(USA TODAY)- Hieroglyphics are making an unlikely 21st century comeback, and it's all thanks to Millennials' insatiable appetite for texting. Young people might hate history class, but they can't get enough of the cute little characters known as emoji.
You're probably familiar with the bright yellow smiling, winking and frowning faces that seem to follow every text message these days. You probably even use them yourself. But you might not be aware that there are more than 1,500 to choose from.
Designed to symbolize everyday objects, expressions and ideas, they range from smiley faces, to foods, to sporting equipment, to holiday decorations and everything in between. And they're expressive enough to act as stand-ins for words or entire phrases.
Their colorful, eye-catching designs have propelled them to pop-culture fame, and that's made them fertile ground for research and experimentation by academics and artists.
Just last summer, Emoji Dick, a Kickstarter-backed translation of Moby Dick into emoji, was accepted into the Library of Congress. In December, the first all-emoji art exhibition was held in New York City.
Perhaps more important, the sheer diversity of emoji makes them a viable tool for crossing language and cultural barriers — and could see them effectively become a pidgin language of their own.
Need an example? Italian art director Giorgio Mininno recently used emoji to help teach Chinese students about art, even though he couldn't speak a word of their language.
"The emoji helped them to find new ideas and facilitated the communication with us, sometimes breaking the language gap," Mininno told us. Eventually, he asked his students to create art out of the universally understood characters.
But while the characters seem simple, their meanings can vary in surprising ways.
"An emoji can mean a completely different thing to completely different people," said Nick Kendall. He's the co-creator of Emojicate, an app that asks its users to communicate solely through emoji.
Kendall has noticed this effect while chatting with his friends. Take the dumbbell emoji: Some friends use it to say, "Let's go to the gym," while others use it to tell him to "toughen up."
The device you're using can also shape your interpretation. The Unicode Consortium —the standards body that regulates all digital characters — doesn't designate a universal design for emoji, so the way they look on an iPhone can be quite different from how they appear on a Samsung Galaxy or a Nokia Lumia.
And there's another complicating factor at play. Despite their global appeal, emoji actually originated in Japan, and their unique cultural roots have created confusion over the intended meaning of certain symbols.
Take the icon that depicts a woman with one hand outstretched, palm up. The official name of this emoji is "information desk person."
"There's something about her pose or the look on her face that people have read into," said Matthew Rothenberg, creator of Emojitracker. The site monitors emoji use on Twitter, revealing both real-time and long-term usage trends. "Everyone I know who uses that one, they use it to mean like … she's the 'whatever' girl. Like, whatever."
(He pronounced that last "whatever" in a dead-on valley girl accent.)
But for all their diversity and flexibility, Mark Davis, president of the Unicode Consortium, says it doesn't take long before emoji users hit a conversational wall. There are only so many ideas the tiny pictographs can convey.
Still, that hasn't stopped people from trying. Some teenagers and young adults routinely converse using more emoji than words — a trend reflected in the emoji-heavy lyric video for Katy Perry's 2013 hit single Roar.
While the video shows the pop star texting with the well-established WhatsApp messenger, new apps like Emojicate and an upcoming competitor called Emojli are swooping in to capitalize on the fad with specialized, emoji-only chat services.
Emojicate founder Kendall thinks emoji are especially useful because of their artful economy.
"Ten or 15 years ago, the idea that everything can be condensed into a 140-character tweet seemed ridiculous," Kendall said. But a single-character emoji, he argued, can convey the same information as 10 or more letters.
Unicode's Davis said he thinks emoji will be around for the next few years. What they'll evolve into after that is anyone's guess. For now, 1,500 emoji characters will have to do.