An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idéa "idea" + γράφω gráphō "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.
The term "ideogram" is commonly used to describe logograms in writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian cuneiform and Chinese characters. Dongba script used without Geba decorating is an example of a real ideogram (it is also a pictogram).
In the history of writing, symbols proceeded from ideographic (such as 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", namely, the letter aleph).
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.
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 rì "sun" and 月 yuè "moon", or 休 xiū "rest", composed of 人 rén "person" and 木 mù "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.
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- 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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- AIGA Symbol Signs Common US ideograms.
- American Heritage Dictionary definition
- Encyclopædia Britannica online entry
- The Ideographic Myth Extract from DeFrancis' book.
- Merriam-Webster OnLine definition
- Ojibwa and Sioux pictographs
- A website explaining the ideographic origins of Chinese
- Pictopen: A Modern Pictographic Writing System