Tag Archives: pictogram

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/
Here’s a nice character design of a lady scribe by artist Beth Hobbs: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qqwOn

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


This ideogram says “Turn right!”

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

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)

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Chicken scratchings

Here’s something else clay is good for: writing stuff down.

I’m just guessing here. How would you write a number before there were numbers?

Before it’s fired, clay is soft enough to make marks in. A Sumerian writer would spread out a blob of clay to make a flat tablet. A chicken farmer who wanted to count his chickens could draw little pictures of them on a clay tablet, instead of carrying around clay chicken-tokens. These drawings would have been very simple—maybe a dot and 2 lines for legs? A symbol of a chicken represented a real chicken. A symbol that represents a person, place or thing is called a pictogram.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.