Chapter 10 – Symbols Across Time

Wikis > Chapter 10 - Symbols Across Time

1. Introduction

Image from Buni Comic

Remember the ‘Do Not Smoke’ and ‘No Eating’ signs you see so commonly in hotel lobbies and public transportation? Well, have you ever given a thought about how they came about and why were they created? In this chapter, we will go back in time to more than 5,000 years ago to look at the beginning of symbols. But before that, let us venture even further back to our ancestors. Our split with chimpanzees, 5 to 6 million years ago, resulted in us evolving differently from our non-human primates. The subsequential difference in brain sizes between us and chimpanzees could have been the start to our different ways of lives, including the usage of language for communication. A modern human brain weighs around 1,300 grams while that of a chimpanzee’s is under 500 grams (Harley, 2017). This increase in brain size is significant in our cerebellum, prefrontal cortex and the white-matter cabling when compared to ape brains (Hurford, 2014). As such, the increase in brain size correlates to an increase in cognitive abilities in modern humans (Hurford, 2014). However, the key to the development of communicative abilities is not just simply having a larger brain, but having an overall larger brain to body ratio. Biological evolution gave us cognitive skills but cultural evolution provided the impetus for the birth of language for communication.

An important component of the language that evolved for communication is the presence of symbols. Symbols are essential (for religion, identity and expressive culture) in describing and conveying the social dynamics in life. Just like how a packet of tissue paper left on a seemingly unoccupied table in hawker centers or food courts informs Singaporeans that the table is already ‘choped’ (taken), symbols are characteristic for their shared meaning in the specific community that employs them, and do not necessarily rely on the direct experiences of each individual user. Evidently, arbitrary social conventions link symbols to their referents. These links are then maintained by conscientious linguistic error corrections ubiquitous in the social group. In a nutshell, symbols are man-made and have earned their status due to the cultural and communicative role they play in human social life.

This chapter will discuss the meaning of symbols and how they form. After that, two types of ancient graphical forms of writing will be looked into greater detail. Lastly, we will see how culture plays a part in giving symbols their meanings.

2. What are symbols

(In this section, we will be looking at the meaning of symbols and how they are created. This will be followed by case studies on the ancient cave paintings and the oracle bone script.)

2.1 Icon, symbol and index

Although icons, symbols and indexes are three different types of signs, they are not completely unrelated; they do share a certain degree of resemblance with each other. This chapter will be focusing on symbols and to some extent, icons as well. It is important to be able to distinguish the three different signs from one another in order not to misunderstand the characteristics and usage, as the work will be touching a lot on symbols and icons.

According to Peirce (1931 – 1958), an icon is a pictorial representation as it is strikingly similar to the object it is trying to signify. One such example of an icon would be the recycle bin icon on the computer desktop. The trash bin pictorially presented, draws parallels between the process of deleting unwanted files on the computer with discarding rubbish in real life. Another common icon we see everyday is the exit sign (see Figure 2.1A). The little green man running out of the door makes it easy for people to infer the correct way out. As such, icons replicate what is being signified in graphical form.

Figure 2.1A Exit Sign

On the other hand, an index shares a causal relationship with the referential object. For example, the level of mercury in the thermometer indicates the temperature; the higher the mercury level, the greater the temperature (Garrod et al., 2007). Another clearer example of this causal relationship would be the presence of smoke, which marks the presence of a fire as smoke is a directly produced when there is fire.

However, a symbol has neither causal relationship nor resemblance to the particular object. Unlike an icon, a symbol requires some level of inference and logical deduction from the audience. It is less straightforward as the audience may have to interpret the link to the object based on their existing knowledge. Figure 2.1B is an icon while Figure 2.1C is a symbol, wherein both figures are depictions of the male sex. Yet, Figure 2.1B is a direct representation of the male anatomy, while Figure 2.1C is a universal sign which will not be recognisable without any existing previous knowledge from the audience. Here is a random nugget of information: citing the saying ‘Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars’, Figure 2.1C is in fact a symbol for Mars. This symbol arose from a contraction of the Greek word for Mars and is recognised today as a symbol for the male sex. It then gained popularity as the symbol for male sex after Linnaeus used it in his botany dissertation to denote a male parent plant (Schott, 2005).

Bringing us back on tangent to the topic of symbols, a symbol is often arbitrary and may have no apparent linkage to the object it is signifying. Nevertheless, the line between icons and symbols is often blurred. Peirce (1931 – 1958) said that these two are not binary but gradable. We will explore this in-depth in the following section.

