Iconical Graphemes :
between Speech
 & Writing ?


At the UISPP-CISENP Colloquium in Paris on 22-23 Octobre 2007
 our most recent communication on this topic
was presented in French
under the title "L'expression par graphèmes iconiques"
at url  

 At the 2° Taller Arte Rupestre, at La Habana, April 13-23 2004
ur very first communication on this topic was presented in Spanish
under the title "Grafemas iconicas, entre palabras y escritura"
at url

How does a language relate to writing ? 
Could Rock Art help us to understand how this gap is bridged ?

The graphical representation of phonemes reflects
the way the brain puts into words or receives a message.
The complexity of the problem appears once both cerebrals hemispheres 
are taken into account :  they are hosting the centres of different activities.
Let us summarize the lateralization of some cerebral activities, relevant to our topic:

Left brain

Right brain

Time sequence
   Speech/ Words/ Numbers

  Song/ Images/ Metaphors

Abstraction / Causal thinking

Emotion / Magical thinking

To associate Images to Words, requires therefore to trigger both hemispheres ! 

Our hypothesis is that
iconical graphemes (
a right brain activity) acted as 
the coach
 for the invention and mastering of writing (a the left brain activity).

Iconical graphemes are stereotyped graphical elements, used into a composition
to represent something extraneous to their own symbolic value. 

 anthropomorph engraving /tactigryphy Dubal   
 Grapheme # A : Cupule (La Gardette/ France; Helanshan/ China; Bolivia, Cartago/Tunisia).
The C
up-mark grapheme has been used indistinctly to represent the eyes
 and the nose, or,  as terminator for the limbs or the hair, even the head
of Goddess Tanit or the one of two fishes (probably using the same coin as grapheme's caliber). 
 In the "INTI" blanket design
his grapheme appears 18 times in
 the composite figure of the Sun. Let us note, here, how the nature
of  the support modifies, from round to square, the shape of the grapheme.

   coffee bean face   hallucinogenic face
Grapheme # B : Coffee bean (Banes/ Cuba) 
The grapheme
Grano de café has been used indifferently to represent eyes or mouth,
while only for the eyes in the painting (let note the feet representin,g the ears andf
the hallucinogenic mushroom, the forehead) .  

Tribe's chief
Grapheme # C : Horned head (Mont Bégo/ France)
This grapheme is used 5 times: for the face, neck, chest, belly and sex.

This engraving of the so-called "Chief of tribe" shows how, in a composition,
the use of an iconical grapheme adds a symbolic value for a pastoral society. 
It is interesting that precisely this grapheme has played a key role
 in the genesis of our alphabet, giving its shape to letter A.

Before reviewing further iconical graphemes, let us first discuss the links between language and writing.
 Such links could be homophonic, homographic, or acrophonic 

Homophonic link, 

There, associated to one sound, exist at least two spellings, e.g.:
i) in Anglo-american, some alpha-numerical graphemes are used, e.g.: 
"4u", instead of for you, or
"Xing" instead of CROSSing.
Those unconventional spellings do not add significant symbolic values.  

ii) in French, hyperlinks (electronic addresses) are now frequently enhanced with
the grapheme arrobas, e.g., a pseudo hidden behind
The grapheme "K7", instead of video-cassette, is widely used in marketing.
Recently, the TV invited, to take part to a Forum about the Future, 
one hundred and nine pupils, i.e.
"109" which is the homophone of sang neuf (fresh blood).

Another homophone is "la mer" instead of la mère.
 This metaphorical link is nicely exhibited in the water-painting of a dream, 
with the face of the painter's mother appearing at the surface of the sea.

the mother and the sea

2. Homographic link 

There, similar ideograms are pronounced differently.
An interesting case, related to our previous example, is the link between 

  Chinese mother  Mother in Chinese 
the Chinese character for "mother" (pronounced,  "mu3" in pinyin),
and the very similar one (with "3 water wavelets" on the left), meaning "sea" (pronounced "hai3").  

Homographic links have been used in poems. e.g.: in Hô Chi Minh's Prison Diary:

click 4 txt

The 1st degree reading is: "Take away the sign for man from the sign for prison
add to it the sign for probability, that makes the word nation", while
 a 2nd degree reading is: "People who come out of prison can build up the country".

