If somebody refers to Chinese or Japanese characters as hieroglyphs are they right or wrong? Aren't there many hieroglyphic writing systems? If somebody says hieroglyphs refers only to Ancient Egyptian writing are they merely pedantic or just plain wrong?

I know there are quite a few other terms used for Chinese and Japanese characters (han character, hanja, hanzi, ideogram, ideograph, kanji, pictogram, pictograph, sinogram, sinograph...). And I know that those characters used to be used in Korea and Vietnam, but I don't want to get sidetracked and focus just on the applicability of this term, not whether there are better or less ambiguous or more precise or more technical terms.

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    I believe "glyph" is the word you're looking for. – titaniumdecoy Apr 6 '11 at 23:38
  • I assume you mean the technical term, not the term of abuse for anything that's hard to comprehend. – Andrew Grimm Sep 15 '13 at 4:53
  • I definitely mean the technical term though if it's used in slightly different ways by different people I'm not sure if all such uses would qualify as technical \-: – hippietrail Sep 15 '13 at 5:08

Egyptian hieroglyphs are the most popular, but the word hieroglyph is of Greek origin ("sacred carvings") and can refer to the characters of several other logographic writing systems:

And more.


I believe the more general term is logogram, meaning a symbol primarily denoting a word (or phrase) rather than a letter. But words and letters are slippery concepts themselves, so that wouldn't be a hard-and-fast distinction.

Anyway, I'm happy enough using logogram to include Chinese pictograms, or whatever else you want to call them, as well as various hieroglyphs. But I'm not so comfortable saying hieroglyph includes the Chinese symbols.

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    I've always associated hieroglyphic writing more with marks being carved or cut into the writing surface (which may be easily done in soft clay intended to dry and harden after writing). I think the etymology of the word supports this association. Chinese writing is evocative of brush-and-ink marks on fabric, etc. (I think the Chinese invented ink first), so they have a somewhat different appearance because of the nature of how they were usually made. – FumbleFingers Apr 6 '11 at 16:41
  • Chinese writing is evocative of brush-and-ink marks on fabric, etc. I think this is a very good point: we call hieroglyphs hieroglyphs not because they actually have to be carved in something, but because carving is an essential element in the history of their origin. // There is also ideogram. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Apr 6 '11 at 16:48
  • @Cerberus: Good point. I forgot ideograms. Do we not sometimes use that term to denote symbols that aren't directly translateable into words without recourse to excessively long phrases and caveats? In which case they don't necessarily apply to any particular writing systems, just to certain symbols in certain systems. – FumbleFingers Apr 6 '11 at 16:58
  • logogram means a symbol that denotes a word and both Chinese/Japanese and Egyptian sometimes use their symbols this way, but they both use their symbols much more commonly in other ways. "Hieroglyph" does seem to be associated with carved letters but isn't the term "inscription" better for this? The earliest known Chinese writing was scratched on bone. It has also been used for inscription in stone for centuries. – hippietrail Apr 6 '11 at 23:44
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    @FumbleFingers: Just making a point that Chinese writing has been around for 1000s of years so our current associations might not be totally relevant to the meanings of various terms though it will be relevant to current usage. Also interesting that people take the "glyph = stone" part of the etymology as essential but not so with the "hiero = holy" part. Here's an interesting graph from Google ngram viewer too: ngrams.googlelabs.com/… – hippietrail Apr 7 '11 at 0:18

Chinese and Japanese characters are not hieroglyphs. They are a mixture of pictograms, ideograms, phono-semantic compounds and others. Japanese also has two phonetic syllabaries.

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    Agreed - especially for modern Chinese - but I think giving such an absolute answer only reinforces the idea that hieroglyphs are solely Egyptian. It is important to note that phonetic Chinese writing evolved from a technically hieroglyphic system. As I'm sure you're well aware, I mention this only for posterity. – HaL Apr 6 '11 at 16:49
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    Well, technically they are now called sinograms. And I don't care about the effect this answer may or may not have on the impression that hieroglyphs are an Egyptian phenomenon. I think it's important to define the term also by what they are not, and the OP is clearly asking about whether Chinese or Japanese characters are hieroglyphs. Which they are not. Which is the entire thrust of my answer. – Robusto Apr 6 '11 at 16:56
  • @Robusto: According to Wikipedia, Hieroglyphs consist of three kinds of glyphs: phonetic glyphs, including single-consonant characters that function like an alphabet; logographs, representing morphemes; and determinatives, which narrow down the meaning of logographic or phonetic words. Which of these several kinds is it that makes them not like the several Chinese and Japanese kinds? (And Japanese has not one but two phonetic syllabaries, but that's besides the point.) – hippietrail Apr 6 '11 at 23:35
  • @hippietrail: Japanese has a single syllabary, but two ways of representing the syllables: 平仮名 (ひらがな hiragana) 平仮名 and 片仮名 (カタカナ katakana) of which I just gave you examples. Hiragana is the cursive phonetic system, katakana is the one they use for display type and foreign loan words or names. – Robusto Apr 7 '11 at 0:21
  • And if you want to look up Chinese writing in Wikipedia, look at the character formation section. Then search the page for the word "hieroglyph" ... – Robusto Apr 7 '11 at 0:27

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