One linguist's frustrations with emoji point to greater strife within the organization responsible for coding the tiny cartoon characters.
The Unicode Consortium sets standards for translating alphabets into uniform code for all computers and operating systems. It's also the group behind emoji, which have come to represent a range of emotions expressed via digital communications.
As of late, Unicode has become recognized more for its emoji development. While that has gained some high-profile press for Unicode, some fear that emoji mania has eclipsed the group's larger mission of making obscure languages such as Vedic Sanskrit or Babylonian cuneiform more accessible.
Unicode contributor and typographer Michael Everson is one of those people.
In emails obtained by BuzzFeed, Everson and other Unicode members complained about the public obsession with emoji following a mention of Unicode and emoji on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
"It's delightful that everyone is so happy about Mr. Colbert, but I can tell you that many people are thinking that the UTC has lost the plot," Everson wrote. "Emoji, emoji, emoji. It's all about emoji."
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Others shared similar sentiments.
"I've only really seen one or two emails that actually sparked any meaningful discussion on Unicode while the rest have either been barrages of announcements … or end up being 'Oh look, people talk about emoji!,' 'Should Father Christmas's beard be the same color as his hair?" a member associated with the consortium wrote.
Everson's gripe is personal. He argues that Unicode has failed to take significant action on a medieval punctuation proposal that he brought before the committee in 2007. While Everson continues to push for his proposal, Unicode has accepted 79 new emoji proposals for its next release, including characters such as "drooling face," "selfie," and "wilted flower."
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Everson says he doesn't have anything against emoji. In fact, he is responsible for the middle finger and "Live long and prosper" characters. He just wants more of an emphasis on Unicode's more scholarly efforts.
"Obviously a burrito emoji will be more in use than medieval punctuation, but, on the other hand, the universal character set is for the translation and representation of texts—not for cartoons," Everson says.
Typographer John Hudson believes that emoji are getting so much attention simply because they are an easier and more interesting point of discussion. However, he acknowledges that so much talk about emoji may be difficult to bear for linguists with more pressing priorities.
"These historic language proposals are complicated—there's lots we don't know and the process takes a long time, while things like the bacon emoji are moving briskly through committee," he says. "I can certainly see how that's frustrating for the script workers who are being asked to constantly revise proposals."
Unicode President Mark Davis believes that the focus on Unicode's work with emoji has actually brought attention to other causes, such as the group's Adopt a Character program.
"We're devoting the funds raised from the program to help flesh out support for digitally disadvantaged languages," Davis says, "and it's proved to be successful largely because of emoji" (Warzel, BuzzFeed News, 4/26; Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/22).
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