Pictographs, sometimes referred to as pictograms or pictoglyphs, are written, painted, or engraved signs that express ideas or meaning in the form of pictures. In a pictograph, the sign takes the form of the object it is supposed to represent. These physical resemblances can be highly iconic—such as a picture of a specific animal—or more abstract—as in a wavy line representing a river, or some inverted v-shapes standing for mountains. Even in modern cultures pictographs are ubiquitous, as seen, for example, on the doors of most restrooms indicating gender.
It is likely that writing developed out of the earliest drawings made by humans. For example, we can “read” the famous pictures found in the caves of France and Spain, which date back to the Upper Paleolithic, some being perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 years old. But it is unknown whether the intent of these illustrations was to convey information or narrative, express artistic emotion, or to be used in acts of sympathetic magic. Over time, we find signs that obviously are being used iconically—but not aesthetically—to express concrete things or incidents (in other words, true pictographs as opposed to pictures). These pictographs are usually more frequent and less complex than the more elaborate paintings, and some regularity might be noted in how the signs are formed or repeated. Pictographs exist throughout the world, both old and new, and on every continent. Some of the most famous are found etched in stone in the American Southwest, where they are usually called petroglyphs (Greek for “rock carving”).
Pictographs are sometimes called a system of picture-writing, but this is actually a misnomer. If we define a writing system as something that captures spoken language on some medium (like paper or stone), pictographs would not fit this definition. This is because pictographs represent objects in the world and not the spoken names for these objects. Thus, in using a pictographic system, we are not actually writing down a language, but representing data directly. However, what was occurring was idea-transmission, which was a necessary pre-condition for a writing system to develop.
Presumably, pictograms may have developed into ideographs, or ideograms, as they became more stylized and abstract. For example, the sign for “sun” in ancient China was a circle with light rays coming out of the middle. Over time, the circle became oval, and then a rectangle, and the rays became a single horizon line. Thus, this is today’s Sino-Japanese character for sun. Ideographs differ from pictographs in that they lack—due to stylization—the usual obvious iconic connections to external reality. Ideograms have been thought to be transitional between pictograms and logograms. (Logograms are written signs that do represent words or morphemes in a language, but give no indication as to how they are to be pronounced, such as everyday numbers or mathematical equations which will be read in different ways depending on the language one speaks.) However, most scholars agree that no writing system has ever really been ideographic, though many contain ideographic elements. Last, while many believe in a pictographic origin of writing, work on Sumarian cuneiforms suggests that signs using abstract shapes might also have led to the development of writing.
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