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A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of language). This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes (speech sounds) or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.

Logograms are commonly known also as "ideograms" or "hieroglyphics", which can also be called "hieroglyphs". Strictly speaking, however, ideograms represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logographic systems described here are truly ideographic.

Since logograms are visual symbols representing words rather than the sounds or phonemes that make up the word, it is relatively easier to remember or guess the sound of alphabetic written words, while it might be relatively easier to remember or guess the meaning of logograms. Another feature of logograms is that a single logogram may be used by a plurality of languages to represent words with similar meanings. While disparate languages may also use the same or similar alphabets, abjads, abugidas, syllabaries and the like, the degree to which they may share identical representations for words with disparate pronunciations is much more limited.

Logographic systems

Egyptian hieroglyphs, which have their origins as logograms.
Logographic systems, or logographies, include the earliest true writing systems; the first historical civilizations of the Near East, China, and Central America used some form of logographic writing.

A purely logographic script would be impractical for most languages, and none is known apart from one devised for the artificial language Toki Pona, a purposefully limited language with only 120 morphemes. A more recent attempt is Zlango, intended for use in text messaging, currently including around 300 "icons". All logographic scripts ever used for natural languages rely on the rebus principle to extend a relatively limited set of logograms: A subset of characters is used for their phonetic values, either consonantal or syllabic. The term logosyllabary is used to emphasize the partially phonetic nature of these scripts when the phonetic domain is the syllable. In both Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and in Chinese, there has been the additional development of fusing such phonetic elements with determinatives; such "radical and phonetic" characters make up the bulk of the script, and both languages relegated simple rebuses to the spelling of foreign loan words and words from non-standard dialects.

Logographic writing systems include:

  • Logoconsonantal scripts
  • : These are scripts in which the graphemes may be extended phonetically according to the consonants of the words they represent, ignoring the vowels. For example, Egyptian G38 was used to write both "duck" and "son", though it is likely that these words were not pronounced the same apart from their consonants. The primary examples of logoconsonantal scripts are,
  • :*Hieroglyphs, hieratic, and demotic: Ancient Egypt

None of these systems was purely logographic. This can be illustrated with Chinese. Not all Chinese characters represent morphemes: some morphemes are composed of more than one character. For example, the Chinese word for spider, 蜘蛛 zhīzhū, was created by fusing the rebus 知朱 zhīzhū (literally "know cinnabar") with the 'bug' determinative 虫. Neither *蜘 zhī nor *蛛 zhū can be used separately (except to stand in for 蜘蛛 in poetry). In Archaic Chinese, one can find the reverse: a single character representing more than one morpheme. An example is Archaic Chinese 王 hjwangs, a combination of a morpheme hjwang meaning king (coincidentally also written 王) and a suffix pronounced s. (The suffix is preserved in the modern falling tone.) In modern Mandarin, bimorphemic syllables are always written with two characters, for example 花儿 huār "flower (diminutive)".

A peculiar system of logograms developed within the Pahlavi scripts (developed from the Aramaic abjad) used to write Middle Persian during much of the Sassanid period; the logograms were composed of letters that spelled out the word in Aramaic but were pronounced as in Persian (for instance, the combination "M-L-K" would be pronounced "shah"). These logograms, called hozwārishn, were dispensed with altogether after the Arab conquest of Persia and the adoption of a variant of the Arabic alphabet.

Logograms are used in modern shorthand to represent common words. In addition, the numeral and mathematical symbols used in alphabetic systems are logograms—1 one, 2 two, + plus, = equals, and so on. In English, the ampersand & is used for and and et (such as &c for et cetera), % for percent, $ for dollar, # for number, for euro, £ for pound, etc.

Semantic and phonetic dimensions

All historical logographic systems include a phonetic dimension, as it is impractical to have a separate basic character for every word or morpheme in a language.In some cases, such as cuneiform as it was used for Akkadian, the vast majority of glyphs are used for their sound values rather than logographically. Many logographic systems also have a semantic/ideographic component, called "determinatives" in the case of Egyptian and "radicals" in the case of Chinese.

