What Is Ideographic Writing? (with Examples)

The ideographic writing is that which constitutes a representation of the language through the use of ideograms or symbols that represent ideas.

The term “ideographic” comes from the Greek words ἰδέα (idea) and γράφω (“grapho”, to write) and was used for the first time in 1822 by the French scholar Champollion, to refer to Egyptian writing. Since then, the term has expanded and now refers to any symbol system that represents ideas.

Hieroglyphs are an example of ideographic writing.

Human language can be expressed in written form in two basic ways. One is through the use of symbols that represent the sounds of spoken language or alphabetic writing.

The second way is through the use of symbols that represent the meaning of what is expressed; what is known as ideographic writing.

Article index

  • one

    Ideographic writing and its components

  • two

    Examples of ideograms

  • 3

    History of ideographic writing

    • 3.1

      Cuneiform writing

    • 3.2

      Hieroglyphic writing

    • 3.3

      Mayan writing

  • 4

    “The myth of ideographic writing”

Ideographic writing and its components

Many of the writing systems combine elements of the two methods. For example, modern writing systems such as English, French, and Spanish rely heavily on phonetic principles; however, some symbols are used, such as numbers.

The number 2 is written the same in many languages, however, the pronunciation is diverse: in Spanish it is two, in English it is two, in French it is deux, and in Korean it is dul.

  • the numeral (#)
  • the weight ($)
  • the at sign (@)
  • the ampersand (&)

These are symbols that represent complete ideas or concepts without reference to the phonemes that make up those words.

The symbols discussed above are known as ideograms or logograms (from the Latin “logos”, which means “word”) and these are the elements that make up ideographic writing.

Examples of ideograms

– A red circle with a diagonal line through it is an example of an ideogram that expresses “prohibited”.

– Some traffic signs such as the arrows indicating “right turn” or “left turn” are also ideograms.

– Mathematical symbols, such as numbers, plus (+), minus (-), and percent (%), are ideograms.

History of ideographic writing

The first ideographic writing systems to be developed were cuneiform writing, developed by the Sumerians, and hieroglyphic writing, developed by the Egyptians.

Cuneiform writing

The cuneiform system allowed to represent language through the two ways mentioned above: phonetic and ideographic. 
However, because many of the characters used had both phonetic and semantic value, the cuneiform system was quite ambiguous.

The ideograms that made up this system were of two types: simple and complex. The latter were simple characters to which other elements were added.

For example, the symbol to say “mouth” derives from the symbol that expresses “head” and differs from this because it presents a series of marks at the bottom to draw attention to the area of ​​the mouth.

The use of the cuneiform system expanded beyond the confines of Mesopotamia and, with it, ideographic writing also expanded.

Hieroglyphic writing

At the same time that the Sumerians developed the cuneiform writing, the Egyptians invented the hieroglyphic writing that, like the previous one, mixed phonetic and ideographic characters.

For example, the ideogram representing house ( pr in Egyptian) was also used to express the consonantal sequence pr (ascend); To differentiate pr – house from pr – ascend, another ideogram expressing movement (a symbol of legs) was added to the latter symbol.

Mayan writing

In America, an ideographic writing system also developed during the pre-Columbian period. There is evidence that the Mayans organized an ideographic system based on glyphs that represented topics such as astronomy, arithmetic and chronology.

“The myth of ideographic writing”

In 1838, Peter S. DuPonceau wrote a book in which he spoke of the so-called “ideographic writing” with respect to the Chinese writing method. In this book, the author concludes that:

1- The Chinese writing system is not ideographic, as many people have pointed out, because it does not represent ideas, but rather represents words. In this sense, DuPonceau proposes that Chinese writing should be called “lexicographical.”

2- Ideographic writing is “the product of the imagination” and does not exist except in limited contexts. This is why, although there are symbols that represent ideas (ideograms), these are not well structured to be able to speak of a writing system.

3- Human beings are endowed with the capacity for spoken language. Therefore, any writing system must be a direct representation of that language, since presenting ideas in an abstract way would be useless.

4- All the writing systems known so far are a representation of the elements of the language, whether they are phonemes (such as Spanish and English), syllables (such as Japanese) or words (such as Chinese).


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  2. Ideographic writing systems. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from thefreedictionary.com.
  3. Ideographic writing. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com.
  4. Ideographic writing. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from pgapworld.wikispaces.com.
  5. Ideographic myth. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from piyin.info.
  6. The ideographic writing system. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from micheloud.com.
  7. Writing. Retrieved on May 9, 2017, from uio.no.
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