Tag Archives: homeschool

Milton Glaser and logograms

When a symbol works—when everybody sees it and immediately knows what the writer is saying—it really works.



Back in the mid-1970s, there was a hugely influential graphic designer named Milton Glaser. In New York City—and everywhere—every young graphic designer knew about Milton Glaser and the mighty crew at Push Pin Studios. He was asked by the State of New York to help out with an advertising campaign to promote tourism. They wanted people to come visit the state and spend money. The slogan was to be: ‘I Love New York.’ They would turn the slogan into a musical jingle for radio & tv ads. It would appear on all print promotion.

While thinking about the project in the back of a taxi cab, Milton Glaser grabbed a crayon and a scrap of paper and turned the slogan ‘I Love New York’ into a logogram: *

which became this:



Gajillions of T-shirts/buttons/coffeemugs/ballcaps later, everybody knows that logogram. The design is trademarked, but not by Milton Glaser. He was generous with his talent and did the work pro bono—for free. Pro bono is Latin for ‘why people in the graphic design business are often short of cash.’ Try to negotiate for a percentage of sales, you young designers, even if you’re doing a favor.

You can see how logograms became part of the system of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. A scribe might hit upon a widely-recognized symbol and use it to replace a word or words. If it worked, it became part of their writing system.

*I admit: only the ‘heart’ part of this is a true logogram, standing for the word ‘love.’ And, yes, hearts have been part of romantic love imagery and Valentine’s Day cards for years and years. But before Glaser’s design, nobody had used a heart symbol that way—to replace a word. Today it’s part of our visual language. How about that for influence on a culture?

https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Logogram
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Love_New_York
https://news.artnet.com/art-world/graphic-designer-milton-glaser-obituary-1890597

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Rebus

Aleph (AH-leff)

Sometimes a symbol stood for a sound. The hieroglyph that looks like an ox’s head was called ‘Aleph’ (AH-leff). Imagine you’re an ancient Egyptian scribe. If you drew (Aleph) and added ‘my heart in San Francisco’ readers would get the meaning without you having to draw all the symbols for ‘I left’—like a picture of a guy walking away or a picture of something being left behind.

Using the aleph symbol that way is a ‘rebus.’ If you’ve ever been in a doctor’s waiting room with kids’ magazines on the coffee table, you’ve probably seen a rebus in them. Rebus symbols are different from the rest of hieroglyphics because rebus symbols represent a sound. Not only that, but the sound can have nothing to do with what the symbol originally represented. The reader sees an ox head and hears the sound ‘aleph’ but doesn’t think about cows or draft animals or plowing.

This is kind of a big deal. Rebuses meant that ordinary shmoes might understand hieroglyphics, not just the scribes. Of course, the scribes didn’t want ordinary shmoes reading hieroglyphics because then the scribes would be out of a job. So they kept writing with the complicated system of pictograms, ideograms and logograms. Only the scribes could write ‘em; only the scribes could read ‘em.

Here’s Mr Tony Bennett:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6DUwMnDxEs
https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/ancient-alphabet/aleph.htm
https://www.dictionary.com/e/a/
Okay, some of these are true rebuses, some aren’t. If you have to spell out the word ‘ha’ in a dialogue balloon, why show a girl laughing? Same with a picture of a cat ‘-T’ to get ‘CA.’ If we already know how to spell, we don’t need the rebus.
https://kidpillar.com/free-rebus-puzzles-for-kids/

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Logograms

 

Like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics is a writing system which used pictograms (symbols that stand for things) ideograms (symbols that stand for ideas).

Remember with pictograms, a picture of the sun stands for the sun, and a picture of a foot stands for a foot. An ideogram could be a picture of a sun that stands for the idea of one day. Or a picture of a foot that stands for the idea of distance. Ideograms ask you to see a picture of one thing and figure out that it means something else—something you can’t draw a picture of.

Then there are logograms—symbols that stand for a word or even a phrase. Maybe logograms started out as pictograms but the scribes used them to save time. We use logograms all the time when we send text messages, because they’re fast, easy and save space. Like ‘&’ is a logogram for ‘and.’ ‘$’ is a logogram for ‘dollars.’ ‘>’ is a logogram for ‘more than.’ Emojis are logograms that express a feeling faster than writing those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant.


