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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A pictogram, also called a pictogramme, pictograph, or simply picto,[1] and in computer usage an icon, is an ideogram that conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object. Pictographs are often used in writing and graphic systems in which the characters are to a considerable extent pictorial in appearance. A pictogram may also be used in subjects such as leisure, tourism, and geography.

Pictography is a form of writing which uses representational, pictorial drawings, similarly to cuneiform and, to some extent, hieroglyphic writing, which also uses drawings as phonetic letters or determinative rhymes. Some pictograms, such as Hazards pictograms, are elements of formal languages.

Pictograph has a rather different meaning in the field of prehistoric art, including recent art by traditional societies and then means art painted on rock surfaces, as opposed to petroglyphs; the latter are carved or incised. Such images may or may not be considered pictograms in the general sense.

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Voiceover: Imagine Alice traveled back over 50,000 years to find her distant ancestor, Bob. Now up until this time, human culture was relatively unsophisticated, utilizing the same primitive stone tools which went unchanged for thousands of years. But somewhere around 50,000 years ago something interesting happened. And nobody knows for sure why. There was a sudden explosion of diverse cultural artifacts, including instruments for making music, new tools, and other forms of creative expression. (chanting and clapping) Voiceover: Humans developed the ability to externalize their inner thoughts. They began to communicate using language. So Alice begins her search by looking for water. She knows that human and animal populations tend to migrate towards and along rivers which are the life blood of ecosystems. Eventually she comes across an interesting marking, Bob's hand print. This marking contains very little information. Simply that he was here and could possibly return. Alice knows Bob is equally intelligent. He can communicate orally. Although his culture has not yet developed the ability to read or write in their native language. At the time, the universal written language was art. So she finds natural materials around her to paint him a picture in case he returns. She renders an animal she is tracking, hoping this will offer a clue of the direction she is traveling in the future. Our ancestors use natural materials to create pictorial representations of their reality. Here is an actual cave painting from around 30,000 years ago found preserved deep inside Chauvet cave in France. Similar renderings are found in the caves of Spain as well. A common theme among these ancient paintings are animal forms, as well as the human hand. Perhaps a signature, a story, or a ritual calling. Voiceover: When Bob returns to the waterfall he finds her painting and proceeds towards the river where he thinks she might be. When he arrives he does not find her, though he finds a sign that she was here before. He decides to paint her a picture explaining where he is going next, which is half way up the river towards the setting sun. He has little time to paint a picture as night is approaching. Therefore, he needs a fast way to visualize his message. He thinks about it for a moment and realizes his message only contains three distinct mental objects, middle, river, west. So he decides to use simplified pictures to represent them. For river, he draws a symbol which resembles its natural form, known as a pictogram, which is a drawing that resembles the physical object it represents. Pictograms are an important step in the evolution of writing. Here is a ceremonial slate palette found in Egypt dated before 3,000 B.C. The surrounding scene shows the stuggle between civilized humans and the wild and ferocious animals. However, it's difficult to draw pictures of abstract concepts such as calm, old, dangerous, or in Bob's case, middle. For this, he draws a line with a box over the middle. It represents half way. This is knows as an ideogram, or conceptual picture of an abstract idea. Here is an example of this same symbol on an ancient Chinese bronze inscription. For the idea of west he decides on a picture of the setting sun. Now he does something interesting. He combines these individual symbols in terms of their meaning to create a message, meaning plus meaning equals new meaning. He leaves this in hope of Alice finding it. Voiceover: Some of the earliest artifacts of this symbolic merging are found in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq, home of the Sumerians. This is the birth place of many of the world's earliest civilizations. Here we find clay accounting tablets which are some of the oldest written documents ever found, some dating before 3,000 B.C. The rectangular tablets record the payments in cattle, shipments of cattle to shepherds for fattening, and gifts of cattle as an offering. Notice that instead of drawing a picture of 10 sheep, they draw a symbol representing 10 using small notches and another symbol representing sheep or donkey, meaning simply, 10 sheep. We call this proto-writing. Finally, Alice returns to the base of the river and finds Bob's message. She interprets the meaning correctly, half way west down the river. So she marches down river towards the setting sun, and eventually they finally meet. Voiceover: Over time, Bob learns to speak Alice's language, allowing them to use the same oral language to communicate shared concepts and ideas. This gives them an idea, the root of a more powerful written language. It starts with something very simple, writing her name. She disassociates the sound from the picture. For her name, Alice, Alice, Alice. She combines the mathematical symbol for all and the picture of ice. All ice. Alice. Notice her name has nothing to do with the individual symbols. Sound plus sound equals new meaning. This is know as the Rebus Principle. Voiceover: A great example of this was found in Egypt along the Nile River. Dated to around 3,100 B.C., it contains some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found. The Narmer Palette depicts the Egyptian pharaoh, Narmer. On the back we see him to the left of a kneeling prisoner who is about to be struck down by Narmer, who we see standing tall, wearing a crown. What we are looking for is on the other side. Between the two bovine heads at the top we see an inscription of his name. It's written as a fish and a chisel, which translates to nar mer. Narmer. Two sounds separated from the pictures together giving new meaning, a key development in the history of written language. But before they could advance towards what we know of as an alphabet, something had to happen. They needed to save time.



