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"The history of the various primitive graphic systems, such as the Chinese, the Cuneiform, or the Egyptian, shows that the art of writing has invariably begun with hieroglyphic ideograms, slowly developed into phonograms, and passing gradually through syllabism towards alphabetism, the successive stages of the process occupying in every instance vast periods of time."--The History of the Alphabet (1899) by Isaac Taylor

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An ideogram or ideograph is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept. Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms.


In proto-writing, used for inventories and the like, physical objects are represented by stylized or conventionalized pictures, or pictograms. For example, the pictorial Dongba symbols without Geba annotation cannot represent the Naxi language, but are used as a mnemonic for reciting oral literature.

Some systems also use ideograms, symbols denoting abstract concepts.

The term "ideogram" is often used to describe symbols of writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese characters. However, these symbols represent elements of a particular language, mostly words or morphemes (so that they are logograms), rather than objects or concepts. In these writing systems, a variety of strategies were employed in the design of logographic symbols. Pictographic symbols depict the object referred to by the word, such as an icon of a bull denoting the Semitic word ʾālep "ox". Some words denoting abstract concepts may be represented iconically, but most other words are represented using the rebus principle, borrowing a symbol for a similarly-sounding word. Later systems used selected symbols to represent the sounds of the language, for example the adaptation of the logogram for ʾālep "ox" as the letter aleph representing the initial sound of the word, a glottal stop.

Many signs in hieroglyphic as well as in cuneiform writing could be used either logographically or phonetically. For example, the Sumerian sign DIĜIR (Template:Script) could represent the word diĝir 'deity', the god An or the word an 'sky'. The Akkadian counterpart 20px could represent the Akkadian stem il- 'deity', the Akkadian word šamu 'sky', or the syllable an.

Although Chinese characters are logograms, two of the smaller classes in the traditional classification are ideographic in origin:

  • Simple ideographs (指事字 zhǐshìzì) are abstract symbols such as 上 shàng "up" and 下 xià "down" or numerals such as 三 sān "three".
  • Semantic compounds (会意字 huìyìzì) are semantic combinations of characters, such as 明 míng "bright", composed of 日 "sun" and 月 yuè "moon", or 休 xiū "rest", composed of 人 rén "person" and 木 "tree". In the light of the modern understanding of Old Chinese phonology, researchers now believe that most of the characters originally classified as semantic compounds have an at least partially phonetic nature.

An example of ideograms is the collection of 50 signs developed in the 1970s by the American Institute of Graphic Arts at the request of the US Department of Transportation. The system was initially used to mark airports and gradually became more widespread.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Ideogram" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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