a means of communication – the origins of lettering

It wouldn’t have taken our ancestors long, relatively speaking, to realise that they could simplify some pictures and replace them with symbols. A few abstract lines could represent an object or thing and be recognisable to many people, as in the matchstick men children are familiar with.

Modern pictograms image

Modern pictograms

We call these symbols ‘pictograms’ (picture writing). Pictograms are still in use everyday on our road signs, public buildings, petrol stations and packaging. If you wish to use the toilet in a public place you will know whether you are going to the Ladies or the Gents wherever you are in the world (unless, of course, there are strong cultural differences in dress code!) because of the pictograms used to represent the place.

The use of pictograms does not necessarily imply an organised spoken language though. Words are not needed if you recognise the picture. However, the use of pictograms is limited as a means of conveying detailed information.

Moon, darkness, night image

Moon, darkness, night

To further represent ideas, or abstract concepts, ‘ideograms’ (the writing of ideas) were used. The symbol used for the sun, a circle, could also represent heat, day or time, while the symbol for the moon, a crescent, could also represent darkness or night. These are concepts, or ideas, rather than actual objects. The drawing of the eye can represent an eye as a thing but it can also represent the concepts of seeing or watching.

These symbols would have been recognisable to someone if they were aware of the context in which they were used. However, with different cultures developing different writing systems it is possible that one symbol used by one group of people might not be recognised by another.

Rebus devices image

Rebus devices

Some abstract concepts cannot be represented as a single picture and another method was used to represent these.

Called the ‘rebus device’ (From the Latin “rebus”, meaning “things”), it used the combination of two pictures for their sound values alone and would suggest a well-developed spoken language. For instance, a picture of a bee and a leaf together form the word ‘belief’ (bee-leaf).

Forgive my corny attempts but I think you will begin to get the idea from the diagram. Neither part of the device applies directly to the meaning of the word implied (except, perhaps, for the image of an eye) but the meaning can be easily deduced from the sounds of the separate components. Try making up some of your own!

Chinese calligraphy image

Chinese calligraphy

Some of the eastern countries, by contrast, still use pictograms and ideograms in a form called logograms in their writings today. This is evident in Chinese and Japanese in particular. They are literally sets of visual characters that have developed into a series of ‘logos’ over time, each logo representing a word. Because of the diversity of spoken language in China there are thousands of these characters and it can take a lifetime to learn them all. To top it all, unlike an alphabetic writing system, the Chinese need to invent new characters, and learn them, for new words introduced into their language. The number of characters in their ‘alphabet’ is always growing.

The advantage of logographs, for the Chinese, is that although many different languages are spoken across their vast continent, their written characters are the same. This means that two people from opposite sides of the country can communicate by the written word even if they can’t understand each other’s speech.

The other amazing fact is that Japanese or Chinese people can understand some of each other’s symbols.

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