Fact Checked

What Is an Ideogram?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

An ideogram is a symbol, often used within a written language, which utilizes a picture, rather than letters, to represent a particular idea or concept. This type of image is usually conceptual or abstract in nature, as the image frequently represents something greater than what can be expressed through a direct representation. An ideogram that represents an action, for example, might depict something associated with that action rather than a graphic representation of the action itself. These types of images can also include pictograms, which are images that represent a particular thing through a direct depiction of that thing, such as a man or an animal.

There are a number of languages that have used ideograms in depicting various ideas or concepts. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example, were often created as a series of ideograms and pictograms to express various concepts and tell stories about different events. These types of pictographic languages can often be difficult to understand and interpret, especially if ideograms are complex or unrelated to modern ideas or beliefs. Since an ideogram typically represents an idea or concept, it is possible that the passage of time and changes in thinking can make an older depiction obscure or utterly lost when viewed today.

Egyptian hieroglyphics are a type of ideogram.
Egyptian hieroglyphics are a type of ideogram.

An ideogram can also be used in a more modern context, often as a way of presenting an idea visually that can cross language barriers. Airports and other locations in which people from different countries and linguistic backgrounds come together often use ideograms to present information to people. Bathrooms, telephones, and other public facilities are often marked by ideograms to help people find them regardless of language familiarity. Even the use of Arabic numerals and mathematical symbols can be considered an ideogram, as these numbers and symbols are understood in numerous languages regardless of the names for those numbers in such languages.

While a pictogram is similar to an ideogram, some people consider them to be a subset of ideograms while others view them as separate concepts. A pictogram is a visual representation of an idea through an image, rather than through other language, that is a more direct representation. This means that while an ideogram may represent something like “spirit” or “run,” a pictogram often represents “man” or “dog” or “bird.” This type of pictogram then uses an image of a man to represent “man” and an image that is easily recognizable as a bird to represent “bird,” which makes such pictograms easier to translate and understand, even when viewed after thousands of years.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - Our alphabet doesn't have pictograms in it and doesn't even include punctuation. I agree that it's a possibility that smilies will become relatively accepted as a part of communication, but I don't think they will be part of the alphabet.

I mean, people use all kinds of pictograms in real life and they haven't become standard forms of punctuation or language.


@irontoenail - What I find interesting is that in one hundred years we might find ourselves with an alphabet that formally includes ideograms again. If you consider how much pictograms and ideograms are used at the moment on the internet you'll see what I mean. It's a natural progression of basically reinventing the alphabet to cope with this level of communication. In order to convey emotion in our language in as few words possible, it's much easier to type in a smiley face than to state that "I'm happy" or a face with the tongue out than to constantly make the distinction that you're joking.

These symbols are becoming more and more universally accepted and I believe when the generation who grew up with them become adults and when their kids grow up without anyone around who thinks of these kinds of symbols as being bad grammar, then I think they will pass into the alphabet, which I actually think is kind of hilarious.


Even our alphabet was once composed of true ideograms. The letters probably evolved from pictures that represented various things. I know that a lot of the Chinese word symbols were once simply pictures of what they really represented and it's fairly easy to draw a line from the original picture to the current symbol.

With the Latin alphabet we still use for English today, you have to trace it back through the Greek alphabet to the Phoenician alphabet. And the Phoenician alphabet probably came from an alphabet that included pictograms or ideograms.

It's actually amazing that we even know this much, since if they had used the kind of papers we use today, the writing probably wouldn't have survived. But the Phoenician alphabet was usually inscribed into stone or clay, so we can see still it today.

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    • Egyptian hieroglyphics are a type of ideogram.
      By: Mauro Rodrigues
      Egyptian hieroglyphics are a type of ideogram.