In graphic communication, a symbol representing an object, such as an ox or a house. Pictographs were an early stage in the development of the alphabet; hieroglyphics were a form of pictograph.
The term pictograph derives from the Greek words pictus (meaning "painted") and graphein (meaning "writing"). It was a forerunner of true writing used either for descriptive-representational purposes (such as a series of pictographs "describing" a hunting expedition, which may consist of representations of buffalo or oxen, followed by pictures of men holding spears, etc.) or for identifying-mnemonic purposes (such as pictures which indicate the order of specific rites to be performed at a ceremony, or the verses to be sung in a song). Pictographs are often described in connection with ideograms (from the Greek words idea'—meaning "idea"—and gramma'—meaning "something drawn or written"), which were pictorial representations of ideas (such as "love" or "home"), regardless of whether they were concrete, recognizable pictures. (The terms "picto'gram'" and "ideo'graph'" are also used interchangeably with "pictograph" and "ideogram.") Pictographs and ideograms were used by early peoples to express a message directly, or to represent aspects of the spoken language. In the latter case, they became the earliest versions of what we would now call "true writing," in which a picture stood for a word or a part of a word. Such systems as Chinese, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Hittite, and Sumerian cuneiform were early examples of true writing based on pictorial representations of words and word-parts. As the writing evolved, gradually, more and more symbols became non-pictographic, as it became more economical in terms of both time and a writing surface to use simpler symbols than elaborate pictures. Sometimes, however, both pictographs and less elaborate symbols were used, depending upon the context. Early Egyptians, for example, had three systems of writing: hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic, in decreasing order of pictorial detail. Hieroglyphic writing was used on temples, tombs, and other ceremonial objects, where they were engraved into stone and then painted. Hieratic and demotic, which used simpler symbols, were used for official records and letters, where they were written on papyrus.
It was from these early post-pictographic symbols that modern letterforms derived. One of the earliest true alphabets was Greek, from which the Roman alphabet later derived.