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Pictographs are small standardized images which stand for concepts or ideas, and are used as a mode of communication. Many ancient cultures used pictographs in their earliest writing systems, and some languages have a direct line of descent from pictographic writing systems. Written traditional Chinese, for example, clearly shows its roots. While they may seem similar to hieroglyphs, pictographs are different because they are literal visual representations, unlike hieroglyphic written languages, in which the images may sometimes stand for the objects they resemble, but are also used to represent sounds, and sometimes the hieroglyph bears no physical resemblance at all to the concept it stands for.
Because pictographs transcend language, since anyone can understand the most basic of them, they continue to be used around the world today in communications which are designed to provide basic information to people. For example, at a trail head, a small plaque might show a pictograph of a person hiking to indicate that the trail can be used for hiking, and include an image of a tent to show that camping is permitted, or a pictograph of someone on a horse to illustrate that riding is allowed. Pictographs may also be mixed with well-known ideograms, visual symbols which stand for known concepts, such as a circle with a line through it to indicate that whatever is inside the circle is not allowed.
Some fascinating examples of pictographs produced by ancient cultures can be found in many regions of the world. Native American rock art from some areas, for example, uses pictographs to tell stories, and examples can also be seen on objects uncovered from the Middle East, early primers on written Chinese, and in many other locations. Developing a pictograph system was the first step for many cultures when they began to start writing, and evidence seems to suggest that many writing systems had their roots in commerce. Merchants wanted a way to record inventories, sales, and other information, and started using pictographs for this purpose.
Basic pictographs may require no cultural understanding or knowledge of the language of the author. As they become more complex, they can start to become more abstract, and people may need to be able to make inferences from the information provided in the pictograph. Most written languages which used pictographs became extremely unwieldy as interest in writing expanded, which is why many cultures began to transition to logograms such as those seen in traditional Chinese, which can represent entire words or morphemes, depending on how they are used, and may bear only an abstract resemblance to the words they represent. Other cultures made the leap into an alphabet, in which letters are used to represent sounds, and do not stand for individual words or concepts.