The Bee’s Knees: Pictograms


Hello, and welcome to the Bee’s Knees, the weekly special here at Comic Booked where I take a look at some of the different ways people combine words and pictures. This week we’re looking at the ancient tradition of pictographic writing and how contemporary artists are using it to bring text to life.

Pictograms have been around forever. When man first learned that scratching a stick on the ground could make a mark, and that the marks could be made to look like anything, boom! Pictographic writing was born. Ancient Sumeria, Egypt and China all had writing based on this style, as well as many tribes in Africa and the Americas. So why don’t we write like that? Our letters are confined to the language they are written in, but pictures are universal!

LoveSome languages, such as Chinese, are still written in pictogram-based scripts. But the pictures have changed over time. Take a look at anything written in Chinese, such as the character on the right that means “love,” and tell me if you can decipher it based on the scenes the pictures depict. You can’t; it’s changed too much in the past few thousand years to read it unless you know it.

Easier to understand would be the pictograms used in the west—map symbols, laundry instructions, and the all-too-common emoticon: :). Very simple pictures are easy to depict on signs in instructional cases and easy to understand.

So where does the artistic potential lie? People have taken it to different extremes. Experimental artist and writer Xu Bing currently has a pictographic novel in progress called Book From The Ground. The first paragraph is shown here, and if you look you might be surprised at how much you can understand. All it takes is a basic knowledge of modern life.

Book From the Ground

Other writers have also taken advantage of this opportunity to speak through pictures instead of words. Poet Suzanne Bellamy wrote the following pictographic poem using abstract shapes and edges instead of familiar images.

Suzanne Bellamy

And that’s the bee’s knees for this week! Please join me next Friday for another way people blend words and pictures to create all-new forms of art. In the meantime, feel free to tell me in the comments section if there’s something you know of I should write about. What are your thoughts on pictographic writing? How far can it go without becoming ridiculous? Please share! The possibilities are endless! 🙂

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Comments (3)

This seems fun! I think I might want to try this out someday and prove to some people that I can make my poems even more confusing.


Interesting read. This might be worth sharing with my students some day. It's so fascinating to see how language evolves (or devolves) over time. Crazy how much I actually understood what was going on in your example paragraph.



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