6 things you didn't know about signs and how they changed along with our language

6 things you didn't know about signs and how they changed along with our language


Every day we read text and signs: the fact that you are on this page right now proves that. Although most European languages are written in the letters you see before you now, there are many other forms of writing used to convey messages. What's that really like?

Do you have a text that looks a bit like hieroglyphics? No worries!

Only 36% of humanity uses the Latin alphabet. It is estimated that there are more than 200 alphabets worldwide. Do you need a translation in another alphabet? Then request a no-obligation quote now.

1. You have sound-written and non-sound-written forms of writing

In phonetic (phonographic) script forms like Dutch, each letter has a sound value. For example, we always pronounce 'k' as in 'kelder' (cellar). English is also considered a phonographic language, even though we sometimes pronounce certain letters differently in different contexts, such as 'c' in 'candle' and 'certificate'.

English would sound very different if all letters were pronounced the same, Aaron Alon proves in this video, in which he shows that all vowels in English sound different all the time.

2. A road sign belongs to one of three non-syllabic writing forms

In non-sound-written (non-phonographic) characters, a character can stand for a whole word (logographic), such as "1" stands for one and $ stands for dollar. Chinese also consists of logographic characters: each character does not stand for a sound, but for a word or part of a word.

Another type of non-phonographic sign is the sign that stands for an idea (idiographic), such as a triangle means "dangerous" in traffic and a red circle indicates a prohibition.

Sometimes signs also look very much like the word they are meant to represent. This is called a pictographic sign, also called a pictogram. Instagram's pictographic sign is a small camera, the sign for nice weather is a sun, and bleach you won't easily smear on your skin because of the pictographic sign for "corrosive substance.

3. We began writing in the form of pictograms and ideograms

In ancient times, murals were made of people with arrows and bows and animals. These signs clearly represented something concrete and were the beginning of writing. The signs became increasingly complicated, with the meaning of the signs becoming more and more distant from what was actually depicted.

An image of the sun could, for example, represent 'warmte' (warmth) or 'hitte' (heat), certainly a related concept, but not exactly the same as the word 'zon' (sun). This way, a pictogram evolved into an ideogram.

We still use pictograms alongside the regular alphabet on a daily basis: just think of Schiphol Airport, where the signage can be understood almost entirely by looking at the pictograms, or the pictograms at locker rooms.

4. There have even been attempts to develop a one universal pictographic system: Picto

Each word has its own sign in Picto: it is a so-called word script. Unfortunately, the system is only useful for fairly simple and concrete messages, because there is no room for grammar and conjugations of verbs. Because each language has its own word choices and different sentence sequences, Picto proves more difficult to understand internationally than hoped.

5. Even our oldest writings began as word writing: cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing.

Cuneiform script got its name from the wedge-shaped characters, which became increasingly abstract over the years. Similar to Picto, cuneiform began around 3300 BCE as a logographic script. However, it gradually transformed into a script where each character represented a sound associated with the original meaning. Combinations of characters could then be used to create new words.

Hieroglyphic writing underwent the same change. The literal meanings of words were used alongside the sound signs, sometimes with additional indications to make it clear how the sign was now to be read.

6. Currently, only 36% of the world's current population uses the Latin alphabet

Otherwise, Chinese script, Indian Devanāgarī and Arabic script are mainly used. A small percentage use Cyrillic characters or the South Indian Dravidian script. You also have Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Burmese, Korean and Thai scripts, among others: in all, more than 19 alphabets are used around the world.

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