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.
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.