AskDefine | Define ideograms

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  1. Plural of ideogram

Extensive Definition

An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek idea "idea" + grafo "to write") is a graphic 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, or a strictly representational picture of a subject as may be done in illustration or photography.
Examples of ideograms include wayfinding signs, 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, graphemes in logographic systems generally represent words or morphemes rather than pure ideas.

Chinese characters

Chinese characters are conventionally called ideographs or ideograms, but as each character represents a morpheme (and is useful almost always as an entire word) rather than an idea, they are more accurately called logograms. Within the Chinese linguistic tradition, characters are divided into six categories, of which "ideograph" is a plausible translation of one. Note that this does not imply that characters in that category represent ideas; they still represent morphemes. The categories are: pictograms, ideograms, compound indicatives, phono-semantic compounds, borrowed characters, and derived characters. The first four are ways characters are composed, while the last two refer to additional methods in which they are used.
  • Pictograms are characters derived from pictures of the objects they originally denoted: for example, the character used to write the word meaning "moon", 月, is derived from a stylised picture of a crescent moon.
  • Ideograms are unlike pictograms in that they do not picture things, but "indicate" their use — e.g. the character for "below" 下 has a stroke below the T of a perpendicular diagram while "above" 上 has an upside down T with the stroke above the perpendicular base.
  • Compound indicatives are typically composed of pictograms or ideograms arranged to remind one of a more abstract word — for example, the character 明, for the word meaning "bright" seems to be composed of pictograms for sun and moon side by side (instead of sun, this is a historically simplified version of a pictogram for window, thus the compound more sensibly reminds one of the subjectively intense brightness of a spot of moonlight in a room). Though many people believe that all Chinese characters are of this type, they actually are relatively few.
  • phono-semantic compounds are characters which typically are a combination of one or more units, functioning just as in the compound indicatives above, plus a single phonetic unit, a preexisting character which can suggest our word to us because of its very closely similar pronunciation, at least when our character was divised. Often, but not necessarily, one of the semantic pictograms is a classifier (called a 'radical': some common ones are "hand" and "water") useful in standard indexing schemes.
  • Borrowed characters are characters used to represent morphemes unrelated to their original morphemes, based solely on having similar pronunciation.
  • Derived characters are characters that have the same etymological root but have diverged, sometimes due to the morpheme itself diverging. The character 國 is a derived character, because the character 或 originally meant state, but this was forgotten due to its being borrowed for the conjunctive, "or".
The phono-semantic compounding process seems to have been the easiest and most flexible way to create characters. By dictionary count, the great bulk of characters (some estimate as many as 90 percent) use the phono-semantic principle.

Japanese and Korean

Hanja (Korean Chinese characters) and kanji (Japanese Chinese characters) were directly derived from Chinese characters. Hanja and kanji were (and are) used by older generations, and continue to be learned in schools today.
In Japan, the use of Kanji is widespread and shows no sign of diminishing. Japanese children are taught just over 1,000 characters in primary and secondary school and a few hundred more in high school. Therefore, a Japanese of average education can comfortably read and write most Kanji used in everyday life.
To many people, Korean (hangul) and Japanese (hiragana, katakana) may look like ideograms because they look like "block letters", but that is a misconception. Hangul, hiragana, and katakana were created to make writing and reading easier for the common people, so they are phonetic and not ideographic. Each writing system has an alphabet that pertains to its sound.

Middle Iranian languages

Ideograms are one of the two essential characteristics of the Pahlavi writing system. This system was used for writing several different Middle Iranian languages, including (but not limited to) Parthian (from which 'Pahlavi' gets its name) and Middle Persian (for which the Pahlavi writing system is best attested).
The ideograms in these various Middle Iranian languages are all originally Aramaic language words, Aramaic having previously (under the Achaemenids) been the lingua franca of trade and government. In the later Middle Iranian however, texts were written as spoken, that is, with Iranian language syntactical structure, rather than with Semitic language syntax. The Aramaic words however remained: they were eventually no longer considered alien language words, but "symbols" representing a particular idea.
Thus the word for "king" would not be written phonetically (as far as any consonantary could be described to be phonetic), but as the "symbol" *Formal languages such as mathematical notation, logic, UML, computer languages


  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6
  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X (paperback); ISBN 0-8248-1842-3 (hardcover)
  • Unger, J. Marshall. 2003. Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning. ISBN 0-8248-2760-0 (trade paperback), ISBN 0-8248-2656-6 (hardcover)
ideograms in Catalan: Ideograma
ideograms in Danish: Ideogram
ideograms in German: Schriftzeichen
ideograms in Estonian: Ideogramm
ideograms in Modern Greek (1453-): Ιδεόγραμμα
ideograms in Spanish: Ideograma
ideograms in Esperanto: Ideogramo
ideograms in Persian: اندیشه‌نگار
ideograms in French: Idéogramme
ideograms in Galician: Ideograma
ideograms in Korean: 표의 문자
ideograms in Italian: Ideogramma
ideograms in Italian: ideogramma
ideograms in Hebrew: אידאוגרמה
ideograms in Dutch: Ideogram
ideograms in Japanese: 表意文字
ideograms in Norwegian: Ideogram
ideograms in Polish: Pismo ideograficzne
ideograms in Portuguese: Ideograma
ideograms in Romanian: Ideogramă
ideograms in Russian: Идеограмма
ideograms in Slovenian: Ideogram
ideograms in Serbo-Croatian: Ideogram
ideograms in Finnish: Ideogrammi
ideograms in Swedish: Ideogram
ideograms in Chinese: 形意文字
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