2.2 Systematicity and arbitrariness in symbols

As mentioned earlier, there is no clear line between icons and symbols. In fact, symbolic signs usually come from iconic signs. Iconic signs undergo various processes when evolving into symbolic signs. According to Theisen et al. (2010), most of the earliest signs were either iconic or shaped by the object in some other way, i.e. not arbitrary. A symbol is only arbitrary when its signal and its meaning are not inherently connected. The example of the Mars symbol, as mentioned in section 2.1, is an arbitrary representation of the conveyed meaning of the male sex. Speakers will therefore have to rely on their existing knowledge to make inferences about the meaning as the symbol, unlike Figure 2.1B (a circle representing a head and four lines representing the limbs, and without a skirt), does not resemble a man in any way. In ancient times, due to its composition, Mars was considered more masculine than Venus (Schott, 2005). Therefore, a certain degree of relevance of the symbol to its idea of ‘male’ still exists despite it not being entirely iconic.

An experiment by Garrod et al. (2007) showed the systematic process of how iconic symbols gradually became more random. Complexity of iconic and detailed symbols were shaved off and simplified down the evolution chain. The study illustrated how symbols arose as a result of repeated reproduction of graphical signs. The process was expedited with feedback. In the pictionary task, iconic representations were simplified faster for efficient guessing when participants were allowed to interact with each other and give comments about the drawings. The experiment showed how symbols gradually became schematic in a systematic process. In contrast, the drawings became increasingly complex and included more details to facilitate a correct guess in the group when interaction was prohibited. Hence, communication is essential and provides the basis for a novel system to emerge.

Another study by Theisen et al. further showed that symbols can be recycled when encountered with new objects sharing some similarities with the initial signs. This convention reiterates how systematic symbols are. The column on the extreme right in Figure 2.2 uses a standard symbol to indicate all vehicles. These symbols are also arbitrary as they do not completely and accurately represent their real life counterparts. However, distinctive features such as the wheels and basic shape are captured. Likewise, the mortarboard in the drawings of nouns and verbs like ‘professor’, ‘lecturing’, ‘university’ and ‘lecture theatre’ pertaining to higher education could have originated from the preconceived notion that a professor is a graduate.

Figure 2.2 Signs that emerged during Theisen et al. experiment

2.3 Graphical symbolic systems

(In this section, we will be looking at two of the earliest graphical representation systems used presumably for communication.)

2.3.1 Ancient cave paintings

Cave paintings are painted drawings on cave walls that originated from prehistoric times, approximately 40,000 years ago in Eurasia. According to Mullen, L. (2008), cave paintings are early visual forms of communication. Linguists too, have acknowledged how prehistoric drawings and cave paintings are closely related to early forms of writing (Meadow, 2002). There is, however, little evidence to support the connection of cave paintings to the earliest known form of writing system which originated from Mesopotamia and Sumerian culture around 5,800 years ago.

The earliest known cave painting of animals is that of a hog-like animal, which is found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. In the mid-20th century, series of animal paintings were more regularly discovered in the caves of Lascaux, France. Mullen, L. (2008) mentioned that the depictions of animals were representations of what ancient humans might have seen while hunting. As sourcing for food was the main concern for early humans, this could have likely been the reason for those widespread animal cave paintings. Deacon, T. W. (2007) suggested that cave paintings could have possibly communicated messages that included hunting strategies, tool-making skills and food distribution. Such hunting-associated ideas then perhaps, could have served as motivation for the creation of the cave paintings. As such, the paintings are understood to be coded and structured, and not just random sets of drawings.

Weaving in another interesting nugget of information, cave paintings also recorded the pioneer evidence of a symbolizing mind unique to humans that is capable of communicating important past experiences (in symbolic representations) to the next generation.

2.3.2 Oracle bone script

The oracle bone script is one of the earliest forms of Chinese writing. The characters were carved on bones and shells to record important events in the past. The bones and shells were also used for divination during ancient times. They originated from Anyang, Henan Province and date back to 1200 BC.

According to Boltz (1996), the modern Chinese characters which are used today descended from oracle script. The reason why we chose oracle bone script is because it is a logographic system, meaning that a single character is a representation of an entire word. Referencing Figure 2.3.2B, some of the oracle script characters are pictographs and represent the objects they are depicting. For instance, the simplified Chinese character for moon ‘月’ came from the oracle script denoting that of a crescent moon. Interestingly, other characters such as the character for woman ‘女’, appears to have little relevance to the signified, but rather more of a thought or reference. This can be explained by Boltz (1996)’s suggestion that the character depicts a person on her knees with her arms respectfully crossed. This could have been a possible reflection of the social status of women in the ancient period. We can also explain this with the triangle of reference or otherwise known as semiotic triangle which shows how symbols are related to their referent or reference.

