I talked about this a while back, but now it’s for real. Today, I introduce to you a new conlang: 🖼🗣. Or, to put the name in something pronounceable, Pictalk. Yes, the glyphs making up the name are emoji. Yes, so are all the characters used in the entire language.
Strictly speaking, Pictalk isn’t a full-fledged conlang. It’s written-only, first of all. There is no true spoken form. Instead, it should be considered something closer to a conscript, an artificial writing system, modeled after hieroglyphic and ideographic scripts. But that’s enough to encode ideas, thoughts, sayings, and anything that might need to be written in this modern, digital age.
The hardest part about making Pictalk is the very restricted set of available glyphs. True, there are over 1200 emoji characters available, and they cover a wide variety of concepts, from animals to emotions to transportation and more. But I don’t have control over which symbols the Unicode Consortium adds to the list. While that list will grow (they add more each year, it seems), there’s little rhyme or reason to which new characters come in.
But that’s okay. We can do this. English only needs 26 letters, right?
Even with the wide array we have, it’s safe to discard quite a few right off the bat. First, I’ll drop the “cat face” group, such as 😸, because they really only repeat the normal human smileys. Next, toss out the handful of CJK ideographs in circles or squares, like 🈹—I’m an English speaker, and even Unicode gives up on giving them reasonable names. The skin tone modifiers (🏻 and friends) don’t make sense in the context of language; Pictalk thus won’t give them meanings, but will allow them to modify other symbols as a kind of synonym.
Likewise (and here’s where we start getting into the grammar bits), gendered forms like 👩🏫 or 👨⚕️ are synonymous with their “base” forms. With many languages, particularly in the West, where there is no neuter form, masculine is considered the default. Pictalk, however, is gender-neutral. That’s not out of some misguided idea of social justice or diversity, but simple expedience. Unicode has neuter forms for most of what we might call agentive glyphs. Where it doesn’t, we can use either, and that’s fine.
Last, flags. These take up a good chunk of the emoji list (about 15%, all told), and they’re mostly country flags. Well, for Pictalk, those flags represent their countries, and that’s that. Unlike most other characters, they don’t really participate in the construction processes we’ll see later on.
Before we get to that, let’s go over the rest of Unicode. Obviously, since the whole point of Pictalk is to create a hieroglyphic script using the emoji characters, they’re the focus. But we’ve got a few other options available. One I won’t use is Latin letters. Or, for that matter, any other alphabetic script. In earlier versions of the language, I did utilize them for derivation and some small grammatical particles, but I’ve since removed the need for them. Only proper names use alphabetic characters; these are written as they would be in either the speaker’s or the audience’s preferred language.
Numbers, on the other hand, are perfectly usable. They’re already a little bit ideographic, after all, so it wouldn’t destroy the purity of Pictalk to include them. So 0-9 work exactly as they would in English: as the numerals zero through nine. And you can build on that as you do in English. (Pictalk is base-10, by the way.)
Punctuation works the same, as it’s very difficult to design a conlang that doesn’t need it. So sentences can end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. Quote marks work for, well, quotes. Commas aren’t as necessary, but you can still use them to mark off clauses. Colons, besides having their normal English function, are used as attention-getters, in a sense, following the intended recipient of a statement or question. And we’ll see the other “special” characters as they come up.
Quite a few emoji work as words by themselves. Think of 🐕, 😄, or ✈, for instance. In Pictalk, that’s the most basic sort of word, and most symbols can function alone. Some are considered nouns, others adjectives or verbs, but there’s always a way to convert them.
Other symbols are “bound”, in that they can only occur fixed to others. An example here would be the (optional) plural marker ➿. By itself, it has no meaning. Suffixed to a root, whether a single symbol or a string of them, it gains meaning: 🐕➿ “dogs”.
More complex are the compound symbols that make up the bulk of the lexicon. In general, nominal compounds are head-final, as in 🐕🏠 “doghouse”, while verbal compounds are often head-initial, as with 📖🏫 “study”, from 📖 “read”. I’ve tried to refrain from being cute with meanings, striving instead for transparency, but some compounds remain idiosyncratic in meaning.
Last, a form of word-building that English doesn’t often employ comes into its own in Pictalk. Reduplication is productive for many basic words. For nouns, it can create a kind of collective sense: 🏠🏠 “neighborhood”. Verbs instead use reduplication as an intensifier: 💭💭 “to contemplate” (or possibly “to overthink”).
All in all, I think this just might work. We can make words using only emoji characters. Next up, we’ll see how far we can go in making a language.