Published 03 Jun 2018. Tags: language, words, writing.
I regularly confuse the words pictogram, ideogram, and logogram. There’s no good reason for that, since the words themselves describe what they mean!
In rough order of abstraction:
A pictogram is a picture of a thing or a situation. Pictograms are independent of language. The silhouette of a man representing a men’s restroom is a pictogram.
An ideogram is any graphic symbol representing an idea. It’s often geometric. Like pictograms, ideograms are intended to be independent of any particular language, but they usually require cultural context to understand. Mathematical and currency symbols (like =, %, or $) are ideograms, and so is a big red “X” over something to indicate that it’s prohibited.
A logogram (from Greek logos, “word”) is a symbol representing a word or phrase. Logograms aren’t universal and vary by language, like alphabets and syllabaries. Written Chinese, for example, is logographic: “China” in Chinese is 中国, which literally means “middle kingdom.”
The boundaries between these can be fuzzy. “中” is definitely a logogram, since it means the word “middle” in written Chinese, but it sure looks like it grew out of an ideogram representing centrality.
Similarly, every pictogram is an ideogram, since pictures represent ideas, but many ideograms aren’t pictograms.