Pictograms and Ideograms – Origin and History


Pictograms or pictographs is a symbol representing something through illustration. The subject being illustrated may either be something tangible or physical, or the unseen or abstract. Pictographs were regarded as a step up from petroglyphs and even geoglyphs in the development of visual communication and were considered simpler and more efficient in sending a message.

What makes pictograms different from petroglyphs is that petroglyphs simply show or depict an event, but pictograms go farther than that in the sense that these tell a story about the event, given that fact, it may be possible to piece together the pieces of this proverbial puzzle to know the history of early people.

Pictograms were used by various ancient cultures all over the world. No one knows exactly where it originated and would appear that these cultures did not learn it from others and developed their own form of communication. Despite the evolution of language into textual form, pictograms continue to be in use as the main medium of written communication in some cultures in Africa, The Americas, and Oceania where they have never used any form of alphabet. What makes it rather interesting is that the pictograms they use are typical symbols by most contemporary cultures.


Ideograms, as the term may suggest, are graphical symbols that represent an idea. There are those who think that these ideograms evolved from pictograms.  This would indicate a development in forms of communication as early man found an innovative way to convey a message that pictograms could not do. Pictograms have its limitations. It could represent only something resembling their form.

For instance, a (Chinese) pictogram of a circle could possibly represent a sun as an object. However, it cannot depict abstract concepts like heat or light. This is where ideograms come into play. They could express more abstract concepts. For example using the Chinese model once more, the character for strength (力) which depicts a muscular arm. But it does not mean an arm but serves to symbolize strength or power.

Related to the ideogram is the logogram. A logogram is a written character that represents a word or phrase.

Use of Pictograms and Ideograms in Ancient Civilizations

Sumerians (Cuneiform)

Ancient civilizations mainly used a variety of these visual forms of communication, most notably the Ancient Egyptians, Sumerians or Mesopotamians and the Chinese, and each of them have their own distinct system.

The Sumerians or Mesopotamians’ earliest form of writing was called the cuneiform. This was derived from a system of tokens made of clay they used to represent commodities which means that ancient societies learned how to conduct business; and in order to be able to do so, they needed to be able to communicate with one another to seal the deal. From tokens, this had evolved into a method of accounting, using a stylus pressed into soft clay at varying angles that would symbolize numbers; and it would not be long they would develop a numerical system based on these symbols. At that time though, the stylus used either a round or sharp shaped one. This was gradually replaced later on with a wedge-shaped stylus, initially for logograms, but later incorporated phonetic elements until they represented syllables of their spoken language.

Since paper was non-existent to them, clay was used because they were abundant and readily available. It is soft and best of all they can “recycle” or reuse it many times. They stylus came from reeds in the absence of any trees. This text was later adopted by subsequent Mesopotamian societies – Akkadians, Hittites, Elamites and Hurrians.

Egyptians (Hieroglyphics)

When one thinks of hieroglyphics, the first thing that would come into mind will be the Ancient Egyptians whose use of hieroglyphics are well known. These hieroglyphics are a combination of logographic, alphabetic and idiomatic elements and it can be surmised that Ancient Egyptians were not quite literate at the time and relied on images and illustrations to convey their thoughts and depict their experiences. In their case, they developed various hieroglyphics that serve a purpose or function: to represent an image or action, represent a syllable of a word and to clarify the meaning of other glyphs for better understanding. These can be found on the walls of their buildings – temples, pyramids and palaces.

Until the late 18th century, no one knew how to read or decipher hieroglyphics until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. This relic has hieroglyphics and Demotic script but at the same time an Ancient Greek translation of the former.

Chinese (Ideograms)

Chinese, and to an extent Japanese and Korean, use logograms. They have evolved from individual pictograms, and phonetic signs that have been synthesized. They are so far the oldest continuously used writing system in the world since this dates back to ancient times.

Chinese text consists of a system of symbols. If studied well, it can provide useful insight into the minds of the Chinese. Compared to Western alphabet, which only represents sounds, each Chinese character has a unique meaning even if they may sound alike.

The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs. These characters are based on objects visible. Many of these continue to be used in simplified, stylized forms, such as (火) for fire and (山) for mountain. For fire, one can see two curved lines merging at the top, flanked by smaller brushstrokes to simulate flames. For mountain, it was simplified into three vertical lines, with the middle one longer to depict the peak. But later on, there would be Chinese characters that would represent abstract concepts like power, love and other feelings or emotions.

Chinese characters are aesthetically pleasing to the eye to the extent, it was elevated into an art form and this is very evident in calligraphy.