AskDefine | Define logographic

Dictionary Definition

logographic adj : of or relating to logograms or logographs [syn: logogrammatic]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. of, related to, or composed of logographs

Extensive Definition

A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language). This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes (speech sounds) or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.
Logograms are commonly known also as "ideograms" or "hieroglyphics", which can also be called "hieroglyphs". Strictly speaking, however, ideograms represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logogrammatical systems described here are truly ideographic.
Logograms are composed of visual elements arranged in a variety of ways, rather than using the segmental phoneme principle of construction used in alphabetic languages. As a result, it is relatively easier to remember or guess the sound of alphabetic written words, while it is relatively easier to remember or guess the meaning of ideographs. Another feature of logograms is that a single logogram may be used by a plurality of languages to represent words with similar meanings. While disparate languages may also use the same or similar alphabets, abjads, abugidas, syllabaries and the like, the degree to which they may share identical representations for words with disparate pronunciations is much more limited.

Logogrammatical systems

Logogrammatical systems are the earliest true writing systems; many of the first civilizations in the Near East, India, China, and Central America used some form of logogrammatical writing. Examples of languages that have logogrammatical systems include:
There are no purely logogrammatical language systems in existence today. A common myth is that Chinese is a logogrammatical language. Though many characters have associated meanings, nearly all Chinese words involve combinations of characters. Only a small minority of words in Chinese involve single characters. Additionally, characters are made up of sub-character radicals that can also cue pronunciation and meaning. Only the most basic monosyllabic words in Chinese could be considered logogrammatical.
Logograms are used in modern shorthand systems in order to represent common words. In addition, the numerals and mathematical symbols used in modern writing systems are also logograms — 1 stands for one, 2 for two, + for plus, = for equals and so on. In English, the ampersand & is used for and and et (such as &c for et cetera), % for percent, $ for dollar, # for number, € for euro, £ for pound, etc.

Ideographic and phonetic dimes and quarters

All full logogrammatical systems include a phonetic dimension (such as the "a" in the logogram @ at). In some cases, such as cuneiform as it was used for Akkadian, the vast majority of glyphs are used for their sound values rather than logogrammatically. Many logogrammatical systems also have an ideographic component, called "determinatives" in the case of Egyptian and "radicals" in the case of Chinese. Typical Egyptian usage is to augment a logogram, which may potentially represent several words with different pronunciations, with a determinative to narrow down the meaning, and a phonetic component to specify the pronunciation. In the case of Chinese, the vast majority of characters are a fixed combination of a radical that indicates its semantic category, plus a phonetic to give an idea of the pronunciation, although this has become somewhat opaque over the last three millennia. The Mayan system used logograms with phonetic complements like the Egyptian, while lacking ideographic components.

Chinese characters

Chinese scholars have traditionally classified Chinese characters into six types by etymology.
The first two types are "single-body", meaning that the character was created independently of other Chinese characters. Although the perception of most Westerners is that most characters were derived in single-body fashion, pictograms and ideograms actually take up but a small proportion of Chinese logograms. More productive for the Chinese script were the two "compound" methods, i.e. the character was created from assembling different characters. Despite being called "compounds", these logograms are still single characters, and are written to take up the same amount of space as any other logogram. The final two types are methods in the usage of characters rather than the formation of characters themselves.
  1. The first type, and the type most often associated with Chinese writing, are pictograms, which are pictorial representations of the morpheme represented, e.g. 山 for "mountain".
  2. The second type are ideograms that attempt to graphicalize abstract concepts, such as 上 "up" and 下 "down". Also considered ideograms are pictograms with an ideographic indicator; for instance, 刀 is a pictogram meaning "knife", while 刃 is an ideogram meaning "blade".
  3. Radical-radical compounds in which each element (radical) of the character hints at the meaning. For example, 休 "rest" is composed of the characters for "man" (人) and "tree" (木), with the intended idea of someone leaning against a tree, i.e. resting.
  4. Radical-phonetic compounds, in which one component (the radical) indicates the general meaning of the character, and the other (the phonetic) hints at the pronunciation. An example is 樑 (Chinese: liáng), where the phonetic 梁 liáng indicates the pronunciation of the character and the radical 木 ("wood") its meaning of "supporting beam". Characters of this type constitute the majority of Chinese logograms.
  5. Changed-annotation characters are characters which were originally the same character but have bifurcated through orthographic and often semantic drift. For instance, 樂 can mean both "music" and "pleasure".
  6. Improvisational characters (lit. "improvised-borrowed-words") come into use when a native spoken word has no corresponding character, and hence another character with the same or a similar sound (and often a close meaning) is "borrowed"; occasionally, the new meaning can supplant the old meaning. 自 used to be a pictographic word meaning "nose", but was borrowed to mean "self". It is now used almost exclusively to mean "self", while the "nose" meaning survives only in set-phrases and more archaic compounds. Because of their derivational process, the entire set of Japanese kana can be considered to be of this character, hence the name kana (仮名; 仮 is a simplified form of 假 but used in Japan only).
The most productive method of Chinese writing, the radical-phonetic, was made possible because the phonetic system of Chinese allowed for generous homonymy, and because in consideration of phonetic similarity tone was generally ignored, as were the medial and final consonants of the characters in consideration, at least according to theory following from reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation. Note that due to the long period of language evolution, such component "hints" within characters as provided by the radical-phonetic compounds are sometimes useless and may be misleading in modern usage.