3. Acrophonic link

The acrophonic principle consists in using, as "letter", the graphical sign depicting an entity
whose noun begins with the phoneme to be represented
Alexander the Great

In Egyptian writing, e.g. the hieroglyphic for lion, called "Lou"
 will be used to write names phonetically, i.e., in ALEXANDER.
The choice of this particular iconical grapheme, to write the sound "L"
 in names of kings represent an added symbolic value.  
In our opinion, the "Name Age" might have started as late as 6'000 years ago.

Mn                  à
The first written testimony of the Name Age is the "cartouche" containing the phonogram
 of the Egyptian 1st Dynasty King MENA, dated 5'150 Before Present. It is though difficult
to assert that MENA is already a personal name or still only the noun of a social role.

In alphabetic writing, the acrophonic link merges to etymological roots.
The above mentioned "mother-sea" relationship gives,

  in Italian    :   MAdre/MAre
and in German : Mutter/Meer.

Review of some iconical graphemes :

     stèle corse zoom stèle corse    
Grapheme # D : v-shape (Corsica / FR; Tafi del Valle/ Tucuman, AR)
This grapheme is used 12 times on the Corsican stele,
4 times (2X on each side) on one Tucuman statue menhir, 
while, on another, it appears alone.  

predator prey
Grapheme # E : Spiral (Helanshan/ China;  Siberia)
This "dynamical" grapheme depicts well the muscular strength of the tiger or... of its prey. 

 raised paw
Grapheme # F : Footprint (Twyfelfontein/ Namibia)
This grapheme used to represent the lion's tail enhances the character of "trace". 

  dagger man    dagger men             halberd-like legs

Grapheme # G : Dagger & Halberd  (Valcamonica/ Italy)
Typical of Chalcolihic Age, this dagger sign is used to represent head & trunk.
In 1978, at the Capitello dei due pini, E. Anati noted that, while the head is represented by
 an antler-necklace, the halberds in leaves-shape seem to represent the lower limbs.

face-like womb           face-like genitals
    Grapheme # H : Human Face (Helanshan/ China; Toro Muerto/ Peru)
While the pubic triangle icon specifies the sex of the insect-woman of Helanshan,
 the secondary face suggests "
In 1978, in Toro Muerto, A. Núñez Jiménez noted that
 the diamond-shaped legs and  sex seem to represent a face..

     The gravid lady of Capivara 
gravid Tanit / Tactigraphy L. Dubal  unespectedly gravid
Grapheme # I : Gravid or reduced-size Replicate ( Ojo Guareña (photo M.Martin)/Spain;
Toca do Caboclinho (photo P.Binant)/Brazil;  Carthage/ Tunisia
; Hati Thol /India;)
Replication in reduced size is an interesting grapheme to represent pregnancy.
It does not prevent "
elephants ", in Hati Thol to interfere....

Goddess Tanit  
Graphemes # J& K : Goddess Tanit & Solar Disc & Lunar Crescent (Carthage/ Tunisia)
After the invention of the alphabet, the increasing audacity of the engravers produced more
 unexpected iconical graphemes. The composite face contrasts with the faceless Goddess.

Blessing face         fighting guitar
 Grapheme # L:  Hand (Carthage/ Tunisia
;  Coni /1983))
In the composition of a face one could find even a "right" blessing hand
 as a substitute for the nose, while for the head of a guitar,
the Cuban artist Coni used a "left" hand. 

    helanshan  Eva and the apple   esses/ Man Ray  
Grapheme # M : Human Body (Helanshan/Ninxia, PRC; Giuseppe Arcimboldo 1578; Krishna; Man Ray/ 1924)
The composed faces of the Neolithic engravings, or of
Eva and the Apple illustrate the subtle use of iconical grapheme of human body,
while the outlines of the
The violon d'Ingres suits the taste of the 20th century.
Lumumba, Mr Africa                      Lady Africa Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma after B. Reiner
Grapheme # O :  Coastline of Africa (Alfredo Rostgaard / 1972;   Bjorn Reiner/ 2004)
Outlining the  portrait of Patrice Lumumba, this grapheme illustrates how powerful 
 can be this metaphorical language inherited from Neolithic Rock Art. 
The sun-glasses of the Minister of Foreign Affairs offer, thanks to Reiner,
a new vision upon the South-African Woman   

Further pluridisciplinary studies are needed to consolidate our hypothesis
 on the role of iconical graphemes in the emergence of writing.
basic (non iconical) graphemes let us note that
at the 25th Valcamonica Symposium, (Proc.pp. 367-372), Kalle Sognnes
presented a communication entitled "Deconstructing elks",
analysing Rock art engravings from a new non-stylistic perspective.