If you could find out what words people around the world use most often in their text messages to each other, or learn which emoji are used most frequently in different countries and by speakers of different languages, which would you choose?
If you’d pick the latter, you’re in luck. SwiftKey, maker of a popular keyboard app for iPhone, iPad, and Android, analyzed more than a billion emoji used by speakers of 16 languages around the world. SwiftKey’s “first emoji report” assesses how people use emoji in an attempt to discover what their emoji usage says about them.
While the report doesn’t offer any deep sociological insights into what a country’s favorite emoji says about its language or culture, it does expose some trends in how speakers of different languages use a wide array of icons to spice up their text messages.
The report drew on data that was collected by the SwiftKey Cloud database between October 2014 and January 2015 from both Android and iOS devices. The report notes that the database is used to “identify aggregate, anonymized trends about how people use words — and emoji.” Because there are more than 800 emoji, the frequency at which any individual emoji is used is often small.
But SwiftKey found that around the world, traditional emoji faces are the most frequently used. “Happy faces” and “sad faces” represent the top two categories, at 45% and 14%, respectively, of all emoji used. “Hearts,” “hand gestures,” and “romantic” emoji round out the top five, at 12.5%, 5.3%, and 2.4%, respectively.
The most emoji-savvy language — the one with the biggest emoji vocabulary — is Malaysian, in which the top 10 emoji make up 37% of all emoji used. The least emoji-savvy language is Turkish, in which the top 10 emoji represent 57% of all emoji used. Emoji users in all languages use more positive emoji than negative, at 70% positive and 15% negative.
French emoji users are the most positive, at 86%; Malaysian users are the least positive, at 60%; Spanish speakers in the U.S. are the most negative, at 22%; and French users are the least negative, at 7%.
SwiftKey’s report is full of facts about the emoji that people who live in different countries and speak different languages use most frequently. Here are a few insights into the favorite emojis of speakers of different languages around the world:
- American English speakers use LGBT emoji 30% more than the average: 0.13% of emojis sent in the United States were one of either a rainbow, men holding hands, or women holding hands. The U.S. also uses 50% more tech emoji than average and nearly double the average number of meat emoji.
- Arabic speakers use flowers and plants emoji at more than four times the average rate. The sprout is the most popular plant emoji, at nine times the average use, followed by the palm tree, at 4.6 times the average use. Arabic speakers also use two-thirds more sun and hot weather emoji than other languages.
- Australian English speakers use drug-associated emoji 65% more than average, alcohol-themed emoji at double the average rate, and junk food emoji twice as much as other users.
- Brazilian users sent emoji associated with western religions, such as the prayer hands, church, and star in night sky at more than double the average rate, with the category accounting for 1.1% of all emojis sent.
- Canadian English speakers are the most violent in their emoji use, sending the gun, knife, punching fist, fire explosion, skull, and bomb at a rate 50% higher than average. Canadians also use twice as many “raunchy humor” emoji, like the banana, raised fist, peach, and eggplant.
- French speakers use the heart emoji more than four times as often as the average user, and more than three times as often as speakers of the next most “heart-y” language.
- Malaysians use sleep emoji at more than twice the average rate and use funny emoji, like farts and poop, at nearly double the average rate.
- Russian speakers use romantic emoji, like the kiss mark, love letter, and couple kissing, three times as much as the average and nearly twice as much as any other language, with 7% of all emoji sent by Russian users falling in to the romantic category.
- Spanish speakers in Spain use the party time emoji 72% more often than the average.
While you might think that emoji are a thoroughly smartphone era phenomenon, the technical standards and the designs behind the symbols that we text to our friends have a decades-long history.
Computers in the 1960s represented keyboard characters with a 7-bit code under a system called ASCII, which has 128 possible sequences of seven zeroes and ones — enough to handle English, but not many of the world’s other languages. Unicode was introduced in 1988 with 16-bit characters and became the industry standard. (Though Unicode originally didn’t include emoji, later versions integrated emoji and other character sets.)
In 1992, with the Windows 3.1 release, Microsoft included the Wingdings font, which served as a precursor to modern emoji. In 1999, Japanese mobile carrier NTT Docomo introduced the first true emoji with i-mode, the first major mobile Internet platform.
Behind the feature was Shigetaka Kurita, an employee who created a set of 176 12-pixel-by-12-pixel characters intended to cover the breadth of human emoji, as Jeff Blagdon reported for The Verge two years ago. The idea took off, and a variety of divergent character sets proliferated on different platforms until Unicode adopted emoji in 2010.
Apple’s iOS supported emoji early on, but to include the characters in their texts or emails, users had to activate an alternative Japanese keyboard in their iPhone’s settings, switch to that keyboard, and then add the characters. Emoji made their real international debut in 2011, when Apple’s iOS 5 introduced an easier way for users to enable and use the characters on their phones.
Emoji are now spread throughout Unicode’s blocks of numeric codes. In July, the Unicode 7.0 update added 250 new emoji. The Unicode 8.0 update, which will be released sometime in 2015, will include emoji with a diversity of skin tones. Mashable reports that Apple based the range of skin tones for emoji now available in iOS and OS X on the standards that the Unicode Consortium has proposed for Unicode 8.0.
Kurita, who’s now considered the “father of emoji,” told The Verge that he was similarly curious about the symbols used by people from different cultures — something that SwiftKey’s data is just beginning to let us learn.
“I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance. I think the heart symbol is probably used the same way by everyone, but then there are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand,” he told the publication. “It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.”