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English Structures

Writing Systems

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Moodle TESL 551: Crowley   Houts-Smith





Pictograms and Ideograms to Logographic Systems

Types of Writing Systems
  • Pictograms and ideograms
  • Logographic
  • Consonantal Alphabet
  • Alphabet
  • Syllabary
Pictograms and Ideograms

Two types of writing systems use characters that look like pictures or images of objects. There are two different ways that meanings can be attached to these pictures. In the first system, the pictures are called pictograms, and in the second they are called ideograms.

A pictogram is a direct representation of the object it refers to. The buttons of computer software demonstrate a pictogram system. The picture that looks like a printer means printer. At the Olympic Games in China, the designs used on signs directing people to different areas are pictograms of various sports. Go to the World Olympic site, and look carefully at the images as you click on the listed sports.

Newspaper Rock in Utah may give another example of a pictographic writing system,

Section of Newspaper Rock with wagon wheel

OR it might simply present us with petroglyphs (rock carvings) that do not have linguistic meaning. If there is no linguistc meaning behind the images, then they are art. If the drawings are pictograms, then they are part of a writing system. If the images are pictograms, then the image that looks like a wagon wheel would mean wagon wheel.

On the other hand, there is another type of writing system that the images could be part of. If the wagon wheel means travel or move, then the image is no longer a pictogram because it no longer means exactly what it looks like. Instead, it is an ideogram. When a picture takes on meanings that are associated with the object it represents, it becomes an ideogram (idea gram). The image could even mean settlers instead of wheel. The image could be associated with the people who came across the prairies from the east because it is connected to the idea that they are the people who travel in wagons.

Thus pictographic writing systems are iconic, and ideographic systems are indexical. Both pictographic and ideographic symbols still have a direct connection to their referents, not s symbolic relationship. In a pictographic system, there is a sign-thing relationship. In an ideographic system, there is a sign-idea relationship. A different type of relationship exists in a third type of writing system. It is a sign-word relationship.

Logographic Systems

It is very likely that as a pictogram or ideogram evolved over time, the picture began to look less and less like the actual thing and more and more abstract. The stylized picture came to represent the word for the referent, not the referent itself.

This new system is a logographic (word writing) system, a sign-word relationship instead of a sign-thing relationship or sign-idea relationship.

While a system can theoretically move from pictograms to ideograms to logograms, no system is purely all one style. Let’s look at an example of how a symbol can move from being a pictograph to being a logograph by looking at Chinese.

Note how the original signs in the Oracle Bone column look quiote a bit like the things they mean. As each sign evolved over time, shown by moving from the left to right in each row, it is possible to see a loss of clarity in the shape of the sign. The original sign is a pictograph or ideograph, but the less obvious sign is a logograph. It only means the word human or the word moon.

Chinese Characters

(Click on image for larger image.)

Chinese is the most famous logographic system. Because the logographic symbols refer to entire words or more accurately, entire morphemes, there should be basically one symbol for each morpheme in the language. Chinese has more than 10,000 characters.
Teaching Language
  • ELLs coming from a logographic writing system might not grasp the sound-symbol relationship immediately and be expecting a meaning-symbol or word-symbol relationship.
  • Maxine Hong Kingston tells of her difficulty in learning English I, which she found rather irreconcilable with the meaning of the self and wondered how it could be so different from the Chinese character for I.







Kingston was born and raised in America, but in a home where Chinese was the primary language. She was introduced to spoken and written English at around the age of 5. In her book, she explains how her perception of the English word I was that of a man with a flat hat standing with his toes pointed out.

It did not make sense to her that a complicated human such as herself would be represented by so simple a symbol. The Chinese symbol, on the other hand, expressed the image of the self much better in her opinion.

Go to Part 4
American Sign Language The sign language used by the deaf community in the United States.
Test of English for International Communication. A standardized exam for Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English to conduct business. It is used by some businesses, predominantly in Asia, in hiring.
Test of English as a Foreign Language. A standardized exam from Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English as the language of insruction .It is used as an admissions requirement by most US universities and colleges for international students.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A term that encompasses both TEFL and TESL. It is the name of the professional organization to which many teachers belong. TESOL the organization has many regional affiliates both in the US and abroad.
Teaching English as Second Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as a tool necessary for some daily task like instruction, shopping, or interpersonal interactions.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as an intellectual, academic pursuit to non-native speakers of English.
Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who acquired English in infancy and young childhood as a first language.
Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a language is that it was encountered in infancy and young childhood as the dominant language of the environment.
Non-Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who didn't acquire English as a first language, but came to it after another language was established.
Non-Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a particular language is that he/she didn't encounter it while initially acquiring language, but came to it after another language was established.
Limited English Proficient. An adjectival phrase used to refer to the same students as ELL refers to. LEP is falling into disuse as it focuses attention on student deficiency rather than on the positive attribute of learning. Is being replaced by ELL.
Second Language. Refers to any language gained subsequent to the first or native language. It is acquired or learned secondarily to the native language. Doesn't refer to the ordinal numbering of languages, only to the relationship of a particular language to a persons native language.
First Language. Refers to the language that an individual encounters as an infant and young child; a persons native language.
English for Specific Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it for highly focused activity, such as for business or for aviation communication.
English as a Second Language Program. refers to a school program that is purposefully structured to provide instruction on the English language to NNSEs. An ESL program does not typically include instruction in any other subjects than English. An ESL program may be a component of a larger ELL program at a school.
English as a Second Language. Refers to the subject matter of the English language and the methodology for teaching the English language to non-native speakers. ESL makes no reference to the subjects other than English, but it is not methodology alone either, it refers to teaching the English language as content area. Typically, ESL refers to the study of English in a country where it is used for at least one daily task, such as instruction, interpersonal relations, or shopping.
English Langauge Learner Program. Refers to a school program that is purposly structured to provide instruction on the English language and instruction in other content areas to English Language Learners.
English Language Learner. Refers to students who are in the process of learning English, whether they are in ESL classes exclusively or a combination of ESL classes and other subject area classes.
English as a Foreign Langauge. Refers to the study of English as an intellectual, academic pursuit, not a a language whose use is necessary or desirable for daily life, although it may be used as a research tool. Typically, EFL is the study of English in a country where English is not a language of instruction or daily interactions, such as in Italy or in Saudi Arabia.
English for Academic Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it as the language of instruction for other subject areas.
Refers to a school program that is purposely structured so that students will use two languages on a daily basis.
Refers to the use of two languages in any capacity on a daily basis. A bilingual person uses two languages on a daily basis--for work and at home, perhaps, or for different subjects at school. Can also refer to the ability to use two languages, even if not used daily.