Monday, August 17, 2009

Japanese/Chinese emoticons are totally inscrutable

You are probably wondering right now what the heck a picture of an obscure Star Wars character named Ponda Baba, who got his arm cut off by Obi-Wan in the beginning of Episode IV,is doing accompanying this post.

Well, as far as I can tell, there's a Japanese emoticon in which I can see nothing but our dearly disarmed Mr. Baba:
Japanese people apparently see happiness in this emoticon (1st column, 7th from the top), but I don't know what's happy about losing an arm.

And wait until you see what chaos emoticons bring us after the jump.

Japanese emoticons (and Chinese emoticons as well, although the examples here are all from Japanese) are a great deal more complicated than what we've got in the West. Perhaps they're just used to complex characters in the form of kanji (I'd be curious to find out whether Korean emoticons are as inscrutable), or maybe they're somehow connected to anime-like facial expressions, but they certainly do have a lot more complexity to them. For instance, we all know the winking emoticon:
; )
Our two-character wink is totally zen compared to one of the simpler Japanese versions:
At least I can easily tell what that one is. Take a look at this page to see some emoticons for which you'll have no idea what they mean, or take this example from a website profile of a friend of mine:
OK, let's try to analyze that one. The upside-down A is, I presume, the smiling mouth. Those two little dots next to it on either side must be eyes. I'm not sure what that thing next to the eye on the left would be, but the parentheses are the sides of the head. The slashes—ears, or arms? After that, I'm totally lost. I presume the hearts are just tossed in there for the cuteness effect, but I have no idea what the plus sign and everything around that are supposed to be. And this is hardly the worst of them.

Emoticons remain a neglected facet of language learning, and indeed I'm guilty as charged as I've long ignored them myself. The thing is that I run into these enough that I feel like I should at least know the basic ones, although I can probably get by without knowing this:


  1. Speaking of the differences between Western and Japanese emoticons, there was a recent psychology paper that showed that Japanese were more likely to focus on the eyes in determining what expression (happy, sad, etc) was on a face, while Westerners took the mouth into account as well. They also noted that Japanese emoticons tend to be all about the eyes, with the mouth often represented as a flat _, and theorised that it might be related to the way Japanese read faces.

  2. That's a fascinating article, and makes a lot of sense. After reading that article, it would seem that my speculation about anime faces wouldn't be the cause of the way emoticons look, but would share a common cause with it due to the Asian focus on the eyes. Very interesting.

  3. I think it's a bit of a leap to say that scrotee there has anything resembling happiness reflecting in his dewy-eyed disposition. Unless of course he is brimming with joy that his arm is the only appendage he will lose in the scuffle. But judging by the misplacement of his other genitals, who knows what was really lopped off by the aging Jedi mohel. Did you know after the fall of Sauron, arborists became the most feared professionals among the Ents of Middle-Earth for exactly this reason. One too many Treebeards got his trunk short changed into a stump when they just wanted a handsome trim. I for one am not surprised. These sort of accidents eventually happen when you pay a person to wield a chainsaw in a fantasy environment. It gets to the point where artists such as Lucas and Tolkien can no longer create imaginative characters that wear sexual reproductive organs as facial hair anymore without running the risk of having another character come along and swipe off the glory. Science Fiction in the 21st century is in a sad state of disarray.

  4. Here's a related journal article in Current Biology: Cultural Confusions Show that Facial Expressions Are Not Universal..