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An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idea "idea" + γράφω grafo "to write") 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.

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 formal languages (mathematical notation, logic, UML), which are used worldwide regardless of how they are pronounced in different languages. Other examples include the Blissymbols, Nsibidi, used by the Igbo and Ekpe in West Africa, Emoticons and pictographs as used by the Sioux and Ojibwa.



The term "ideogram" is commonly used to describe logographs in writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese characters.

In the history of writing symbols proceeded from ideographic (e.g. an icon of a bull's head in a list inventory, denoting that the following numeral refers to head of cattle) to logographic (an icon of a bull denoting the Semitic word ʾālep "ox"), to phonetic (the bull's head used as a symbol in rebus writing, indicating the glottal stop at the beginning of the word for "ox", viz. the letter Aleph). Bronze Age writing systems used a combination of these applications, and many signs in hieroglyphic as well as in cuneiform writing could be used either logographically or phonetically. For example, the Akkadian sign AN (𒀭) could be an ideograph for "deity", an ideogram for the god Anum in particular, a logograph for the Akkadian stem il- "deity", a logograph for the Akkadian word šamu "sky", or a syllabogram for either the syllable an or il.


Chinese characters

Chinese characters have often been called "ideograms", but since many Chinese characters also have morphemic and often phonetic significance, there were many attempts to abandon the name "ideogram" in favor of a term that more accurately represents their nature. One alternative is logogram, from the Greek roots logos ("word") and grapho ("to write"). Others include Sinogram, emphasizing the Chinese origin of the characters, and Han character, a literal translation of the native term. These terms have gained some currency among scholars, but have failed to spread into common usage. The native terms (Chinese hanzi, Japanese kanji, Korean hanja) are also fairly widespread in the contexts of the individual languages, but they are not generally considered suitable for discussion of the script as a whole.

See also


  • 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)

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