Tag Archives: ideogram

A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

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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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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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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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Writing gets complicated

The Sumerians used a stylus to make symbols in soft clay. The symbols represented things they wanted to count, like stuff they were buying or selling. Think about sheaves of barley; poultry or livestock; pots of olive oil; baskets of dried fish. It was an accounting system for business. There were symbols for counting—numbers—and symbols to represent things—pictograms.

Over a long period of time, though, these symbols developed into a writing system that could record things people say. New meanings were introduced. Sometimes a symbol represented an idea—that’s called an ideogram. For instance, a symbol that looks like the sun may represent the sun (pictogram), or maybe a day or noon or the passage of time (ideogram). A foot symbol might mean a foot (pictogram), or walking or running or a distance (ideogram).

This writing system became pretty complicated. There were thousands of these symbols and more than one meaning for a lot of them. The ordinary shmoes who had used symbols to count their goods could no longer read or write in this system. You had to be trained to do it. You had to be a scribe.

https://saffroninteractive.com/a-brief-history-of-pictograms-and-ideograms/
https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050
https://www.historyofvisualcommunication.com/02-ideograms

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