Tag Archives: literacy

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 pens



The papyrus reed can also be made into pens and brushes. For a pen, you need a dried papyrus reed. It’s as hard as wood, and hollow. With a sharp knife you cut a concave section out of the end of the reed, leaving a flexible point. You trim the point to however wide you want your pen-stroke. Then you split the point so it can hold ink.

If you don’t happen to have a papyrus reed handy, for 3 or 4 bucks you can buy a Chinese bamboo calligraphy pen for the same result. https://www.dickblick.com/products/richeson-bamboo-reed-pens/?clickTracking=true&wmcp=pla&wmcid=items&wmckw=04898-1002&gclid=Cj0KCQiAy579BRCPARIsAB6QoIYuyXrsjCnLqNxnS8MFwI7cqciXBY3gUUKJtTXJTXoH3aE-VftbgEsaAk5-EALw_wcB

https://swatihumanitiesancientcivilisations2015.weebly.com/tools-used.html

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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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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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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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Ideograms

This ideogram says “Turn right!”

ideo·​gram
1 : a picture or symbol used in a system of writing to represent a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it
especially : one that represents not the object pictured but some thing or idea that the object pictured is supposed to suggest
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ideogram

Numbers are ideograms. They represent the idea of quantity or amount. Mathematical symbols are ideograms, too—‘+’ means added to, ‘-’ means subtracted from. Those are abstract ideas. The plus or minus sign doesn’t represent anything you can see or touch.

A red circle with a bar through it means ‘no’ or ‘not allowed.’ That’s an idea. If you put the red circle and bar across a picture of a cigarette or dog or a skateboard, you know those things aren’t allowed. The cigarette or dog or skateboard are pictograms. They represent something you can see or touch. The red circle and bar turn them into ideograms: the idea of something being forbidden.

I put these signs up in my house but it’s like the dogs don’t even see them

Skateboarding dog doesn’t care about ideograms

Can you think of any ideograms? You see them everywhere. They’re especially useful to communicate without needing to speak a particular language. Anyone at an international airport can find someplace to eat, a gender-appropriate potty, the baggage claim or a taxi thanks to pictograms and ideograms. Ideograms on the road tell a driver when to slow down, merge with other traffic, or stop. Do you see any ideograms at home? At school? On your computer?

https://penandthepad.com/types-imagery-poetry-19888.html (scroll down)

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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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Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).

http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/2-making-stylus.html
http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/5-making-basic-wedges.html

By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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