Articles, Blog

Pronouncing pictures! – History of Writing Systems #4 (Rebus writing)

What does this child’s game teach us about
the history of writing? Something basic but incredibly inventive. You learned how to write with symbols that
stand for words – logographs. And you saw just how many logographs you need to write
well – logographs for everything under the sun and the moon, including the sun and the
moon. But isn’t this getting impractical? Do we really need a symbol for every word?
Surely the madness can’t go on forever! Say hello to this smart rogue, who’s about
to solve your problem with an innocent mistake. His father has been counting sheep. Literally.
And he just asked his son to record a measly line in his budget: “10 sheep for uncle”.
The son writes the 10, and the logograph for sheep, but uncle? He pauses and scratches
his head. Eager to play with his friends, he writes the character for “ankle”. “10
sheep – ankle”. He hurries away without a second thought, but don’t take his invention
lightly. If you’ve ever played fill-in-the-blank
or guessing games where you have to sound out picture-words, you’ve seen and used
this principle for yourself. But it’s not just for quirky puzzles with funny solutions. The name for this is another “Major Moments
in the History of Writing”. Ahem, the name for this is rebus. This familiar language
game lets you look beyond the meaning of a character and use it simply for its sound.
Sun sounds like son, and, by extension, perhaps soon and sown. Logographs, like the symbol
for “sun”, could already be read as words. Now, with the rebus principle in your pocket,
logographs can also be read as sounds. This isn’t just useful for getting ancient
uncle his ancient sheep. Once Aztec city planners finished building their stunning capital in
the middle of a lake, the Venice of the New World, Tenochtitlán, their scribes needed
a way to write its name. They’ve been using what amounts to basic picture writing. Since
Tenochtitlán has a stone, “te”, and a cactus, “nochtli”, it’s natural to write
it with two fairly obvious glyphs. Then these become not just symbols meaning cactus and
stone, but symbols for the noises “Tenochtitlán”, making them just as much rebus fun as those
puzzles you solved as a kid. And now you know the name for those. You also know why there’s
a cactus on top of a stone in Mexico’s flag. It’s not just for show! How alike does the sound-alike pronunciation
have to be? Which sounds can we chop off? Pit the Egyptians against the Sumerians one
more time. Egyptian hieroglyphs cut off the initial consonant, or, less often, two or
three consonants from the original word. Sumerians, on the other hand, with their cuneiform, take
whole syllables. These two paths don’t just add some local flavor. Rebusing out consonants
doesn’t just impact ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It leaves a legacy for later spinoffs: the
mentality that these are either read as logographs or they stand for consonants. Cuneiform leaves
a different legacy. Completely unrelated languages will spend thousands of years borrowing and
reborrowing cuneiform to write their own words, but, each time, the symbols are read as logographs
or as syllables. Flexibility is key here. Look at this Egyptian
hieroglyph. It can be read as a logograph for “mouth” (“re”), or as the consonant
“r”. This character could be read as the logograph meaning “house”, or it could
stand for the consonants pr, the two consonants in the Egyptian word. Conveniently, in Egyptian,
the little slashy below lets you know when it’s a pure logograph. The rebus discovery brings up a tension between
meaning and sound. Is writing phonetic or semantic? Is it about encoding the meaning
of words or encoding speech sounds? The old logographs were fundamentally a meaning-writing
system. Sure, this sounds like “re” in Egyptian, but what’s crucial is that this
is the logograph for the word meaning “mouth”. Rebus writing takes a big step towards sound-writing:
this will come to stand for the consonant “r”, regardless of meaning. It may come as a surprise, but, once discovered,
sound writing doesn’t oust meaning writing. Not at all! Indeed, early writers notice that phonetic
writing brings up a problem, a problem you probably missed because of your comfort with
sound-writing, a problem that meaning-writing can solve. Brace yourself, history, because logographs are about to make a comeback!


  1. Michael Turvey Author

    Am I right in assuming the ankle/uncle example was an analogy? It would be very odd if the ancient language had words for ankle and uncle which sounded the same!

  2. Guillermo Garcia Viesca Author

    so…the cactus thing… No
    it is more… mythic
    as to tenochtitlan's name: it isn't a rebus, the name IS city in of the prickly pear among the rocks
    because of the mythic origin of the city…
    so rebus doesn't apply

  3. Big Bad Wolf Author

    Rebuses (rebi?) in Polish are so lame I don't even know why they make them. I suppose in English you're supposed to guess words that sound similar and guess sentences? In Polish you have something like this: Picture of the Sun – ce = ? – Słońce – ce = słoń, elephant.

  4. Vítězslav Ureš Author

    Not only the narrator lady has a silk voice, but she pronounce the "r" in the Egyptian symbols the same way Czech language uses it, which is quite hard if you are not used to. I am impressed!

  5. ResaRestart Author

    I still write in english using rebus unintentionally. i just write down words that sound what i can remember and that means misspelling

  6. anointedblessed1 Author

    WRONG! It is not a mistake, could people please stop thinking that grammar and syntax was not sophisticated back then. The pictographs have the same syntax and grammar systems that we have today. The ancient writing went left to right, the subject, the ankle, which is the ancient way of marking sin, the jews wore red around the ankles and wrists, to symbolize the one who would be crucified and pay the sin debt, the lamb and the 10 sheep go as tithe to the priest-the levite- as payment for the sin debt as sacrifice,the red ribbon tied around the temple turns white in the sun when the sin is taken away, so the sheep are not going to an uncle, unless the uncle is a levitical priest who is taking the sheep to the temple as payment for the family debt of sin at the 3 main festivals. Ankle and 10 sheep means offering, the left to right reading is the SUBJECT the ANKLE is NOT a mistake, it is the TOPICALIZATION, the thetan, the facts ,the element of the CAUSE of action, and the results causing all else that occurs in the sentence, so the 10 sheep are the cause of what transpired due to the ankle, the need to pay the sin debt! SO semantically READ IT as IN CONTEXT OF THE TIME ERA AND PEOPLES to INTERPRET MEANING! 😉 The ankle is the focus and the point of the sentence, to pay ten sheep for the ankle, sin debt is like paying tithe, sin offering, so they recorded that they paid their tithe, to the priest, and that also infers they have 100 sheep as 10 tithe is their offering.

  7. anointedblessed1 Author

    The little diacritic mark below is a tense meaning for semantic purpose! 16 tenses 8 to each side 4 up 4 down up ongoing down means completed the diacritics for short and long syllables also are short/long up/down above/below to indicate the enunciation of the words to show what register and tone and melodic prosody one uses when pronouncing them!

  8. flibbertygibbet Author

    very nit picky and 2 years late but saguaro cacti don't grow in the part of Mexico near Mexico City (which is what Tenochtitlan became) and the picture shows a saguaro off to the right of Tenochtitlan. BTW nōchtli means the fruit of the paddle cactus in Nahuatl, it's not just cactus. It's pretty specific.


    So what you're saying is that puns are a fundamental part of our linguistic development and are therefor acceptable?

  10. Animiles Author

    To me that problem is pretty obvious. Well if I'm thinking about the right thing at least.
    if I were to type "I hate you". How would you read it?
    But if I were to write "I hate you :p", or "I hate you xD", or "I hate you >:(", then you'd probably read it pretty much the way I intended.

  11. Karma Roam Author

    eye bee leaf ant flower can well bear scratch awl four sheep.
    I believe ant flower can well bear scratched all four sheep. ?.?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *