The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







A . The ideographic representation of a child (子) beneath a roof, which once had the meaning of "to care for", has since changed over the years to a deflective meaning of "character", "word" or simply, "ideogram".
A Chinese character. The ideographic representation of a child (子) beneath a roof, which once had the meaning of "to care for", has since changed over the years to a deflective meaning of "character", "word" or simply, "ideogram".

Ideograms (from Greek ιδεα idea "idea" + γραφω grapho "to write") are graphical symbols that are words or morphemes. They are composed of visual elements arranged in a variety of ways rather than using the segmental phoneme principle of construction familiar in alphabetic languages. The effect is that while it is relatively easier to remember or guess the sound of alphabetic written words, it is relatively easier to remember or guess the meaning of ideographs. The other feature of ideographs is that they may be used by a plurality of languages which may pronounce them differently while using them in conformity to the same norms. Thus, arabic numerals function like ideographs. Ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Egyptians from the Mesopotamian and North African centers of civilizations all used some form of ideographical writings, as did the Chinese in the Far East. Early Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform were ideograms, though later they were used extensively (and in cuneiform, exclusively) for their pronunciation. Egyptian hieroglyphs, in their most developed stage, represented a merger of ideograms and phonograms which later became the key to its recovery. See Rosetta Stone.

Chinese characters are conventionally called ideographs or ideograms, but their own linguistic tradition divides characters into at least five categories, of which "ideograph" is a plausible translation of only one or two. The Chinese classifications are (roughly translated) pictogram, ideogram, indicative, shape-sound compound, and borrowed. Borrowed characters are homophones used when no more "inventive" character emerges in common use.

  • Pictograms are stylized descendents of alleged early "pictures" of the visual objects they represent--e.g. the character for moon 月 that anciently looked like a crescent moon.
  • Ideograms are typically composed of pictograms arranged "with a convenient story" to suggest something more abstract--like sun and moon together to form a word like "bright" 明 or the character for "state" 國; which consists of a box-like border surrounding the "region" 域;;.
  • Indicatives 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.
  • The sound-shape compounds typically consist of a classifying unit (typically a pictograph like "fish" or "horse" or "water") combined with a "phonetic" unit that is prounced in the same way in one of the languages using the system.
  • Borrowed characters are homophones with little or no meaning relation that became current before any of the more "inventive" types did.

The shape-sound type is most flexible and most new and "sub-species" characters use this principle of construction. The character 國 is an example of this, combining a classifying component 囗 and a phonetic component 或. New pure ideograms and pictograms are rare--though some have been somewhat playfully composed later such as a square box over a horizontal line to mean computer. By dictionary count the great bulk of characters (some estimate as many as 90 percent) use the shape-sound principle. Some have advocated calling these phonologograms .

Japanese ideograms, or Kanji, as well as Korean ideograms, or Hanja, are mostly Chinese characters, sometimes altered in shape, or native characters made to resemble Chinese characters. (The characters of Japanese origin are called 国字, or kokuji; those of Korean origin, 국자 [國字], or gugja ). From their introduction in the 4th century until the 8th century, Chinese characters were used for phonetic writing, but this is no longer the case. Instead, Japanese developed two scripts for use in phonetic writing — katakana, and its sister syllabary, hiragana, both derived from simplifications of Kanji with the sounds that they represent, while Koreans developed a script called hangul.


Related terms

An ideogram is distinguished from a pictograph in that a pictograph is any symbol that resembles something visual while an ideogram typically consists of a visual "definition" of something.

Both ideographs and pictographs function in a language as words or morphemes. Some argue against the word "ideograph" on grounds that it invites the view that ideograms represent ideas. Since ideas are themselves private ideograms, that yields a circular analysis of their function. They often recommend using the terms logogram and logographic instead, from the Greek roots logos ("word") and grapho ("to write"). The term "logogram" indicates that Chinese characters work like written words. The meanings of Chinese words, like those of other languages, is a function of their use in syntactical structures to reason, refer, and express beliefs etc. Their meaning is not a function of their shape.

See also


  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)
  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686
  • Unger, J. Marshall. 2003. Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning. ISBN 0824827600 (trade paperback), ISBN 0824826566 (hardcover)

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:14:31
Last updated: 08-30-2005 17:41:02