 Ojibwa pictographs on cliff-face at Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park
Ojibwa pictographs on cliff-face at Agawa Rock, Lake Superior Provincial Park

Early written symbols were based on pictographs (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms (symbols which represent ideas). Ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations began to adapt such symbols to represent concepts, developing them into logographic writing systems. Pictographs are still in use as the main medium of written communication in some non-literate cultures in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Pictographs are often used as simple, pictorial, representational symbols by most contemporary cultures.

 Several prehistoric engravings can be found around La Silla Observatory.[2]
Several prehistoric engravings can be found around La Silla Observatory.[2]

Pictographs can be considered an art form, or can be considered a written language and are designated as such in Pre-Columbian art, Native American art, Ancient Mesopotamia and Painting in the Americas before Colonization. One example of many is the Rock art of the Chumash people, part of the Native American history of California. In 2011, UNESCO's World Heritage List added "Petroglyph Complexes of the Mongolian Altai, Mongolia"[3] to celebrate the importance of the pictograms engraved in rocks.

Some scientists in the field of neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology, such as Prof. Dr. Mario Christian Meyer, are studying the symbolic meaning of indigenous pictograms and petroglyphs,[4] aiming to create new ways of communication between native people and modern scientists to safeguard and valorize their cultural diversity.[5]

Modern uses

An early modern example of the extensive use of pictographs may be seen in the map in the London suburban timetables of the London and North Eastern Railway, 1936-1947, designed by George Dow, in which a variety of pictographs was used to indicate facilities available at or near each station. Pictographs remain in common use today, serving as pictorial, representational signs, instructions, or statistical diagrams. Because of their graphical nature and fairly realistic style, they are widely used to indicate public toilets, or places such as airports and train stations.

Pictographic writing as a modernist poetic technique is credited to Ezra Pound, though French surrealists accurately credit the Pacific Northwest American Indians of Alaska who introduced writing, via totem poles, to North America.[6]

Contemporary artist Xu Bing created Book from the Ground, a universal language made up of pictograms collected from around the world. A Book from the Ground chat program has been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally.

Pictograms are used in many areas of modern life for commodity purposes, often as a formal language (see the In mathematics section).

In mathematics

 A compound pictogram showing the breakdown of the survivors and deaths of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic by class and age/gender.
A compound pictogram showing the breakdown of the survivors and deaths of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic by class and age/gender.

In statistics, pictograms are charts in which icons represent numbers to make it more interesting and easier to understand. A key is often included to indicate what each icon represents. All icons must be of the same size, but a fraction of an icon can be used to show the respective fraction of that amount.[7]

For example, the following table:

Day Letters sent
Monday 10
Tuesday 17
Wednesday 29
Thursday 41
Friday 18

can be graphed as follows:

Day Letters sent
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Image from the Silk icon theme by Mark James half left.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg
Email Silk.svg


Email Silk.svg = 10 letters

As the values are rounded to the nearest 5 letters, the second icon on Tuesday is the left half of the original.


Pictographs can often transcend languages in that they can communicate to speakers of a number of tongues and language families equally effectively, even if the languages and cultures are completely different. This is why road signs and similar pictographic material are often applied as global standards expected to be understood by nearly all.

A standard set of pictographs was defined in the international standard ISO 7001: Public Information Symbols. Other common sets of pictographs are the laundry symbols used on clothing tags and the chemical hazard symbols as standardized by the GHS system.

Pictograms have been popularized in use on the web and in software, better known as "icons" displayed on a computer screen in order to help user navigate a computer system or mobile device.

Image gallery

See also


  1. ^ Gove, Philip Babcock. (1993). Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Merriam-Webster Inc. ISBN 0-87779-201-1.
  2. ^ "Signatures from the Past". Retrieved 30 January 2017. 
  3. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai". 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Reed 2003, p. xix
  7. ^ "Understanding pictograms". 


External links

This page was last edited on 23 May 2018, at 07:19
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