What are Pictographs?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Pictographs are small standardized images which stand for concepts or ideas, and are used as a mode of communication. Many ancient cultures used pictographs in their earliest writing systems, and some languages have a direct line of descent from pictographic writing systems. Written traditional Chinese, for example, clearly shows its roots. While they may seem similar to hieroglyphs, pictographs are different because they are literal visual representations, unlike hieroglyphic written languages, in which the images may sometimes stand for the objects they resemble, but are also used to represent sounds, and sometimes the hieroglyph bears no physical resemblance at all to the concept it stands for.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Because pictographs transcend language, since anyone can understand the most basic of them, they continue to be used around the world today in communications which are designed to provide basic information to people. For example, at a trail head, a small plaque might show a pictograph of a person hiking to indicate that the trail can be used for hiking, and include an image of a tent to show that camping is permitted, or a pictograph of someone on a horse to illustrate that riding is allowed. Pictographs may also be mixed with well-known ideograms, visual symbols which stand for known concepts, such as a circle with a line through it to indicate that whatever is inside the circle is not allowed.

Some fascinating examples of pictographs produced by ancient cultures can be found in many regions of the world. Native American rock art from some areas, for example, uses pictographs to tell stories, and examples can also be seen on objects uncovered from the Middle East, early primers on written Chinese, and in many other locations. Developing a pictograph system was the first step for many cultures when they began to start writing, and evidence seems to suggest that many writing systems had their roots in commerce. Merchants wanted a way to record inventories, sales, and other information, and started using pictographs for this purpose.

Basic pictographs may require no cultural understanding or knowledge of the language of the author. As they become more complex, they can start to become more abstract, and people may need to be able to make inferences from the information provided in the pictograph. Most written languages which used pictographs became extremely unwieldy as interest in writing expanded, which is why many cultures began to transition to logograms such as those seen in traditional Chinese, which can represent entire words or morphemes, depending on how they are used, and may bear only an abstract resemblance to the words they represent. Other cultures made the leap into an alphabet, in which letters are used to represent sounds, and do not stand for individual words or concepts.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - I would still argue that original writing systems were all almost certainly derived from pictographs. If a culture developed in a vacuum without influences from other cultures, it would only develop writing by gradually moving on from pictures to symbols and so forth. Since most cultures have been mixing at least a little bit throughout history, there's no real way to know for sure, however, since as soon as one jumped ahead in technology, the rest would follow.


@clintflint - I think there are other ways that languages can develop. The one that springs to my mind is through mathematics. If you use a line to represent one and two lines to represent two, then it's not that much of a jump to decide on a different, abstract symbol to represent ten so you don't have to write out that many lines. Once the idea of abstract representation has been figured out, then it's not that difficult to apply it to other concepts.

The other way that I know has happened is an alphabet that was developed deliberately. Korean, I believe, was constructed basically from scratch (which is why it follows such logical rules of pronunciation, unlike English). You could argue that it was inspired by Chinese and you might be correct, but the symbols themselves were invented purely to be abstract sounds, rather than symbols of concrete objects.


I would have thought that all languages descended directly from pictographs, since I can't imagine writing arising spontaneously without them. The most natural way to record something is by drawing a picture of it, after all. Even though the majority of languages today are abstract, I would guess that's just because they have evolved over so many years that we can't see the similarities with their original pictographs any longer.

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