Figure 2.3.2B Triangle of Reference

Over the years, the oracle script characters have evolved to become today’s modern simplified Chinese. Present, modern characters appear completely arbitrary from the object. The characters have become so schematic that they look close to nothing like the object they stand for. This evolution process can be observed through the different Chinese writing systems across the years. However, what exactly drives the evolution of writing systems still remains unclear. Perhaps the repeated usage of the oracle script could have prompted the people to derive faster and easier writing for everyday life.

Figure 2.3.2C Different Chinese writing systems

3. Influences of culture on symbols

(This section focuses on how the meanings of symbols have evolved over the years due to various cultural influences.)

3.1 Transmission of symbols

New signs that evolve in a particular society will usually be adopted and transmitted across generations.

An experiment by Caldwell C. A. (2012) involved the analysis of the emergence of graphical signs over participant chains. The members of each group were switched continuously to ensure that the most seasoned participants were frequently swapped to inexperienced ones. Throughout the process, signs then rapidly became symbolic to the point where they were decipherable only to the ‘veterans’ of various chains, and newcomers had to learn the conventionalised nuances.

An unbiased measure of graphical complexity also showed that signs used within the micro-societies were becoming increasingly simplified over subsequent use. Evidentially, human communicative symbols could have evolved culturally from iconic representations.

3.2 Cross cultural comparison of the perception of symbols

“Images are powerful, they are not just art, they are used to represent certain cultures.” (Chu S, 2003). Studies and articles pertaining to cross cultural studies convey a persistent idea; humans react actively to images based on social contexts and ideologies.

The first uniquely human forms of communication were based on natural gesturing. For most infants, pointing emerges at around age one, before they even learn how to speak. This indicates that the infrastructure of cooperative communication does not originally function in support of language but in the use of pointing gesture. Even till today, gestures still remain a crucial part in our everyday conversation. Nevertheless, gestures are definitely not universal, or rather, it can be refuted only when the speakers share a certain background knowledge.  

Take a look at this symbol

Figure 3.2.1 The “OK” symbol

Most of us looking at this sign, like other fellow humans in America, China and many other parts of the world, will recognise it as the “ok” sign. This sign generally conveys the message that everything is good or satisfactory. The connotations that follow are usually positive: approval, satisfaction, up-to-standard. This same sign can also have a neutral meaning like in Korea and Japan where the “ok” sign can be used to represent money or spare change. However, it signifies money only when the palm is facing up, as seen in Figure 3.2.2.

Figure 3.2.2 The “OK” symbol representing money in Japan

The phrase written in romanised Japanese in Figure 3.2.2 translates to “Foreigners say “OK”… Japanese say “money””. It is believed that this sign was used to represent money as the circle formed by the thumb and index finger resembles a coin.

On the contrary, this sign can also have negative connotations. In countries like France and Belgium, this sign represents “zero”. The gesture is considered offensive, as it conveys derogatory messages telling the recipient that he/she is ‘zero’ or ‘is nothing’. In the same vein, in Middle East, Brazil, parts of Germany and other South American countries, the sign may be interpreted as a vulgar expression of calling someone an asshole.

As previously established, symbols are cultural products shared among people. They have evolved over time through repeated usage, from iconic representations to symbolic representations that are more abstract forms which taps on the interpreter’s cultural and historical background. Symbols have also taken on wider meanings through cultural influences. As expounded by the “ok” sign, the same symbol can have either positive or negative meaning depending on the cultural background of the person interpreting it.

Emojis (like pointing at things) can be considered a universal language. They are very useful, but only under a certain set of circumstances. For instance, regardless of what your native tongue is, the smiley face will always mean the same thing in every language. The only  difference is that the act of smiling is not universal across diverse cultures. In some parts of the world, such as in the United States, smiling is much more common than in less emotionally expressive countries such as Japan. Following this logic, we can be sure to say that a smiley face is universal. Yet, depending on the cultural background of the interpreter, a smile can be deemed inappropriate in cultures out of the United States. In other words, the ‘language’ of emojis is universal yet abstract.

Therefore, it is imperative for us to be aware of the roles played by cultural differences in symbolic design learning. This awareness will then reinforce cross cultural understanding across societies.

