[Colloquium] Researching the Syntax of Emoji Sequences on Sina Weibo

Susan C. Herring, Indiana University, Bloomington

with Jing Ge-Stadnyk, University of California, Berkeley


The linguistic study of emoji is a new area where established research methods are lacking. This research analyzes the syntactic properties of sequences of non-identical emoji, treating the sequences like sentences. There is debate about whether or not emoji are a “language” (e.g., Cohn et al., 2019; Gawne & McCulloch, 2019). Syntax is an essential component of language; thus we applied syntactic categories and constructs from verbal language to emoji sequences to see how well they fit and what patterns (if any) they would reveal. Our data were emoji sequences in posts by celebrities and their followers on the Chinese microblogging platform Sina Weibo. We discovered that although the emoji sequences lack many grammatical features, indicating that they are not yet a full language, there is suggestive evidence of “syntacticizing” patterns, similar to those reported for Pidgin and Creole languages (Givón, 1979).