Chinese characters used in Japanese and Korean

Within the context of the Chinese language, Chinese characters by and large represent words and morphemes rather than pure ideas; however, the adoption of Chinese characters by the Japanese and Korean languages (where they are known as kanji and hanja, respectively) have resulted in some complications to this picture.
Many Chinese words, composed of Chinese morphemes, were borrowed into Japanese and Korean together with their character representations; in this case, the morphemes and characters were borrowed together. In other cases, however, characters were borrowed to represent native Japanese and Korean morphemes, on the basis of meaning alone. As a result, a single character can end up representing multiple morphemes of similar meaning but different origins across several languages. Because of this, kanji and hanja are often described as morphographic writing systems.

Advantages and disadvantages

Separating writing and pronunciation

The main difference between logograms and other writing systems is that the graphemes aren't linked directly to their pronunciation. An advantage of this separation is that one doesn't need to understand the pronunciation or language of the writer to understand it. The reader will recognise the meaning of 1, whether it is called one, ichi or in the language of the writer. Likewise, people speaking different Chinese dialects may not understand each other in speaking, but can to a limited extent, in writing even if they don't write in standard Chinese. Moreover, in East Asia (including China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc) prior to modern time, communication by writing (筆談) was the norm of international trade and diplomacy. Deaf people also find logogram systems easier to learn as the words are not related to sound.
This separation, however, also has the great disadvantage of requiring the memorization of the logograms when learning to read and write, separately from the pronunciation. Though not an inherent feature of logograms, Japanese has the added complication that almost every logogram has more than one pronunciation. Conversely, a phonetic character set is written precisely as it is spoken, but with the disadvantage that slight pronunciation differences introduce ambiguities. Many alphabetic systems such as those of Greek, Latin, Italian and Finnish make the practical compromise of standardizing how words are written while maintaining a good one-to-one relation between characters and sounds. English orthography is more complicated than that and character combinations are often pronounced in multiple ways. Hangul, the Korean language writing system, is an example of an alphabet that was designed to replace the logogrammic hanja in order to increase literacy. The latter is now rarely used in Korea.

Characters in information technology

Inputting complex characters can be cumbersome on electronic devices due to a practical limitation in the number of input keys. There exist various input methods for entering logograms, either by breaking them up into their constituent parts such as with the Cangjie or Wubi method of typing Chinese, or using phonetic systems such as Bopomofo or Pinyin where the word is entered as pronounced and then selected from a list of logograms matching it. While the former method is (linearly) faster, the learning curve is steeper. With the Chinese alphabet system however, the strokes forming the logogram are typed as they are normally written, and the corresponding logogram is then entered.
Also due to the number of glyphs, in programming and computing in general, more memory is needed to store each grapheme as the character set is larger. As a comparison, ISO 8859 contains only 256 graphemes and requires only one byte for each, while the Basic Multilingual Plane encoded in UTF-8 requires up to three bytes. On the other hand, English words, for example, average on five characters and a space per word and thus need six bytes for every word. Since many logograms contain more than one grapheme, it is not clear which is more memory-efficient. Variable-width encodings allow a unified character encoding standard such as Unicode to use only the bytes necessary to represent a character, reducing the overhead that follows merging large character sets with smaller ones.


  • The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy
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logographic in Cebuano: Logogramo
logographic in Danish: Logogram
logographic in German: Logografie
logographic in Persian: واژه‌نگار
logographic in French: Logogramme
logographic in Korean: 표어 문자
logographic in Hebrew: לוגוגרמה
logographic in Japanese: 表語文字
logographic in Norwegian: Logogram
logographic in Polish: Logogram
logographic in Serbo-Croatian: Logogram
logographic in Vietnamese: Chữ tượng hình
logographic in Chinese: 意音文字
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