UPDATE: As I reread this post, I realize I’m wrong here. Emojis are ideograms, not logograms. Unless they stand in for specific words, they’re not logograms. A heart emoji as a response to a text is an ideogram: it means you love what you just read. ‘I(heart)NY’ is a logogram for ‘I love New York.’ I need to rewrite and redraw this one.



https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Logogram

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Papyrus

How come Egyptian hieroglyphics are recognizable to us, but Sumerian cuneiform isn’t?

Two words: art supplies.

The Sumerian scribes used a stylus to make marks in soft clay. A stylus pokes indentations into clay, but not strokes. They were limited to wedge-shapes because if they’d tried to draw a curve there would be a build-up of clay on one side of the stroke, like when a snow plow clears a road.

The Egyptians wrote on paper—to be specific, papyrus (pah PIE roos). Papyrus is a reed that grows around the Nile River delta. They found that you can soak the pith (the insides) of the reeds until it becomes soft, then pound it flat. The flattened strips are woven into a sheet, pressed and left to dry. When the sheet’s dry you can write or draw on it.

You cut the skin off a papyrus reed with a knife, leaving the pith. The pith is cut into strips.

Soak the pith strips in water.

The strips are rolled flat.

The strips are woven into a sheet and left to dry under some heavy weight.

Ta-da! It’s a sheet of papyrus!

(I was right—the papyrus reed is triangular in cross-section. I hadn’t lost my marbles after all.)

Here are two scribes, one writes in cuneiform and one writes in hieroglyphics.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoqavHDlKZ0

Watch some experts make papyrus:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCR8n7qS43w
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO72jfUCYSg

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Writing of the gods

Hieroglyphics are similar to cuneiform in one way: they’re a combination of pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols stand for entire syllables or words—logograms. Hieroglyphics are different from cuneiform in one big way: the images are recognizable to our modern eyes. Cuneiform is a bunch of wedge-shapes arranged in different configurations to make symbols. But with hieroglyphics, when you look at a symbol that represents an owl or a snake or a hand, you can tell right away what they’re supposed to be. There’s a good reason for that.

https://discoveringegypt.com/egyptian-hieroglyphic-writing/egyptian-hieroglyphic-alphabet/
https://brewminate.com/beyond-hieroglyphs-the-art-and-architecture-of-ancient-egypt/
http://www.lynnbrownwriter.com/blog-history/tag/menes/
https://egyptindependent.com/google-launches-tool-decoding-translating-egyptian-hieroglyphs-through-ai/

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Meanwhile, in Egypt…

Crescent moon

Crescent roll


I was telling you about the Sumerians and we kind of zoomed ahead to the Persian Empire because I needed to tell you how we are able to translate cuneiform. We skipped over a few thousand years and if I keep doing that this is going to be a really short book. So let’s pause for a moment and drift back to 6,000 bc or so and travel west from Mesopotamia to the northern edge of Africa—to Egypt. Just like the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, people settled along the banks of the Nile River because it was easy to grow food there. In fact, the area that contains all three rivers is known as the Fertile Crescent—where civilization got its start.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertile_Crescent
https://www.almanac.com/content/captivating-crescent-moon

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The man who cracked the cuneiform code

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson

Now we skip ahead a couple thousand years to ad 1833. By that time Persia found herself part of a bigger empire: The British Empire, the Raj. Like Darius, the Brits had governors to oversee and manage their conquered nations. British Royal Army officers trained Persian soldiers to maintain peace. Among those British officers was a young cadet named Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. He had an interest in foreign language—I’m telling you, the British Empire was chock full of Englishmen with a flair for languages.* Rawlinson had learned to speak Farsi—the Persian language of the native soldiers. Rawlinson was quartered in the village of Behistun. Carved into a rock looking down on the village was one of Darius’ trilingual proclamations. One day Rawlinson decided to climb that rock and write down, as best as he could manage, all 3 versions of the proclamation.

One version of Darius’ proclamation was written in Old Persian. Since Rawlinson spoke Farsi—modern Persian, he could just about work out what the proclamation said. After he got the Persian part, he could begin the work of translating the other two—and deciphering cuneiform.

