Unicode 8.0: More languages, more emoji

Emoji in various skin colorsEncoding all the characters of all the world’s languages is an endless task. Unicode 8.0 improves the treatment of Cherokee, Tai Lue, Devangari, and more. For a lot of people, the most interesting part will be the implementation of “diverse” emoji in a variety of colors. A Unicode Consortium report explains:

People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone. The Unicode emoji characters for people and body parts are meant to be generic, yet following the precedents set by the original Japanese carrier images, they are often shown with a light skin tone instead of a more generic (nonhuman) appearance, such as a yellow/orange color or a silhouette.

Five symbol modifier characters that provide for a range of skin tones for human emoji are planned for Unicode Version 8.0 (scheduled for mid-2015). These characters are based on the six tones of the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognized standard for dermatology (there are many examples of this scale online, such as FitzpatrickSkinType.pdf). The exact shades may vary between implementations.

… When a human emoji is not immediately followed by a emoji modifier character, it should use a generic, non-realistic skin tone.

“Emoji” is a Japanese term meaning “picture characters.” The word sounds a bit like the “emoticons” of Roman-alphabet countries, but that’s a lucky linguistic coincidence or bilingual pun. Another word for them is “kaomoji,” or “face characters.” Emoji portray a lot more than emotions. The Japanese use them heavily, especially on cell phone messages. Our smiling and sad faces are a tiny selection by comparison. The familiar smiley face (😀) is part of the “Emoticons” chart.

Emoticons in Unicode are abstract and unrealistic compared to many emoji. The Unicode emoticons are generally drawn in black and white or garish yellow and, even though they’re dark lines on a light background, don’t look much like an ethnic representation. The Unicode representation of emoji is vastly more complex. There are more characters, and many of them have color including “realistic” skin tones — realistic for light-skinned people, that is. To give more options, Unicode 8.0 allows an emoji to be followed by a color swatch character, which indicates the skin tone the character should use. Unicode 8-savvy software will apply the swatch to the emoji. Older software should present the default version of the character followed by the color swatch.

Is this kind of diversity actually an improvement? Writing for the Washington Post about Apple’s version of color-diverse emoji, Paige Tutt tells us that “the emoji are being used to make racist comments on social media and insert questions of race in texts and tweets where it may never have arisen before.” Except for color, the new variants are identical, which is a rather homogeneous diversity. Many people like the new options, though.

People can use the “generic, non-realistic skin tone” if they want to stay neutral, but other people will use whatever they want. For better or worse, that’s what we’ve got in Unicode 8.0.

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