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A pictograph (also called pictogram or pictogramme) is an ideogram that conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object. Earliest examples of pictographs include ancient or prehistoric drawings or paintings found on rock walls. Pictographs are also used in writing and graphic systems in which the characters are to considerable extent pictorial in appearance.

Pictography is a form of writing which uses representational, pictorial drawings. It is a basis of cuneiform and, to some extent, hieroglyphic writing, which uses drawings also as phonetic letters or determinative rhymes.

Early written symbols were based on pictographs (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms (symbols which represent ideas). They were used by the ancient Chinese culture since around 5000 BC and began to develop into logographic writing systems around 2000 BC. 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.

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.

Pictographs can also take the form of diagrams to represent statistical data by pictorial forms, and can be varied in color, size, or number to indicate change.

Modern use

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.

A standard set of pictographs was defined in the international standard ISO 7001: Public Information Symbols. Another common set of pictographs are the laundry symbols used on clothing tags and chemical hazard labels.

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

Contemporary Artist Xu Bing created Book from the Ground, a universal language made up of pictogram collected from around the world. A Book from the Ground chat program has been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally. There is a Book from the Ground Wiki currently in development that needs public participation in development. The wiki will be a continually growing database of pictogram used in the chat program, books, signs etc.

Image:GreatGalleryedit.jpg|Pictographs from the Great Gallery, Canyonlands National ParkmarkerImage:National Park Service sample pictographs.svg|Sample National Park Service pictographsImage:Piktograf1.png|Pictograph from 1510 telling a story of coming of missionaries to HispaniolamarkerImage:Water,Rabbit,Deer.jpg|Water, rabbit, deer pictographs on a replica of an Aztec Stone of the SunImage:Railway pictograms.jpg|British Rail passenger safety pictographs at the end of the platform at Meols railway stationmarkerImage:Alligator pictogram.jpg|A pictograph warning against swimming because of crocodiles at the Australia Zoomarker.Image:Perros No.svg|"No Dogs!" sign in Spain. The dog illustration is a pictograph. The red circle and bar is an ideogram representing the idea of "no" or "not allowed."Image:road-sign-horse.jpg|The top traffic sign warns people of horses and riders.

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. Reed 2003, p. xix


  • Reed, Ishmael (2003). From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002, Ishmael Reed, ed. ISBN 1-56025-458-0.

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