Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

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the representation of language by means of “ideograms,” that is, symbols representing “ideas,” rather than (or usually side by side with) symbols which represent sounds. i. Terminology and conventions. ii. Ideographic writing in the Ancient Near East.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume XII, Fascicle 6, pp. 617-618

IDEOGRAPHIC WRITING, the representation of language by means of “ideograms,” i.e. symbols representing “ideas,” rather than (or usually side by side with) symbols which represent sounds.

i. Terminology and Conventions

Human language can be reduced to writing in two basic ways, by the use of symbols which express the sounds of speech or by the use of symbols which directly express the meanings conveyed by the spoken sounds. Many writing systems combine elements of both methods. For instance, the writing system used for English and other modern European languages is almost entirely based on the phonetic principle, but a few symbols such as numerals or the ampersand “&” represent complete words or concepts without reference to the sounds of which the words are composed. Such symbols may be referred to as “ideograms” or as “logograms” (from Greek logos “word”) and their use as “ideographic” or “logographic” writing.

The use of ideograms is well established in the cuneiform scripts of the ancient Near East and will be described in the next section of this article (see below, ii.). However, ideographic writing is only a marginal feature in the Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions, which make use of a small number of ideograms for key ideological terms such as “king,” “god,” and “earth.” These ideograms do not appear to be pictographic in origin, nor do they bear any discernible relationship either to the Old Persian phonetic writings of these words or to symbols used for words of similar meaning in other languages of the ancient Near East. Apparently they are freely invented, like the Old Persian script as a whole, which imitates the structure and appearance of Mesopotamian cuneiform whilst avoiding the borrowing of individual signs.

A particular type of ideogram or logogram commonly found in the cuneiform scripts of the ancient Near East is that which is sometimes referred to as a “heterogram” (from Greek heteros “other”). The term refers to a graph borrowed from another language (in which it may have been either ideographic or phonetic), e.g., Sumerian lugal “king” used as a way of writing Akkadian šarru “id.” or Akkadian ina “in” as a way of writing Hittite anda “id.” Heterograms are also referred to by terms which identify the source language: “Sumerograms,” “Akkadograms,” etc. The ideograms used in the Middle Iranian scripts derived from Aramaic (see HUZWĀREŠ) are all heterograms, or more precisely “Aramaeograms,” i.e., alphabetically written Aramaic words used as symbols for the correponding Iranian terms. A typical example is the Aramaic preposition mn “from,” which stands for az in Middle Persian, in Parthian, or čan in Sogdian.

In transliterating Iranian texts it is conventional to distinguish the ideographic elements by the use of capital letters. Thus XŠ indicates the Old Persian ideogram for “king” (corresponding to the phonetic spelling x-š-a-y-Θ-i-y, i.e., xšāyaΘiya), and MN indicates the Aramaeogram which is used to represent the various Middle Iranian words for “from.” Where a “phonetic complement” is attached to an ideogram, usually in order to indicate an affix or grammatical inflection, this is transliterated in lower-case letters like other phonetic elements of the script, e.g., XŠ-m or XŠ-y-m (both representing xšāya-Θiyam, accusative singular).

Since the Aramaic letters aleph (ʾ) and ayin (ʿ) have no obvious upper-case equivalents, scholars have generally been content to use the same symbols for these letters in transliterating ideographic and phonetic spellings: e.g., Middle Persian ʿL = ō “to,” MLKʾ = šāh “king.” A slight ambiguity arises when an aleph occurs at the boundary between an ideogram and a phonetic complement: is MLKʾn in Middle Persian MLKʾn MLKʾ = šāhān-šāh “king of kings” to be interpreted as MLKʾ + -n or as MLK- + -ʾn? An alternative system introduced by D. N. MacKenzie in his A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (London, 1971, pp. xii-xiii) overcomes this problem by employing A and O as the upper-case equivalents of ʾ and ʿ, thus OL, MLKAn MLKA. MacKenzie also proposed that the letter derived from Aramaic he (which in Pahlavi is only used in ideograms) should be transliterated as E, rather than H or , thus allowing the letter ḥeth to be represented by h/H, without diacritic; Aramaic is represented by c/C. This system has been widely adopted and extended (with some adaptations) to other ideographically written Middle Iranian languages. Nevertheless, many scholars still prefer to spell the ideograms in a manner which makes their Aramaic origins more transparent, and no single system has yet been accepted as a standard.

In Sogdian script the Aramaic letter l, which represents the fricatives /δ/ and /Θ/ in Sogdian words, is conventionally transliterated as δ. In ideograms, however, the same letter is transliterated as L in accordance with its Aramaic value, e.g., Lʾ “not” (= Sogdian and ) from Aram. . However, usage is not consistent in this respect: Aram. is usually represented by c/C (rather than *c/Ṣ), b by β/B, and by x/Ḥ or x/X (or in older works by γ/G). Thus ʾGRZY, ʾḤRZY, ʾXRZY and AXRZY all transcribe the same ideogram (Aram. ʾḥr “afterwards” + relative particle zy, representing Sogd. rty “then; and”).


