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Kategorien/Categories:    ›Sprachkultur/Language culture‹  ›EN‹   –  06.09.2012

Transcending language


Pictograms are everywhere: they help guide the traffic, tell us how to wash our laundry properly and let us know where to find the correct restroom. The ubiquitous symbols help to convey important information without the use of written language, thus transporting their message beyond borders and cultures.  Well, nearly so.

A pictogram or pictograph is the ultimate lingua franca, as it can be understood by speakers of different languages all over the world. Their use goes back to the earliest civilizations, as is evident in various ancient art forms from cave drawings to rock carvings. Ancient Sumerian, Egyptian and Chinese civilizations later developed these symbols into logographic writing systems.

Today, pictograms are widely used to convey basic day-to-day information, from giving instructions or directions to telling us about the do’s and don’ts. That’s where a whole subculture of pictograms has developed. All the warning signs! You know: Watch out for falling rocks! Or: No swimming, dangerous current!

Lately, it seems a whole new crop of them has emerged and I can’t help wondering if life has really gotten so much more dangerous. More complex, for sure. Or is it simply an expression of our highly litigious society?

The examples shown here, which I recently discovered at a country fair, were affixed to various brand new tractors. I laughed out loud when saw them – even though I don’t think that was the intended reaction. The tractor sales guy was not quite so amused, either, but I hope you are.


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