Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Language: Linguistics · Semiotics · Speech


Three rebus-style "escort cards" from the 1860s or 1870s

The term rebus refers to the use of a pictogram to represent a syllabic sound. This adapts pictograms into phonograms. A precursor to the development of the alphabet, this process represents one of the most important developments of writing. Fully developed hieroglyphs read in rebus fashion were in use at Abydos in Egypt as early as 3400 BCE. [1]

The writing of correspondence in rebus form became popular in the 18th century and continued into the 19th century. Lewis Carroll wrote the children he befriended picture-puzzle rebus letters, nonsense letters, and looking-glass letters, which had to be held in front of a mirror to be read.[1] Rebus letters served either as a sort of code or simply as a pastime.

The Rebus Principle

File:Ramesses II as child.jpg

Ramesses II as child: Hieroglyphs: Ra-mes-su.

In linguistics, the Rebus Principle means using existing symbols, such as pictograms, purely for their sounds regardless of their meaning, to represent new words. Many ancient writing systems used the Rebus principle to represent abstract words, which otherwise would be hard to be represented by pictograms. An example that illustrates the Rebus principle is the representation of the sentence “I can see you” by using the pictographs of “eye—can—sea—ewe.” Some linguists believe that Chinese developed its writing system according to the rebus principle,[2] and Egyptian hieroglyphs sometimes used a similar system. A famous rebus statue of Ramses II uses three hieroglyphs to compose his name: Horus (as Ra), for Ra; the child, mes; and the sedge plant (stalk held in left hand), su; the name Ra-mes-su is then formed.

Use in reading education

The rebus principle has been used in reading education as a method for introducing children to the idea that, as with alphabets and syllables, the marks on the page represent sounds not meanings

Form of word puzzle

A rebus is also a kind of word puzzle that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. For example:

H + picture of an ear = Hear, or Here.


  1. Fischer, Steven Roger, "A History of Writing", 2004, Reaktion Books, ISBN 1-86189-167-9, 9781861891679, at page 36
  2. The Languages of China. S. Robert Ramsey. Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 137.

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).