4. Conclusion

Symbols are cultural products shared among people with similar cultural experiences. Studies done by Theisen et al. (2010) and Garrod et al. (2007) on how symbols emerge, also showed the possibility that symbols may have evolved from iconic representations to their simplified but abstract final forms. It is also repeatedly mentioned and emphasised that the meaning conveyed by the sign is highly reliant on the interpreter’s cultural and historical background. All in all, it is important to take note that cultural influences highlight and strengthen the significant perceptual differences of symbols. Another key idea about symbols is that they can also help to convey messages in a shorter and more efficient way.

Applying the same methodology to exploring how symbols originate can help us study how languages arise and are successfully maintained in communities. Through implementing a similar methodology and identifying patterns, we will also be able to further study historical linguistics in terms of ancient writing systems and their evolution, helping us trace back to the earlier days of language evolution.

5. Future Application

In the past, writing systems may only serve mnemonic purposes but as we continue to advance with industrial revolution and technology, we start to ponder more about the ways of the world. The rise of the Internet and the advent of mobile phones gave birth to the new discourse of text messaging or ‘textese’. The prevalence of colourful pictograms in text messages and tweets brings our attention to an interesting pictorial system of representation and communication – Emojis. Unlike symbols, Emojis are very iconic. From studies by Garrod and Theisen, we witnessed how iconic signs were gradually simplified down the evolutionary chain to become arbitrary symbols. Following this same line of logic, we now raise an eyebrow. Why then are Emojis not simplified?

Adding on to the phenomenon of emojis, the word of the year in Oxford dictionary 2015 is the ‘’ emoji. Will Emojis therefore become a new language?

Figure 5.1 Emojis replacing words in a text message

You know you have done it. Your friend sends you a text asking ‘what’s happening tonight?’ You have no time to curate a lengthy text message so you pluck a string of emojis that best expresses yourself in reply.

Many are concerned about whether the rise of emojis will lead to the death of our conventional written language but Gretchen McCulloch highlighted that this misconception is associated with how people view “language”.

Gretchen McCulloch suggests that emojis are more like gestures than language. The vast majority of emojis are used along with words and do not stand alone. Evidently, people like you and me are not using emojis as a substitute for language. We are only using it as an addition to language, much like how we gesticulate wildly in a face-to-face interaction or when giving a speech to articulate and complement our thoughts at the same time.

Interestingly, it is impossible for a language to be both abstract and universal simultaneously. That would just be a contradiction. Emojis are universal as they are instantly understandable and really simple. However, the meaning and use of emojis is abstract due to the arbitrary associations of form and meaning. To understand the arbitrary associations between a taco emoji and a vagina, one would only have to go through the mundane learning process of linking the arbitrary form and meaning.

Therefore, emojis will not replace language; at least not between people who do not share a common conceptual ground. Even so, we can never be too sure. But one thing for sure is that we can possibly direct future research towards deeper understanding pertaining to the use of these cute pictograms as part of a language system.

6. References

Boltz, W. G. (1996). Early Chinese Writing. In The World’s Writing Systems (pp. 191-199). New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Cave Painting, (n.d.), Retrieved March 15, 2017, from

Chu, S. (2003). Cross-cultural comparison of the perception of symbols. Journal of Visual Literacy, 23(1), 69-80.

Deacon, T. W. (2007). The symbolic species: the co-evolution of language and the brain. Cambridge: International Society for Science and Religion. Pg 374

Garrod, S., Fay, N., Lee, J., Oberlander, J., & Macleod, T. (2007). Foundations of Representation: Where Might Graphical Symbol Systems Come From? Cognitive Science,31(6), 961-987. doi:10.1080/03640210701703659

Harley, T. A. (2017). Animals. In Talking the Talk: Language, Psychology and Science (pp. 31-48). New York, United States of America: Routledge.

Hurford, J. R. (2014). The prehistory of a very special ape. In The Origins of Language: A Slim Guide (pp. 1-17). New York, United States of America: Oxford University Press.

McCulloch, G. (2016, June 28). A Linguist Explains Emoji and What Language Death Actually Looks Like. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from

Mullen, L. (2008). Cave Art and the Origins of Typography. Visual Communication Quarterly, 15(1-2), 6-16. doi:10.1080/15551390801914546

Oracle Bone Script. (2016). Retrieved March 15, 2017, from

Peirce, C. S. (1931–1958). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Vols. 1–8. Charles Hathorne, Paul Weiss, & Arthur Burks (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schott, G. D. (2005). Sex symbols ancient and modern: their origins and iconography on the pedigree. The BMJ, 331(7531), 1509-1510. doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1509

Theisen, C. A., Oberlander, J., & Kirby, S. (2012). Systematicity and arbitrariness in novel communication systems. Experimental Semiotics Benjamins Current Topics, 15-32. doi:10.1075/bct.45.02the