* In India, British officers in command of native troops were expected to learn the language of their men. I don’t know how many officers did learn, but it would have been a big achievement. It’s a lot harder to learn a different language when you’re grown up than it is when you’re a kid.

https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/6-organizing-the-empire/
https://www.britannica.com/place/Bisitun#ref99616

Henry Rawlinson and the Mesopotamian Cuneiform


https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Creswicke-Rawlinson
https://royalasiaticsociety.org/sir-henry-creswicke-rawlinson-1810-1895/

The Politics of Persian Language Education in Colonial India


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Indian_Army

I, Darius, proclaim

And in what language were Darius’ messages written? The Persian Empire was a big place. By the time Darius was in charge, he ruled over different cultures that spoke/read different languages. To make sure everybody got the message when he made official announcements, Darius had them translated. For instance, there’s a royal proclamation carved in stone near Behistun, a village in Iran. It’s written 3 times, in 3 languages: Babylonian, Old Persian, and Elamite. To drive the message home, there are pictures helpfully carved into the stone for people who couldn’t read.

The proclamation at Behistun tells the story of how Darius’ throne was stolen while he was away, how Darius returned and killed the usurper, how Darius then conquered the nations that were now part of the Persian Empire, and how those nations would be overseen by Persian governors (satraps). When Darius took over he had these proclamations put up all over his empire.

https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2017/04/03/1364911/the-behistun-inscription-a-multilingual-inscription
https://www.livius.org/articles/concept/satraps-and-satrapies/
https://www.ancient.eu/Persian_Governor/

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Learn to be a scribe! Earn big money!

A scribe is—or was—someone people hired to write and read cuneiform. As I mentioned, cuneiform wasn’t easy to read. You had to go to a special ‘tablet-school’ to learn how. Both boys and girls went to tablet-school. All you needed was lots of money to pay for it. Once you graduated, you were set for life in the scribe business. Scribes always had work and were at the top of Sumerian society.

Cuneiform was used to record several languages. Cuneiform symbols had different meanings in different contexts. A scribe had to know if he were reading an invoice or a royal decree or a poem. These symbols were pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols represented a sound, too, so cuneiform was sometimes a phonetic writing system. These sounds were syllables.

Wait a minute, how does that work? Well, it works like a rebus. You’ve seen rebus puzzles in kids’ magazines. For the word ‘syllable,’ you’d write this:

Sill + a + bull.

Most spoken languages have hundreds—if not thousands—of different syllables, so cuneiform needed a load of symbols.

Aaaaand, it’s important to realize that writing didn’t have much resemblance to how people spoke. That seems weird to us now, because we have an alphabet that’s designed to track the spoken word as closely as possible. The best way I can describe cuneiform is to compare it to coding, like for a website.

Here’s a very good post about scribes: https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-lives-of-scribes-in-ancient-mesopotamia/
https://mesopotamia.mrdonn.org/cuneiform.html
http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/writing/home_set.html
http://sumerianshakespeare.com/34101/index.html
Here’s a nice character design of a lady scribe by artist Beth Hobbs: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qqwOn
https://www.facebook.com/RebusConcentrationPuzzles/

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It’s the end of Time and Space

So that’s it—with the exception of a few odds & ends that didn’t fit into the story, that’s all I got for Time and Space. I’ll tell you, this was even more fun than I thought it would be. I hope you learned a few things. I sure did.

We started with Sumerians, their Base Sixty counting and 24-hour days; Egyptian sundials and waterclocks; Greek units of distance; the Roman calendar; the hourglass; the geocentric universe; the Mideastern astrolabe; the Silk Road; the Chinese compass and Venetian trade routes; Columbus’ discovery of the New World; the race to find longitude; pendulum clocks, chronometers, steam engines, internal combustion engines, the quartz crystal movement, atomic clocks, GPS; and ended with Einstein’s theories. Whew!

What’s next? So many things! I want to turn this series of blog posts into a book. I’m thinking of doing one of those Kickstarter campaigns. The book version of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space will have the same feel as the blog: lots of bits of information crammed in with lots of lame gags and cartoons. My rough pencil sketches will become finished illustrations. There will be QR codes so you can access links to sources and music while you read it.

Aaaaaaand—in the next couple of weeks I’ll be starting a new Western Civ User’s Guide with a different topic.

Thanks for following this, you weirdos. I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am somebody actually reads these posts.

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