An Alphabet of Pictures | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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An Alphabet of Pictures

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Can comic strips finally get some respect? It seems novelists from Tolstoy to today owe cartoonish drawings a debt of gratitude. Once upon a time, words, letters and images were one and the same. The noted linguist John Algeo says, “There can be no doubt that writing grew out of drawing, the wordless comic-strip type of drawing..." Many pre-literate Native American cultures used pictures to communicate. When Spanish missionaries attempted to convert the peoples of the South American Incan empire, they rewrote biblical texts as comic-book style tomes, to show Catholic prayers and rituals.
Yet these prayerful cartoons didn’t cue actual words. Those thumbing these pages apprehended the pictures soundlessly, almost like a silent movie. In Chinese writing, each pictorial symbol conveys not sound but meaning. Each Chinese character is actually about an idea, such as the “Shan" character, which means and looks like a mountain. The Maya of Central America also used symbols, or glyphs, to convey ideas and words. A jaguar head, pronounced “Balam," represents the jaguars that haunted Central American jungles. Yet in the inventive Hangul system of Korea, certain letters are actually pictures of how the tongue and lips are positioned to form the sounds. The ancient Egyptians drew pictures of jackals, jugs and feathers to represent sounds, not ideas—less direct than Hangul, but much like our present-day alphabet. Even the seemingly abstract letters of ancient cultures derived from images at first—the Hebrew “Aleph," the ancestor to the Greek Alpha and our letter A, originally represented the horned head of an ox. The next time you become bleary-eyed reading a novel just before bed, try to re-imagine the printed text as a comic book of once meaningful pictures—oxen, tents and other images culled from an ancient world.

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