Encyclopedia > Ideogram

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The ideographic meaning of this
symbol - of a child beneath a roof
representing "learning" or "education", has
changed over the years to a deflective
meaning of "character" or - more from the
point of view of the ideograph - as
simply, "ideogram."

Ideograms (from Greek ιδε&alpha idea "idea" + γραφος graphos "writing") are symbols that represent a word in a written language, as opposed to using phonemes or syllables to construct words from their component sounds. An ideogram is distinguished from a pictograph in that a pictograph is any symbol that represents an idea, whereas an ideogram is part of an established written language. Since ideograms represent words or morphemes rather than ideas directly, some linguists prefer the terms logogram and logographic to avoid confusion.

Ideograms are used in such languages as Chinese and Japanese although, both have developed "impure" uses of what were originally ideographic symbols into various types - most infamously, for phonetic use - completely removed from any ideographic meaning. Early hieroglyphics and cuneiform were also ideograms, though later they were used extensively (and in cuneiform, exclusively) for their pronunciation. In fact Egyptian heiroglyphs, in their most developed stage, represented a merger of ideograms and phonograms similar to modern Chinese and Japanese.

Japanese developed a system of phonetic writing - katakana, and its sister syllabulary, hiragana - largely to avoid the continued problem of corrupting the ideographic kanji (hanzi, or han writing) with phonetic uses, rather than ideographic ones.

Chinese, due to different dialects and the numerous homophones, could not make use of Japanese method. Pinyin system is excellent in teaching official dialect Mandarin, but it fails to replace the characters. More on Chinese characters.


  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)
  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686

External links

  • Jim Breen Kanji resources home (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/wwwjdic)
  • Breen's Kanji search (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/jwb/wwwjdic?1B) (multiple methods, including English meaning, for translation)
  • Breen's translation (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/jwb/wwwjdic?1KG) Cut and paste kanji from web pages
  • Breen's Kanji search (http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/jwb/wwwjdic?1R) (multi-radical method)

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