P. T. Daniels and W. Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, New York and Oxford, 1996, esp. Sections 3 (P. Michalowski, J. S. Cooper and G. B. Gragg, “Mesopotamian cuneiform,” pp. 33-72) and 48 (P. O. Skjærvø, “Aramaic scripts for Iranian languages,” pp. 515-35).

ii. Ideographic Writing in the Ancient Near East

The cuneiform writing system, developed by the Sumerians and adopted first by the Akkadians and subsequently by cultures throughout the Near East, was capable of recording language along the dimension of either meaning or sound. Since most signs were potentially able to serve either function, and since many had multiple semantic and phonological values, there was considerable ambiguity inherent in the system. As ideograms, the characters could indicate either the object which they depicted or an associated object or situation. Although much of the transparency of the original depictions became lost during the course of the characters’ evolution, it is clear, for example, that an image of a human foot lay at the root of the character conveying the notions “to go” (Sum. du) and “to place” (Sum. gub). From such iconically rooted values, the functions of the characters expanded by the rebus principle to encompass homophones and near-homophones; e.g., a character which originated as the depiction of a reed (Sum. gi) was used to convey both “reed” and “render,” the Sumerian word for the latter being a homophonous gi. Such extensions were the starting point for the elaboration of the phonological aspect of the system, whereby a large subset of the characters came to function phonologically as markers for specific sequences of sounds; thus the “reed” character (GI) was used as a general marker of the sound sequence -gi-.

Ideograms could be either simple or complex. The latter type consisted either of a simple character to which an augmentation was added—e.g., the sign for “mouth” (KA) was secondarily derived from the “head” character (SAG) by superimposing a series of marks over the lower face area—or of a set of linked or nested characters, as in such cases as the signs GU₇ “eat” (which originated as a compound linking the signs SAG and NINDA “food”) and EME “tongue” (formed by inserting the sign with the phonological value me into the KA-sign).

Since a given sign in a text might in principle be read either semantically or phonologically, various clarifying conventions were developed to aid the reader in interpreting the sign sequences. Certain signs (“semantic determinatives”), when added to a word, provided a general semantic key to the intended reading. For example, the character GIŠ (the ideographic value of which was “tree”) could be used as a determinative to identify terms for wooden objects. By adding GIŠ before the sign IG (gišIG), for example, the scribe was able to indicate that the IG was to be read as the ideogram for “door” rather than as the phonological sequence ik/g/q. The phonological side of the writing system could also be used for clarification. The scribe had the option of incorporating one or more extra accompanying signs (“phonetic determinatives”) to provide a partial indication of the sound of the word represented by the ideogram. A modern English analogue to the cuneiform phonetic determinatives (albeit of much more limited scope) may be seen in spellings such as 1st “first” and 2nd “second.” Using the determinatives, the scribe thus often had several options for rendering words: “door” (Akkadian daltum) could in principle be written by means of an ideogram with a semantic determinative (gišIG), by an ideogram with a phonetic determinative (gišIG-tum), or finally by any of several purely phonological renderings (da-al-tum, da-al-tu-um, etc.).

As the use of cuneiform expanded beyond Mesopotamia, the use of ideograms expanded with it. Scribes writing such languages as Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite adopted Sumerian characters as graphic conventions for rendering words in their own languages. A second stratum of ideograms arose in Anatolia, where Hittite scribes began to use Akkadian words as ideograms. Thus the sign-sequence I-NA became a conventional means of rendering the Hittite preposition anda “in” (Akk. ina), while Hittite keššar “hand” acquired an ideographic spelling ŠU-TI, borrowed from a graphic rendering of Akkadian qàti “hand,” which in turn was composed of the Sumerian ideogram ŠU “hand” and the Akkadian phonetic determinative -ti.

Cuneiform was not the only early Near Eastern script to make use of ideograms. Egyptian hieroglyphs displayed the same dual nature as the Mesopotamian signs, and made similar use of semantic and phonological determinatives. For example, the schematic drawing representing the word “house” (Egyptian pr) was also used to express the consonant-sequence pr. It was thus necessary to distinguish pr “house” from the homographic pr “ascend” by adding to the latter a graphic determinative (based on the drawing of a pair of legs) used as a general marker of motion words.

Although the Old Persian inscriptions were for the most part written phonologically, they also employed a small set of ideograms as an option through which key substantives could be expressed (see table in Kent, Old Persian, p. 12). Like the great majority of the phonological signs of Old Persian, the OPers. ideograms are not formally related to the characters of Mesopotamian cuneiform. The use of ideograms rather than phonological spellings for the words in question became more extensive in later texts. Through the addition of phonological determinatives the scribes were able to express the inflectional endings of words rendered by ideograms. Thus the formula “king of kings” (xšāyaΘiya xšāyaΘiyānām), which is written out in full in the Bisotun (q.v.) monument, is found abbreviated as XŠ XŠ-y-a-n-a-m in Darius’s Susa A inscription.


J. P. Allen, Middle Egyptian, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 1-34.

P. T. Daniels and W. Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, New York and Oxford, 1996, esp. Sections 3 (P. Michalowski, J. S. Cooper, and G. B. Gragg, “Mesopotamian Cuneiform,” pp. 33-72) and 8 (D. Testen, “Old Persian Cuneiform,” pp. 134-37).

Kent, Old Persian, pp. 9-24, esp. 18-19.

iii. Ideographic Writing in Middle Iranian Languages


Cite this page
Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Testen, David, “IDEOGRAPHIC WRITING”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 09 December 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_3310>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 20041215

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