Typical Egyptian usage is to augment a logogram, which may potentially represent several words with different pronunciations, with a determinative to narrow down the meaning, and a phonetic component to specify the pronunciation. In the case of Chinese, the vast majority of characters are a fixed combination of a radical that indicates its semantic category, plus a phonetic to give an idea of the pronunciation. The Mayan system used logograms with phonetic complements like the Egyptian, while lacking ideographic components.

Chinese characters

Chinese scholars have traditionally classified Chinese characters into six types by etymology.

The first two types are "single-body", meaning that the character was created independently of other Chinese characters. Although the perception of most Westerners is that most characters were derived in single-body fashion, pictograms and ideograms actually take up but a small proportion of Chinese logograms. More productive for the Chinese script were the two"compound" methods, i.e. the character was created from assembling different characters. Despite being called "compounds", these logograms are still single characters, and are written to take up the same amount of space as any other logogram. The final two types are methods in the usage of characters rather than the formation of characters themselves.

Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters

  1. The first type, and the type most often associated with Chinese writing, are pictograms, which are pictorial representations of the morpheme represented, e.g. 山 for "mountain".
  2. The second type are ideograms that attempt to visualize abstract concepts, such as 上 "up" and 下 "down". Also considered ideograms are pictograms with an ideographic indicator; for instance, 刀 is a pictogram meaning "knife", while 刃 is an ideogram meaning "blade".
  3. Radical-radical compounds in which each element of the character (called radical) hints at the meaning. For example, 休 "rest" is composed of the characters for "man" (人) and "tree" (木), with the intended idea of someone leaning against a tree, i.e. resting.
  4. Radical-phonetic compounds, in which one component (the radical) indicates the general meaning of the character, and the other (the phonetic) hints at the pronunciation. An example is 樑 (Chinese: liáng), where the phonetic 梁 liáng indicates the pronunciation of the character and the radical 木 ("wood") its meaning of "supporting beam". Characters of this type constitute the majority of Chinese logograms.
  5. Changed-annotation characters are characters which were originally the same character but have bifurcated through orthographic and often semantic drift. For instance, 樂 can mean both "music"(pinyin: yuè ) and "pleasure" (pinyin: ).
  6. Improvisational characters (lit. "improvised-borrowed-words") come into use when a native spoken word has no corresponding character, and hence another character with the same or a similar sound (and often a close meaning) is "borrowed"; occasionally, the new meaning can supplant the old meaning. 自 used to be a pictographic word meaning "nose", but was borrowed to mean "self". It is now used almost exclusively to mean "self", while the "nose" meaning survives only in set-phrases and more archaic compounds. Because of their derivational process, the entire set of Japanese kana can be considered to be of this character, hence the name kana (仮名; 仮 is a simplified form of 假 but used in Japan only).

The most productive method of Chinese writing, the radical-phonetic, was made possible because the phonetic system of Chinese allowed for generous homonymy, and because in consideration of phonetic similarity tone was generally ignored, as were the medial and final consonants of the characters in consideration, at least according to theory following from reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation. Note that due to the long period of language evolution, such component "hints" within characters as provided by the radical-phonetic compounds are sometimes useless and may be misleading in modern usage.

Chinese characters used in Japanese and Korean

Within the context of the Chinese language, Chinese characters by and large represent words and morphemes rather than pure ideas; however, the adoption of Chinese characters by the Japanese and Korean languages (where they are known as kanji and hanja, respectively) have resulted in some complications to this picture.

Many Chinese words, composed of Chinese morphemes, were borrowed into Japanese and Korean together with their character representations; in this case, the morphemes and characters were borrowed together. In other cases, however, characters were borrowed to represent native Japanese and Korean morphemes, on the basis of meaning alone. As a result, a single character can end up representing multiple morphemes of similar meaning but different origins across several languages. Because of this, kanji and hanja are often described as morphographic writing systems.

Advantages and disadvantages

Separating writing and pronunciation

The main difference between logograms and other writing systems is that the graphemes aren't linked directly to their pronunciation. An advantage of this separation is that one doesn't need to understand the pronunciation or language of the writer to understand it. The reader will recognise the meaning of 1, whether it is called one, ichi or wāḥid in the language of the writer.Likewise, people speaking different Chinese dialects may not understand each other in speaking, but can to a limited extent in writing even if they don't write in standard Chinese. Moreover, in East Asia (including China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc) prior to modern time, communication by writing (筆談) was the norm of international trade and diplomacy. Deaf people also find logogram systems easier to learn as the words are not related to sound .

