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A pictograph is a writing by picture. It conveys and records an idea or occurrence by graphic means without the use of words or letters. The execution of the pictures of which it is composed often exhibits the first crude efforts of graphic art, and their study in that relation is of value. When pictures are employed as writing the conception intended to be presented is generally analyzed, and only its most essential points are indicated, with the result that the characters when frequently repeated become conventional, and in their later forms cease to be recognizable as objective portraitures. This exhibition of conventionalizing also has its own import in the history of art.
Pictographs are considered in the present paper chiefly in reference to their significance as one form of thought-writing directly addressed to the sight, gesture-language being the other and probably earlier form. So far as they are true ideographs they are the permanent, direct, visible expression of ideas of which gesture-language gives the transient expression. When adopted for syllabaries or alphabets, which is known to be the historical course of evolution in that regard, they have ceased to be the direct and have become the indirect expression of the ideas framed in oral speech. The writing common in civilization records sounds directly, not primarily thoughts, the latter having first been translated into sounds. The trace of pictographs in the latter use shows the earlier and predominant conceptions.
The importance of the study of pictographs depends upon their examination as a phase in the evolution of human culture, or as containing valuable information to be ascertained by interpretation.
The invention of alphabetic writing being by general admission the great step marking the change from barbarism into civilization, the history of its earlier development must be valuable. It is inferred from internal evidence that picture-writing preceded and originated the graphic systems of Egypt, Nineveh, and China, but in North America its use is still modern and current. It can be studied there, without any requirement of inference or hypothesis, in actual existence as applied to records and communications. Furthermore, its transition into signs of sound is apparent in the Aztec and the Maya characters, in which stage it was only arrested by foreign conquest. The earliest lessons of the birth and growth of culture in this most important branch of investigation can therefore be best learned from the Western Hemisphere. In this connection it may be noticed that picture-writing is found in sustained vigor on the same continent where sign-language has prevailed or continued in active operation to an extent unknown in other parts of the world. These modes of expression, i. e., transient and permanent idea-writing, are so correlated in their origin and development that neither can be studied with advantage to the exclusion of the other.