Monday, November 23, 2015

Ancient And Modern Ideograms

The Language Log blog highlights the research of Genevieve Von Petzinger into the use of symbols that may be ideograms as a form of written proto-language in Upper Paleolithic cave art as described in a linked TED talk that she has given.

In a somewhat related point, somewhere on my blogging "to do" list is the task of figuring out how many ideograms are in common used by readers of American English, ideally accompanied by examples of the use of ideograms to convey a sound associated with the word for which the ideogram stands (in the tradition of military use of words like Victor or Charlie to spell out words in situations where radio transmission quality is poor) in languages that are predominantly ideographic.

The point, of course, would be to illustrate that the line between phonetic writing systems and ideographic writing systems is one of degree, rather than being an all out either/or alternative.

Some of the common ideograms in American English include:

@ "at"
#  "pound
$ "dollar"
% "percent"
& "and"
~ "approximately"
> "greater than"
< "less than"
= "equals"
+ "plus"
- "minus"

There are many other ideograms familiar to readers of American English that can't be produced with a single keystroke.

There are thousands of Chinese ideograms in the proto-typical ideogram based writing system (Coptic hieroglyphics being another such language).  But, I'd guess that the number of ideograms widely understood by readers of American English.

Some fields, such as mathematics, make particularly heavy use of ideograms which are typically global in reach across the lines of the languages of the people who use them.


bellbeakerblogger said...

Interesting topic. Somewhat related to ideograms, I was reading a English-Arabic translator's breakdown on the meaning and significance of the new word 'Daesh' today.

Something that's interesting I learned is that acronyms are less common (or comparatively non-existent) in Arabic compared to American English. I imagine this is true for many languages. In my field, it's possible to have an hour long meeting basically using acronyms and prepositions.

Interesting also, it that many of our spicier words are acronyms themselves, which can fill up any necessary pronouns, verbs, adverbs, nouns not covered by prepositions or technical acronyms.

Maju said...

I'm pretty sure that back in the 80s "#" meant "number", as in "#1" = "number one", and AFAIK it's still the case. I recall because in Spanish you'd usually use "nÂș" and in British English it'd be "n.", so that was something new to me, much as trapezoidal yellow "caution" traffic signals (instead of red bordered triangles, as we use in Europe). I've never seen it used to mean "pound" (usually "lb").

As for "@" it is only translated as "at" in email addresses, otherwise it usually means "to". As in "@Andrew:" = "to Andrew:".

Am I wrong?

andrew said...

The symbol # has multiple meanings including number and "hashtag" and a couple more as well. I called it "pound" because that is the standard usage for enunciating that symbol in American English in the absence of context.

The @ sign outside an e-mail address is more often used to mean "per" as in 15 cents per dozen cans. But, it too is versatile. The sense of "to" is a less common usage, but probably existed pre e-mail.

andrew said...

Language log has an interesting post on the pronunciation of the symbol ideogram

* aka star aka asterisk aka asterix

Maju said...

I don't see why asterisk should be problematic to pronounce when English does have other similar ending words like risk, brisk, frisk... which are all pronounced correctly without any problem. Asterix is a French pun.

Maju said...

BTW the "poem" of Richardelguru partly confirms my 80-ist interpretation:

< > ! * ' ' #
^ " ` $ $ –
! * = @ $ _
% * < > ~ # 4
& [ ] . . /

Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat equal at dollar under-score,
Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,
Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH.

No meaning of "pound" for #. :)

Maju said...

This may be an important piece of info re. the character "@". Incidentally it is historically the sign of an old Iberian unit of weight (10-13 Kg) and capacity (varied by item but around 10-20 l) called "arroba". That's why ISO calls it that way, explained in French, with old hand-written texts showing its use:

I was aware of the word being used in Spanish for the sign but as "arrobas" do not exist anymore thanks to consolidated "metrication" it was even more meaningless for me than the sign. But thanks to Olentzero¹ today I felt compelled to search for the meaning of this old unit and then, when I stumbled on the French article, I remembered this entry and thought you'd be interested.

¹ Per the popular Basque song Olentzero "drank yesterday night a wineskin of five arrobas" (what is almost 80 liters!) Olentzero is one of those old European proto-Santas but he's hardcore: brings me... an egg (wow, that's generous!), so us two can have dinner with it and a bottle of wine (which is probably yours, not Olentzero's). He smokes, drinks and sports a huge belly (that part is just like American Santa) but he's wise: he has "a big head". That's what the song says, which also describes him as a coal-maker living in the mountains. Legend makes him the only convert, and hence surviving, gentile ('jentil': giant-like pre-Christians).

Maju said...

Addendum: you probably know it already but just in case, another Spanish-origin sign of the mentioned ideograms corresponds to the dollar sign ($), see:

andrew said...

Thanks for the insights.