From Academic Kids

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A Chinese character. The ideographic representation of a child (子) beneath a roof, which once had the meaning of "to care for", has since changed over the years to a deflective meaning of "character", "word" or simply, "ideogram".

Ideograms (from Greek ιδεα idea "idea" + γραφω grapho "to write") are said to be graphical symbols that represent words or morphemes. They are composed of visual elements arranged in a variety of ways, rather than using the segmental phoneme principle of construction used in alphabetic languages. The effect is that while it is relatively easier to remember or guess the sound of alphabetic written words, it is relatively easier to remember or guess the meaning of ideographs. The other feature of ideographs is that they may be used by a plurality of languages which may pronounce them differently while using them in conformity to the same norms. However, many disparate languages use the same (or similar) alphabets, abjads, abugidas, syllabaries and the like, so this claim about ideograms is not unique to them. Ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Egyptians from the Mesopotamian and North African centers of civilizations all used some form of ideographical writing, as did the Chinese in the Far East. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform both derived from the use of ideograms as phonetic symbols, in much the same way as "4" is sometimes used to represent the word "for" as well as the number; it was the realisation that they were a form of phonetic writing that became the key to the deciphering of the heiroglyphic script (see Rosetta Stone).

Chinese characters are conventionally called ideographs or ideograms, but their own linguistic tradition divides characters into at least five categories, of which "ideograph" is a plausible translation of only one or two. The Chinese classifications are (roughly translated) pictogram, ideogram, indicative, shape-sound compound, and borrowed. Borrowed characters are homophones used when no more "inventive" character emerges in common use.

  • Pictograms are characters that have derived from literal pictures of the objects they originally denoted: for example, the character used to write the word "moon", 月, is derived from a stylised picture of a crescent moon.
  • Ideograms proper, which are typically composed of pictograms arranged "with a convenient story" to suggest something more abstract--like sun and moon together to form a word like "bright" 明 or the character for "state" 國 which consists of a box-like border surrounding the "region" 域. Many westerners mistakenly believe that all Chinese characters are of this type, but in reality there are very few certain examples.
  • Indicatives are unlike pictograms in that they do not picture things, but "indicate" their use--e.g. the character for "below" 下 has a stroke below the T of a perpendicular diagram while "above" 上 has an upside down T with the stroke above the perpendicular base.
  • The sound-shape compounds typically consist of a classifying unit (typically a pictograph like "fish" or "horse" or "water") combined with a "phonetic" unit that is prounced in the same way in one of the languages using the system. An example is the character 妈 or "mother". The classifying unit happens to be the left half of the character, meaning "female". The phonetic unit is on the right, which means "horse" but sounds like "ma".
  • Borrowed characters are homophones with little or no meaning relation that became current before any of the more "inventive" types did.

The shape-sound type is most flexible and most new and "sub-species" characters use this principle of construction. The character 國 is an example of this, combining a classifying component 囗 and a phonetic component 或. New pure ideograms and pictograms are rare--though some have been somewhat playfully composed later such as a square box over a horizontal line to mean computer. By dictionary count the great bulk of characters (some estimate as many as 90 percent) use the shape-sound principle. Some have advocated calling these phonologograms.

Japanese ideograms, or Kanji, as well as Korean ideograms, or Hanja, are mostly Chinese characters, sometimes altered in shape, or native characters made to resemble Chinese characters. (The characters of Japanese origin are called 国字, or kokuji; those of Korean origin, 국자 [國字], or gugja). Both languages originally used Chinese characters not only to represent the original Chinese words and native words of the same meaning, but also phonetically. Since medieval times native scripts have been developed for phonetic use - katakana and hiragana in Japanese, both of which use heavily simplified forms of the characters that had been used phonetically, and the hangul script in Korean.


Terminological objections

The common misconception that Chinese ideograms somehow exist separately from spoken language, representing pure ideas, which can somehow be determined from their shape, has led to many attempts to abandon the name in favour of a term that more accurately represents their morphemic and phonetic) nature: that is, that they represent words and syllables, not ideas. A popular alternative is logogram, from the Greek roots logos ("word") and grapho ("to write"). However, this term is not entirely accurate, because many words require two or more characters to write them. Other terms include Sinogram, emphasising the Chinese origin of the characters, and Han character, a literal translation of the native term. These terms have gained some currency among scholars, but have failed to spread into common usage. The native terms (Chinese hanzi, Japanese kanji) are also fairly widespread in the contexts of the individual languages, but they are not generally considered suitable for discussion of the script as a whole.

See also


  • DeFrancis, John. 1990. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824810686
  • Hannas, William. C. 1997. Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 082481892X (paperback); ISBN 0824818423 (hardcover)
  • Unger, J. Marshall. 2003. Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning. ISBN 0824827600 (trade paperback), ISBN 0824826566 (hardcover)

External links

  • The Ideographic Myth ( (an extract from DeFrancis' book)
  • Unihan Database ( (the Unicode consortium's database of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ideograms)

eo:Ideogramo fr:Idéogramme it:Ideogramma ja:表意文字 pl:Pismo ideograficzne sv:Ideogram zh:表意文字


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