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Meet Rachael Tatman, Professional Emoji Whisperer

"What’s an emoji? What is it linguistically? I think it’s still something of an open question."

By Jessica Voelker December 19, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Joshua Huston

Humans of a certain age will remember a time before emoji, when textual correspondence required a crude combination of grammatical symbols, cobbled together to resemble a winking smiley or a whaddayagonnado shrug. This digital cave art predated the adulthood of Dr. Rachael Tatman, a linguist and University of Washington grad currently employed by the Google-owned data platform Kaggle. Tatman, who lives in Fremont, drew national media attention last year with an experiment that revealed the ways we use emoji differently than language. Her work has also covered gender bias on social media platforms and speech recognition technologies. But Tatman isn’t about to stop studying those charismatic glyphs anytime soon. After all, she says, “It gives me an excuse to be on Twitter all day.” —JV

I was a big old science nerd as a kid. I also really liked language and grammar. And when I found out you could do science and language together, I was very delighted.

The thing most linguists have in common is that we like puzzles.

I was in Boston recently. I know they call water fountains bubblers and someone said, “Bubbler” and I was like, ooh, in the wild! I’ve seen it, I’ve observed it. Every time somebody says something that’s a marker, I’m always like: “Oh, yes!”

There’s a big project at UW, English in the Pacific Northwest, and [they] found the “ag” sound in [words like] lag or bag tends to be said more like “egg” here. So shopping “begg” or the American “flegg.” We have such a migration of people moving here that I think the sort of regional forms are getting harder to encounter, especially in Seattle. 

If you’re interested in describing the ways people use language, it’s really much more exciting to see how [they’re] using it when just joking around with friends and trying different things and playing around.

In grad school I got really into Twitter. I was interested in how people use spelling differences to show dialects. If I’m tweeting and I want to make it real clear that I’m Southern, I might change my spelling to reflect the sound system of being Southern. I might spell hey like “haeyyy” so it’s very clear that there’s some sound change in there.

I also got interested in: What’s an emoji? What is it linguistically? I think it’s still something of an open question. 

Emoji occupy this space between word and gesture. 

You can definitely do it wrong, right? There’s an emoji that’s sleeping—it has a snot bubble—and people’ll use it when they mean crying. And every time I’m like “Nope, that’s not what that one is.”

Emoji 5.0 just came out and it includes the salt shaker, which is the number-one most-requested emoji. That’s because there’s this term to be salty, or so much salt. So I think people are going to use that for meta commentary that they’re being salty—or to tag that type of saltiness.

Carrie Fisher [the actress] used to do rebus, where she’d replace the letter o with the emoji for the word o, or she’d replace the word I with the eye emoji. Cher is another person who has a lot of that sort of puzzling and replacement of letters.

There are puns like that in American Sign Language as well that will not translate well to text. The sign for pasteurized milk—you squeeze your fist for milk, and then you move it past your eyes. 

I do not have concerns about the decline of English. Language is a well-honed tool. [And it is] always changing. You don’t speak Old English. 

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