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Cuneiforms and


Pictograms and Ideograms

A pictogram or pictograph is a symbol representing a concept, object, activity, place or event by illustration. Pictography is a form of writing whereby ideas are transmitted through drawing. It is the basis of cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Early written symbols were based on pictograms (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms (pictures which represent ideas). It is commonly believed that pictograms appeared before ideograms. They were used by various ancient cultures all over the world since around 9000 BC and began to develop into logographic writing systems around 5000 BC. Pictograms are still in use as the main medium of written communication in some non-literate cultures in Africa, The Americas, and Oceania, and are often used as simple symbols by most contemporary cultures.

An ideogram or ideograph is a graphical symbol that represents an idea, rather than a group of letters arranged according to the phonemes of a spoken language, as is done in alphabetic languages. Examples of ideograms include wayfinding signage, such as in airports and other environments where many people may not be familiar with the language of the place they are in, as well as Arabic numerals and mathematical notation, which are used worldwide regardless of how they are pronounced in different languages. The term "ideogram" is commonly used to describe logographic writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters. However, symbols in logographic systems generally represent words or morphemes rather than pure ideas.

A logogram, or logograph, is a single grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language). This stands in contrast to other writing systems, such as alphabets, where each symbol (letter) primarily represents a sound or a combination of sounds.

Logograms: Chinese, Japanese

A Chinese character is a logogram used in writing Chinese, Japanese and Korean . Its possible precursors appeared as early as 8000 years ago, and a complete writing system in Chinese characters was developed 3500 years ago in China, making it perhaps the oldest surviving writing system. Chinese characters are derived directly from individual pictograms or combinations of pictograms and phonetic signs.

The number of Chinese characters contained in the Kangxi dictionary is approximately 47,035, although a large number of these are rarely-used variants accumulated throughout history. In China, literacy for the working citizen is defined as knowledge of 4,000 - 5,000 characters.


Just as Roman letters have a characteristic shape (lower-case letters occupying a roundish area, with ascenders or descenders on some letters), Chinese characters occupy a more or less square area. Characters made up of multiple parts squash these parts together in order to maintain a uniform size and shape. Because of this, beginners often practise on squared graph paper, and the Chinese sometimes use the term "Square-Block Characters." The actual shape of many Chinese characters varies in different cultures. Mainland China adopted simplified characters in 1956, but traditional Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Japan has used its own less drastically simplified characters since 1946, while Korea has limited the use of Chinese characters, and Vietnam completely abolished their use in favour of romanized Vietnamese.

According to legend, Chinese characters were invented by Cangjie (c. 2650 BC), a bureaucrat under the legendary emperor, Huangdi. The legend tells that Cangjie was hunting on Mount Yangxu (today Shanxi) when he saw a tortoise whose veins caught his curiosity. Inspired by the possibility of a logical relation of those veins, he studied the animals of the world, the landscape of the earth, and the stars in the sky, and invented a symbolic system called zi, Chinese characters.

Japanese Calligraphy

A knowledge of calligraphy is an important step in the understanding of Japanese culture. Calligraphy is not merely an exercise in good handwriting, but rather the foremost art form of the Orient. It is the combination of the skill and imagination of the person who has studied intensely the combinations available using only lines. In the West, calligraphy was intended to suppress individuality and produce a uniform style. Japanese calligraphy (sho in Japanese) attempts to bring words to life, and endow them with character. Styles are highly individualistic, differing from person to person. Japanese calligraphy presents a problem for westerners trying to understand it; the work is completed in a matter of seconds so the uninitiated cannot really appreciate the degree of difficulty involved. However, bear in mind that the characters must be written only once. There is no altering, touching up, or adding to them afterwards.

Calligraphy began to filter into Japan during the seventh century A.D. Buddhism from India had travelled via China and Korea and was making many converts in Japan, including the Emperors. Buddhist scriptures were recorded in Chinese writing. This was produced by priests and was aesthetically very pleasing. The most famous Japanese calligrapher was probably the Buddhist monk Kukai. One story records how the Emperor Tokusokutei asked him to rewrite a section of a badly damaged five panelled screen. Kukai is said to have picked up a brush in each hand, gripped one between the toes of each foot, placed another between his teeth, and immediately written five columns of verse simultaneously!

Further Reading and Images:


Mesopotamian Cuneiforms

Over five thousand years ago, the people dwelling in southern Iraq, the Sumerians, invented one of the world's earliest systems of writing. They did not do so in order to write stories or letters, nor yet to publicize the deeds of gods and kings, though soon enough writing came to be used for those purposes. They invented writing because they needed a means of accounting for the receipt and distribution of resources. For their numbers had grown and their society had become complex in the alluvial plains of the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an environment which required attentive management in order to sustain a large, agriculture-based civilization. Hence the need for organizing labor and resources; hence the need for accounting and accountability. The accounting system the people of ancient Iraq developed comprised both a method of recording language in writing, and a method of authenticating and authorizing records and transactions, through sealing them with personal or official seals.


The writing system employed signs to represent numbers, things, words, and the sounds of words. All of the signs were originally pictograms, that is, little schematic pictures of things, actions, or concepts. But they could be used to represent either the things of which they were pictures, or the sounds of the words for those things. For example, a picture of water could be used to mean “water,” or it could stand for the sound of the word for “water,” which was “A” in the Sumerian language spoken in southern Iraq at the time. A picture of a person's head could be used to mean "head" or "person," and it could also stand for the sound of the word for "head," which was "SAG" in Sumerian. Through using signs to represent syllables (like "a" and "sag") as well as to represent things and words for things, all the elements of language could be encoded in writing.


Clay was chosen as the standard medium of writing, for it was readily available, malleable, and recyclable, yet durable when dried in the sun or baked. Reeds, which grow abundantly in marshes and along riverbanks, were used to make writing implements called reed styli. For most types of records and documents, clay was formed into rectangular tablets, but for certain purposes cones, balls, prisms, and other shapes were used! To write on clay, one would impress the tip of a reed stylus into the surface and draw it along to make each stroke of a sign. These strokes acquired a "wedge-shaped" appearance, having a triangular head and slender tail, so the modern discoverers of this ancient writing system called it "cuneiform" – Latin for "wedge-shaped." Meanwhile, although the signs were originally oriented so that the pictures were right side up, they came to be turned on their sides and written left to right, since that was the easiest way for right-handed scribes to write without smearing their clay.

The Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite (and Luwian), Hurrian (and Urartian) languages, and it inspired the Old Persian and Ugaritic national alphabets.

The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king." The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.

The use of Aramaic became widespread under the Assyrian Empire and the Aramaean alphabet gradually replaced cuneiform. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in AD 75.

Further Reading and Images:

Egyptian Hieroglyphics


This is the writing system used by the Ancient Egyptians, that contained a combination of logographic, alphabetic, and ideographic elements. Hieroglyphs emerged from the preliterate artistic traditions of Egypt. Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that functioned like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, or ideograms, which narrowed down the meaning of a logographic or phonetic word. In the era of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, about 700 hieroglyphs existed. By the Greco-Roman period, they numbered more than 5,000.

Engraved hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative: they represent real or imaginary elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but perfectly recognizable in most cases. In fact, the same character can even, according to context, be interpreted in diverse ways: as a phonogram (phonetic reading), as an ideogram, or as a determinative (semantic reading).

As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts, which eventually formed the basis on which the Phoenicians structured the modern alphabetic system. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed along side the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains parallel texts in hieroglyphic and demotic writing.

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