Emojis have become ubiquitous in text communication – messages are peppered with smiley faces, hearts and other graphic icons. They were first drawn by graphic designer Shigetaka Kurita, and generated by a Japanese communications firm called NTT DoCoMo in the late 1990s. Now they’re everywhere.
But would you be quite so quick to insert an emoji into a message if you thought it might be interpreted as a threat or might offend the receiver? What if that smiley face could land you in court? Or bind you legally to a contract you never formally signed?
There’s a growing body of case law from around the world – including the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France – where courts have been called on to interpret emojis as evidence. This, in turn, has seen a rise in academic literature on the subject. That includes research in the field of forensic linguistics, which we both study.
The phrase “forensic linguistics” was first recorded in 1968 by professor of linguistics Jan Svartvik, who was analysing the language in a set of legal statements. Forensic linguist John Olsson, defines the discipline as
… the interface between languages, crime, law, where law includes law enforcement, judicial matters, legislation, disputes or proceedings in law, and even disputes which only potentially involve some infraction of the law or some necessity to seek legal remedy.
Globally, forensic linguists are called on to offer expert testimony on emojis as evidence. Contentious emoji use hasn’t made too many headlines in South Africa yet, but given instances elsewhere in the world, it’s likely that forensic linguists may soon be called into play in the country’s courts quite soon. That’s why forensic linguists in South Africa should keep abreast of new developments around emojis as evidence.
We held a two-day colloquium at Rhodes University in South Africa where forensic linguists and legal practitioners interested in language and the law discussed international developments. We also explored the ways that emojis might be interpreted in the context of South Africa’s cultures and languages.
Similar colloquiums will be held with the legal fraternity to ensure judges and magistrates are able to interpret emojis and the importance of calling forensic linguists as expert witnesses.
Read more: The Conversation