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Early written symbols were based on pictographs (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms (symbols which represent ideas). Ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations began to adapt such symbols to represent concepts, developing them into logographic writing systems. Pictographs are still in use as the main medium of written communication in some non-literate cultures in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Pictographs are often used as simple, pictorial, representational symbols by most contemporary cultures.
Pictographs can be considered an art form, or can be considered a written language and are designated as such in Pre-Columbian art, Native American art, Ancient Mesopotamia and Painting in the Americas before Colonization. One example of many is the Rock art of the Chumash people, part of the Native American history of California.
An early modern example of the extensive use of pictographs may be seen in the map in the London suburban timetables of the London and North Eastern Railway, 1936-1947, designed by George Dow, in which a variety of pictographs was used to indicate facilities available near each station. Pictographs remain in common use today, serving as pictorial, representational signs, instructions, or statistical diagrams. Because of their graphical nature and fairly realistic style, they are widely used to indicate public toilets, or places such as airports and train stations. Because they are a concise way to communicate a concept to people who speak many different languages, pictograms have also been used extensively at the Olympics since 1964 Summer Olympics, and are redesigned for each set of games.
Pictographs can often transcend languages in that they can communicate to speakers of a number of tongues and language families equally effectively, even if the languages and cultures are completely different. This is why road signs and similar pictographic material are often applied as global standards expected to be understood by nearly all.
A standard set of pictographs was defined in the international standard ISO 7001: Public Information Symbols. Other common sets of pictographs are the laundry symbols used on clothing tags and the chemical hazard symbols as standardised by the GHS system. Pictograms have been popularised in use on the web and in software, better known as ‘icons’ displayed on a computer screen in order to help users navigate a computer system or mobile device.
Early civilisations used symbols to represent:
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