If you want to draw a cat icon, you draw a simplified and recognizable version of a cat.

Cat-512 (1)

If you want to draw something abstract, say, collaboration, you try to do the same thing, using tangible objects and known thought patterns, resulting in something like this:

Collaboration-500 (1)

Now, if we take ancient Egyptians, they had an icon for every character in their alphabet. Words looked like a sequence of icons or code:

What word could this be?

What word could this be?

But that’s not what the ancient Aztecs did… Imagine you wanted to draw an icon of an elephant. Well, Aztecs would first see that the word elephant consists of two other words, eleph and ant. Suppose, in their language “eleph” means “toilet” and “ant” means “work”. Their icon would therefore combine toilet and work, resulting in:

The elephant

The elephant

That’s just an imaginary example. Let’s see a few real ones.

Doggy, Kitty, Sweetie…

In most languages one can find diminutives, a way of referring to a smaller version of the subject. Anyway, Aztecs also had diminutives.

Diminutives aren’t so common in English, but we still can come up with some examples. For instance, what would you call a little snake? “Small snake” or, perhaps, “snakey,” which is how the Aztecs did, in their way. The difference is how they depicted it. Prepare to be amazed.

Here’s the logic behind this: the diminutive suffix -tzin roughly means “little”, but it also means “buttocks” in their language, just like our Elephant example also containing multiple words. In a way Aztecs were bound to depict anything small with “buttocks.” Let’s imagine some consequences:

Happy Little Tree

“A place with lots of avocados” sounds very poetic. Until you see it:
“Tlan” means “place” in Aztec, and “tla” is a set of teeth- based on the word “tlan-tli,” or “tooth.” Just as before, we’re required to include “teeth” because it’s a part of the whole word.

A Few More Examples


The last three images are Aztec gods, every one of which represents a month. The images are how Aztecs saw them, no strange combinations whatsoever. Pretty memorable.

No matter how weird and funny some of their pictures may seem, one should not forget that Aztecs had a very interesting and developed culture. They were very militant, but also farmed, mined coal, silver and gold. They crafted pottery and guns, as well as tailored. They paid a great deal of attention to the development of writing and science, as well as to the development of a social hierarchy.

Spanish colonizers were amazed by the level of their architecture and buildings. Floating houses, houses on piles, majestic temples, monuments with amazing gardens on top, as well as many many mysteries covered deep in those funny and strange signs and imagery.

We hope you liked this article and let us know about any other cultures you’d like us to explore iconwise and why!
-Icons8 team.

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