There is no arguing the internet has made the world a smaller place, but it is also shaping the language we speak. In fact, the future of languages may have far more in common with the writing styles of the past than how we write today.

Emojis look to be the future of language if Twitter is anything to go on at least. The word emoji, which means pictograph, is made up of the Japanese terms for drawing and letter – ‘e’ and ‘moji’. If it’s a word you’ve not heard before – you will soon.

Emoji on Twitter

Matthew Rothenberg is the former head of products at Flickr and bitly. Together with Rocket Workshop he has created Emojitracker, which tracks the use of emojis on Twitter in real time. At the time of publication (Midday BST on July 31st 2013), the most popular icon was a pink heart on a white background, followed by a face crying with laughter, a smiling and blushing icon, a red heart and a sad face.

If nothing else, Emojitracker provides a clear insight into just how international the internet has become. It is a point picked up by Lauren Hockenson, writing for GigaOM, who notes that emoji was once a “Japanese phenomenon”, but has now spread across the planet. Indeed, that might be why the term ’emoji’ could soon replace ‘pictograph’.

In January, Twitter revealed that 200 million Twitter users worldwide use the social networking site to connect with each other every month. “Throughout the last year, it’s been humbling to see how Twitter has transformed into the global town square – the place where people around the globe go to find out what’s happening right now,” vice-president of international operations Shailesh Rao said.

The majority of Twitter accounts are held outside the US, which means its user base is truly international in scope. With all those different languages, writing scripts and dialects being used, emoji is the one common form of communication everyone can understand. In fact, this may also explain the rising popularity of photo sharing sites, such as Instagram and Flickr. As the well-known saying goes, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’. Thanks to emoji, even if a Tweet or status is written in an unfamiliar language or even an unfamiliar script, any reader can understand the basic tone.

Back to the future

With the rise in popularity of emojis, is written language regressing? After all, the oldest forms of writing were based around pictographs. The earliest marks left by mankind – pictures etched on cave walls – used images to represent what we would now use written words to describe, such as a group of men hunting. Much later, the ancient Egyptians created hieroglyphs; a writing system built around picture-style images.

However, hieroglyphs were not nearly as easy to read as emoji. In fact, it took the discovery of the Rosetta Stone at the end of the 18th century to enable historians to translate this ancient writing. Because emoji is based on things like facial expressions, emotions, animals and hand gestures, it is unlikely it will ever need translating – even thousands of years from now.

An international language

While different emojis are easy to identify, the Emojitracker reveals that they are used in a huge variety of contexts. For instance, the traditional hand gesture for ‘OK’, where the first two fingers are pressed on to the thumb to make a circle, was the seventh most-used emoji at the time of writing and typically appeared to reaffirm the positive nature of a tweet. Could this mean that the meaning of the gesture alters in countries where it does not mean ‘OK’? As Language Insight’s Brazilian Portuguese translator Paula recently noted, in Brazil this same hand gesture means “up yours”. Might this change as a result of emoji?

When it comes to knocking down language barriers, pictographs are arguably the easiest way to do it. It doesn’t matter what a person’s mother tongue is, everyone understands what the symbol for men’s or women’s toilets means. In the same way, emojis are a truly international language.

However, as the use of pictographs increases, the need to learn a foreign language declines. People know that in a single tweet they can communicate with readers all over the world no matter what their mother tongue is. When they have this ability, why would they bother to learn a new language? Indeed, if new emojis are created, social media users could one day have a whole dictionary of images at their disposal to allow them to express themselves.

Yet Telegraph writer Anne Merritt does not see a reason to worry about the future of language in its written form. Writing for the newspaper in April, she noted: “When it comes to communicating with other people though, for work or pleasure, [pictographs] can’t replace the old-fashioned skill of knowing a foreign language.” It seems people will continue to need translation services for some time to come.