This separation, however, also has the great disadvantage of requiring the memorization of the logograms when learning to read and write, separately from the pronunciation. Though not an inherent feature of logograms but due to its unique history of development, Japanese has the added complication that almost every logogram has more than one pronunciation. Conversely, a phonetic character set is written precisely as it is spoken, but with the disadvantage that slight pronunciation differences introduce ambiguities. Many alphabetic systems such as those of Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish and Finnish make the practical compromise of standardizing how words are written while maintaining a nearly one-to-one relation between characters and sounds. Both English and French orthography are more complicated than that and character combinations are often pronounced in multiple ways, usually depending on their history. Hangul, the Korean language writing system, is an example of an alphabet that was designed to replace the logogrammic hanja in order to increase literacy. The latter is now rarely used in Korea.

However, the reputed high literacy in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Chinese characters are the main writing system, has proved that using logograms or not has not as much effect on literacy as education system. Although learning Chinese may seem difficult at first glance, according to a government-commissioned research, the most commonly used 3,500 words listed in PRC's "Chart of Common Characters of Modern Chinese" (现代汉语常用字表) cover 99.48% of a two-million-word sample, meaning that one only has to learn 3,500 (simplified) Chinese characters to read Chinese articles fluently. As for the case of traditional Chinese characters, 4,808 characters are listed in "Chart of Standard Forms of Common National Characters" (常用國字標準字體表) by the Ministry of Education of ROC, while 4,759 in "Soengjung Zi Zijing Biu" (常用字字形表) by the Education and Manpower Bureau of Hong Kong, both of which are intended to be taught during elementary and junior secondary education. The education after elementary school includes not as many new characters as new words, which are mostly combination of two or more already-learned characters. The significance of this is that, after a relatively short term of education, the learning of Chinese language for its native speakers can become faster and easier, as they no longer have to spend much time in memorizing reading and writing of a new word, but only have to memorize its meaning. The meaning of a Chinese word composed of two or more characters is not arbitrary but related to the original meaning of each of its characters. For example, 生物 "living thing, creature or organism" is composed of 生 "to live" and 物 "thing or object"; 訪問 "interview" is composed of 訪 "to visit" and 問 "to ask". Therefore, it is usually easy to memorize a new word's meaning, and one can even comprehend it before consulting any dictionary. The user of a language of phoneme-based writing system, on the other hand, can still be confronting an unfamiliar word from time to time even after higher education, and may not be able to understand it before consulting a dictionary, or forget its meaning if not using it frequently. However, tests on Japanese adults have indicated some loss in character recognition, with consequent increased use of the phonetic kana syllabaries.

Characters in information technology

Inputting complex characters can be cumbersome on electronic devices due to a practical limitation in the number of input keys. There exist various input methods for entering logograms, either by breaking them up into their constituent parts such as with the Cangjie or Wubi method of typing Chinese, or using phonetic systems such as Bopomofo or Pinyin where the word is entered as pronounced and then selected from a list of logograms matching it. While the former method is (linearly) faster, it is more difficult to learn. With the Chinese alphabet system however, the strokes forming the logogram are typed as they are normally written, and the corresponding logogram is then entered.

Also due to the number of glyphs, in programming and computing in general, more memory is needed to store each grapheme as the character set is larger. As a comparison, ISO 8859 requires only one byte for each grapheme, while the Basic Multilingual Plane encoded in UTF-8 requires up to three bytes. On the other hand, English words, for example, average five characters and a space per wordand thus need six bytes for every word. Since many logograms contain more than one grapheme, it is not clear which is more memory-efficient. Variable-width encodings allow a unified character encoding standard such as Unicode to use only the bytes necessary to represent a character, reducing the overhead that follows merging large character sets with smaller ones.


  1. Most have glyphs with predominantly syllabic values, called logosyllabic, though Egyptian had predominantly consonantal or poly-consonantal values, and is thus called logoconsonantal.
  2. "Determinative" is the more generic term, however, and some authors use it for Chinese as well (e.g. William Boltz in Daniels and Bright, 1996:194).
  • - Chapter 3.
  • Williams and Bright, The World's Writing Systems, Oxford, 1996.

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