Icons (was: NATLANG: Chinese parts of speech (or lack thereof))
|From:||Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>|
|Date:||Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 17:55|
On Wednesday, August 11, 2004, at 05:54 , Philippe Caquant wrote:
> --- cph9fa <cph9fa@...> wrote:
>> If you're reading this on a computer, close or
>> minimize all the
>> windows. See all those pretty little pictures (aka
>> icons)? Viola!
>> Modern pictograms. And they all fit within a perfect
>> square. :-)
> Yes, exactly. I heard somebody called them icons :-)
Somebody? Practically _everyone_ in the anglophone world calls them icons.
An icon (in this sense, not the religious usage) is "a sign which bears
physical resemblance to the object to the object to which it refers".
[Definition given in "The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems"]
> (and by the way, what kind of thing is a smiley ?)
An icon. In emails it's usually on its side. But modern word-processors
often automatically transfer :) to an upright smiling face. Some people
use the term 'emoticon' for icons that depict feelings or emotions.
> that looks very much like Chinese characters,
Eh? No Chinese character has been an icon for the best part of 4000 years
AFAIK. The small group known as 'pictograms' would have started out as
icons; but the earliest known signs found on bronze & oracle bones from
the 2nd millennium BCE are already stylized and losing their iconic nature.
But the majority of characters, as we've seen, are composed of a
determinative & a phonetic element. Icons are not.
The earliest Sumerian & Egyptian writings also show symbols which clearly
originated as icons, but only the Egyptians retained any icons at all in
the later developments of the scripts. If the modern use of icons is
'revisiting' (if you want to think of it that way - but see below)
anything, it is revisiting a preliterate mode of communication that
ante-dated Chinese or any other script.
cph9fa calls them "modern pictograms"; the pictograms of pre-literate
societies were almost certainly icons.
Furthermore, icons have continued to be used throughout the whole period
of human literacy. I recall being ushered around Ephesos one hot July day
(avoid visiting Ephesos in July/August - it's very hot & extremely crowded)
. He hurried us past all the interesting inscriptions, but insisted we saw
one carved into the pavement. It was male genitalia - an icon. In ancient
times the penis pointed to the brothels. Ephesos was anciently a sea-port
(silting over the centuries has changed that) the sailors were of many
different nationalities & not all would be literate; an icon is the
There are similar icons in Pompeii (and probably in some modern cities, I
wouldn't be surprised). So talk of 'revisiting' to this mode of symbolism
is incorrect. Icons have always been used in certain situations, as they
> The difference is that in the toolbar,
> there is no syntax to join the different icons
Of course there isn't. The need to communicate sentences was what prompted
the change from iconic portrayal to the beginnings of proper scripts, i.e.
the birth of writing.
(Take a peek at http://wwww.symbols.net and find out what writing is
> every one is an individual one (although
> there are already possibilities for grouping some
> icons together). Is this a new language to be born ?
> Shall we get sentences, or full texts, made out of
> icons ? That's exciting.
'Re-inventing the wheel' is what I'd call it. The human race did this in
many areas, e.g. Sumeria, Egypt, ancient China, meso-America, many, many
centuries ago. But they had to do more than just use icons.
> And even more exciting if you
> take into account the fact that (for the first time ?)
> the written form will not be depending on the
Not for the first time. The Bliss Symbols are an attempt to do this. Let
me just quote from a Web introduction:
"Blissymbolics is a language currently composed of over 2000 graphic
symbols. Bliss-characters can be combined and recombined in endless ways
to create new symbols. Bliss-words can be sequenced to form many types of
sentences, and express many grammatical capabilities."
Certainly there were attempts to do this in the 17th century, e.g. George
Dalgarno's "Universal Character" and Bishop John Wilkins' "Real Character"
> "Speech comes first, then does writing ?"
> Haha ! Not at all.
But it does, I'm afraid. The people that designed the icons actually spoke
to one another (sorry about that!) and if you hover over an icon on modern
GUIs, alphabetic text appears explaining what the icon denotes (just as
well - some icons are not as obvious as others).
"A mind which thinks at its own expense will always
interfere with language." J.G. Hamann, 1760