning to express complex ideas in writing, using emojis, say the educators, takes away from their developing an ability to articulate nuanced emotions.


Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer National Park holds more than 15,000 prehistoric cave drawings that record the animal migrations, climatic changes and evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 6000 B.C.

Still, there’s no doubt that using emojis can help people get a better idea of each other’s personality. Used as an adjunct to text—especially in social media—they help to make up for the lack of facial expressions, gestures and intonations found in speech when we’re not communicating face-to-face. Some people say that emojis help emphasize what they are saying and better convey the right feeling in a way that text can’t. Text alone, in the Internet Age, can sometimes seem angry or snarky when you can’t see a person’s face in order to get a “read” on what he or she truly intended to say.

When you think about it, emojis in travel and adventure writing really aren’t all that new. Some of humankind’s first stories of adventure were “written” on cave walls using images and icons that were widely recognized. Egyptian hieroglyphs also bear a similar appearance to emojis.

I have to admit that I’m one who believes that the written word, even in its purest and simplest forms, has the power to take us to some unexpected places, both within ourselves and “out there.” But, perhaps, this new language of pictures is just bringing us back around full circle to how we told stories in the beginning. I do hope, though, that it can make us feel the same things that our words have for so many years.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,