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A Sumerian’s #FirstTweet Would’ve Been An Emoji

By Kim Palagyi

Stories are so much more than a chance to impress a date or “win” the water cooler. Narratives peel back who we are, and pop the hood of humanity. Engaging narratives humanize your business efforts and make customer connections meaningful. But even more so, businesses and narratives are inextricably linked. The first writing systems were based in commerce, and their relationship continues to unfold today with emojis functioning as modern day pictographs.

The Sumerians developed the first signs of writing in order to record business transactions. Dating as far back as 8000 B.C.E., tokens, most likely representing debt, were stored in envelopes made of clay in the shape of a hollow ball. Because it was difficult to see the tokens, accountants began impressing them onto the surface of the envelope before enclosing the envelope, “so that the shape and number of counters held inside could be verified at all times.”

Around 3500 B.C.E. this token system gave way to cuneiform, which consisted of pictograms representing commodities. For instance, a pictogram of barley was a symbol for barley. Pressed into clay tablets, early cuneiform, made recording information possible, and allowed ownership to be claimed like never before. The earliest record of cuneiform details accounting records used by merchants or government officials. Writing was a means of making business transactions permanent, and planted the seeds of commerce. As modern society indicates, business didn’t stop there. Around 3000 B.C.E., cuneiform experienced a breakthrough and phonetic signs were created to represent the sounds of speech. This enabled writing to shift from “a conceptual framework of real goods” to truly emulate spoken language. By 2600 B.C.E., cuneiform enabled a substantial body of written texts and literature.

There is nothing trivial about harnessing writing for your business. Not only is the development of writing rooted in commerce, but it also continues to be an exceptional means of connecting your brand with an audience. Even today, written expressions continue to evolve, offering new opportunities to express both who you are and what you do. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries announced the “face with tears of joy” emojii as the Word of the Year. Emojis harken back to the days of pictography, except they work across cultures and language barriers. As they consist of faces, emojis bridge the “awkward space between the conceptual and literal and fill in for non-verbal cues, like facial expression and tone.”

Brands are wielding the power of emojis. In 2015, Taco Bell unveiled a #TacoEmojiEngine to celebrate the birth of the taco emoji. The #TacoEmojiEngine has a reservoir of 600 original gifs, so when someone tweets “a picture of a taco emoji with another emoji at the brand’s account, [they are] automatically sent back a photo or GIF mashing up the two images.” Taco Bell didn’t stop there. They also rolled out pop-art themed taco holsters for their Dorito tacos — meant to function as collectible items. Twitter has even created an ad platform around custom emojis for the likes of Coke and other brands hosting special events. Similarly, Kim Kardashian developed Kimojis as a brand asset, complete with emoji collaged wrapping paper.

The relationship between communication tools and commerce continues to evolve and as the journey continues, emojiis make a case for a new language at our fingertips. And we’re happy to celebrate it — yesterday was #WorldEmojiDay. Use writing as a business tool and cultivate a narrative that tells the story of who you are — and don’t be afraid to tweet out an emoji or two.

Kim Palagyi is an Associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.