Pictogram

Book from the Ground

Laundry symbols

Pictograms [pik-tuh-gram] are small images that convey their meaning through a pictorial resemblance to a physical object. Early written symbols were based on pictograms (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms (symbols which represent ideas). Ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations developed them into logographic (word-based) writing systems including cuneiform and hieroglyphics, which also uses drawings as phonetic letters or determinative rhymes.

Pictograms are still in use as the main medium of written communication in some non-literate cultures in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. In certain modern use, pictograms participate to a formal language (e.g. hazards pictograms such as the skull and crossbones, a common warning for poison). Pictograms have also been popularized in use on the web and in software, better known as ‘icons’ displayed on a computer screen in order to help user navigate a computer system or mobile device.

Pictographs can often transcend languages in that they can communicate to speakers of a number of tongues and language families equally effectively, even if the languages and cultures are completely different. This is why road signs and similar pictographic material are often applied as global standards expected to be understood by nearly all. A standard set of pictographs was defined in the international standard ISO 7001: Public Information Symbols. Another common set of pictographs are the laundry symbols used on clothing tags and the chemical hazard symbols as standardized by the GHS system.

An early modern example of the extensive use of pictographs may be seen in the map in the London suburban timetables of the London and North Eastern Railway, 1936-1947, designed by George Dow, in which a variety of pictographs was used to indicate facilities available at or near each station. Pictograms remain in common use today, serving as pictorial, representational signs, instructions, or statistical diagrams. Because of their graphical nature and fairly realistic style, they are widely used to indicate public toilets, or places such as airports and train stations.

Pictograms can also be considered an art form, or can be considered a written language and are designated as such in Pre-Columbian art, Native American art, Ancient Mesopotamia and Painting in the Americas before Colonization. One example is the Rock art of the Chumash people, part of the Native American history of California. In 2011, UNESCO World Heritage adds to its list a new site ‘Petroglyph Complexes of the Mongolian Altai, Mongolia’ to celebrate the importance of the pictograms engraved in rocks.

Some scientists in the field of neuropsychiatry and neuropsychology, such as Prof. Dr. Mario Christian Meyer, are studying the symbolic meaning of indigenous pictograms and petroglyphs, aiming to create new ways of communication between native people and modern scientists to safeguard and valorize their cultural diversity.

Pictographic writing as a modernist poetic technique is credited to Ezra Pound, though French surrealists accurately credit the Pacific Northwest American Indians of Alaska who introduced writing, via totem poles, to North America. Contemporary artist Xu Bing created ‘Book from the Ground,’ a universal language made up of pictograms collected from around the world. A ‘Book from the Ground’ chat program has been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally.

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