An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idéa "idea" + γράφω gráphō "to write") is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language, and specific words or phrases. 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 symbols used without Geba annotation are an example of a real ideographic system (it is also a pictographic system). Strictly speaking, however, ideograms represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the writing systems here described here is truly ideographic, but rather use logograms.
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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- Heterogram (linguistics)
- Icon (computing)
- List of symbols
- List of writing systems (including a sublist of ideographic systems)
- Traffic sign
- 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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- The Ideographic Myth Extract from DeFrancis' book.
- American Heritage Dictionary definition
- Merriam-Webster OnLine definition