A logogram, or logograph, is a single grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (a meaningful unit of language). This stands in contrast to other writing systems, such as syllabaries, abugidas, abjads, and alphabets, where each symbol (letter) primarily represents a sound or a combination of sounds.

Logographs are commonly known also as "ideograms". Strictly speaking, however, ideograms represent ideas directly rather than words and morphemes, and none of the logographic systems described here is truly ideographic.

Logographs 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, although it is relatively easier to remember or guess the meaning of ideographs. Another feature of logographs is that a single logograph 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.

Logographic systems[edit | edit source]

Logographic 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 logographic writing. Examples of languages that have logographic systems include:

There are no purely logographic language systems in existance today. A common myth is that Chinese is a logographic 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 logographic.

Logographs 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 dimensions[edit | edit source]

All full logographic 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 logographically. Many logographic 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[edit | edit source]

Main article: Chinese character classification

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.

Excerpt from a 1436 primer on Chinese characters

  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.
  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‘music’ is also read 樂‘pleasure’ .
  6. Improvisational characters (lit. "improvised-borrowed-words") and 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).

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. This is particularly true in non-Chinese languages, such as Japanese, that have also attached native readings to Chinese characters.

Chinese characters used in Japanese and Korean[edit | edit source]

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.

Advantages and disadvantages[edit | edit source]


  • Compared to alphabetical systems, logographies have the disadvantage of requiring the memorization of many more glyphs, and their respective pronunciations (which can be numerous in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese). However, it require far less effor in comparison to memorising proper spelling in English.
  • The pronunciation of a written word is not obvious unless you know all the logographs (but it can be guessed at). In Japanese this is particularily difficult as it has several possible pronunciations for almost every logogram.
  • Conversely, the spelling of a word is not obvious from the pronunciation like it is in many alphabetical systems such as Italian and Finnish. (English is not a very good example on this point.) That is, unless you also know the meaning of the word and can guess which logographs it consists of. However, recent development in word processing technology made it easier to pick the correct logogram.
  • Logographs cannot be inflected like words in alphabetic systems can. Languages which has imported Chinese logograms, such as Japanese and Korean (which both inflect extensively) cannot accurately describe their languages with logograms alone, and a separate alphabetic or syllabaric system is needed anyway.


  • The biggest advantage is that one does not necessarily need to know the spoken language of the writer to understand them — everyone understands what 1 means, whether they call it one, eins, uno or ichi. 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 ancient orient (including Vietnam, Manchuria, Korea Japan, etc), communcation by writing (筆談) was the norm of international trade and diplomacy. Deaf people also find logogram system much easier to learn as the words are not related to sound, and it reduce the amount of words one must memorise to tremendous degree.
  • The meaning of words can be known directly. This singnificantly reduce the amount of effor required to advance from basic literacy to functional and academic literacy, despite the initial difficulty in becoming literate. Everyone who knows what the characters mean, can know what a new word means without explanation. This advantage become more pronounced as one advance in academia. In English, for example, more abstract words are constructed artifically from Greeks or Latin words. These words are often uninteligible to most people outside of the speciality. For example, the word "logogram" is a combination of greek words logo ("word" or "speech") and gram (“something written” or “drawing”). In Chinese, it is written as 表語文字 (Word expressing letter) and anyone who are literate at basic level can correctly guess the meaning. Once one learn basic 2000-3000 letter/words in logogram, one immediately become functionally literate. And it take small effort to become academically literateat at highly advanced level. On the other hand, in Western language, for example, there is no lowering of learning curve for new terms and new vocaburary as they progress academically unless one learn Greek or Latin. The use of logogram reduce the amount of words one must memorise as most can be read and written almost instinctively. This is cited as the primary reason of close correspondence between literacy rate and functional literacy rate in Japan and China.
  • A logogram-based system uses fewer characters to express something compared to an alphabetic system. Compare the following title in English, Chinese(traditional/simplified) and Japanese, respectively:
  • "Return of the King"
  • "王者歸來"/"王者归来"
  • "王の帰還"

Usually, the more complicated the idea being expressed, the more apparent this trend becomes; for example, the military term APFSDS and the translation in Chinese and Japanese:

  • "armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot"
  • "尾翼穩定脫殼穿甲彈"/"尾翼稳定脱壳穿甲弹"
  • "装弾筒付翼安定徹甲弾"

And the weapon:

  • "smoothbore gun"
  • "滑膛炮"/"滑膛炮"
  • "滑腔砲"

And also terms like:

  • "Soviet-Sino Conflict"
  • "中蘇對立"/"中苏对立"
  • "中ソ対立"

Note however, that the number of spoken syllables in either langue is similar, and that the number of strokes needed to write the English version is significantly lower (21 versus 38 and 33 in the first example, and 53 versus 100 and 101 in the second example) which means that the logographic version can take significantly longer to write. This is less of a problem when typing on a computer.

On the other hand, for examples like the following, there's little advantage:

  • "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics"
  • "蘇維埃社會主義共和國聯盟"/"苏维埃社会主义共和国联盟"

This is particularly true of cases where English can express an idea in a word, such as:

  • "Socialism"
  • "社會主義"/"社会主义"


  • "Secretary" (of organization)
  • "秘書長"/"秘书长"
  • "書記長"

Moreover, alphabets have a slight advantage in utilising acronyms, such as "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation" into "LASER". This is also possible to a lesser degree in logogram based languages. For example the United Nations:

  • "UN"
  • "国連" (from 国際連合)/"联合国"
  • "联合国"

Or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation:

  • "NATO"
  • "北約"/"北约" (From Chinese 北大西洋公約組織. The Japanese name is 北大西洋条約機構)

One advantage of logograms in cases like the first example is that, while one who has not heard of the United Nations would have no clue as to what UN is, with logograms a moderately educated individual could easily decipher that this 国連 is something to do with "国 -> country" and "連 -> union", thus making the meaning more or less apparent. The second one, "北 -> north" and "約 -> promise/treaty" would however be confusing.

Shorter sentence lengths are beneficial to major communication media, such as newspapers (particularly headlines), and users of mobile phone web browsers and similar devices which display information on small screens. These devices typically have few buttons, but systems for breaking up Chinese characters into their constituent parts, as well as phonetic systems based on Bopomofo or Pinyin have been used to enter a single Chinese character with multiple keypresses.

Also due to the number of glyphs, in programming and computing in general, more memory is needed to store a character of that type than a Latin-based character, although a word in Chinese is represented by one or two glyphs (two to four bytes in Unicode), compared to an average of five characters plus a space (six bytes in ASCII) in English (more in languages like Spanish and German). Unicode is increasingly being used even for English (as in the Java programming language) and depending on the encoding, it use one or more bytes per character.

Because character recognition is not difficult (comparable to short English words of similar size, such as 'cat', 'dog' or 'cake') once the system is learned, and sentences are relatively short, a logogram-based system allows for faster reading times overall.

See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • DeFrancis, John (1984). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6.
  • Hannas, William C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma, University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X.
  • Hoffman, Joel M. (2004). In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, NYU Press. ISBN 0-8147-3690-4. - Chapter 3.

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