Pictograph, ideograph and indicative don't suggest people how to pronounce these characters. If one don't know a character at all, he won't be able to pronounce it correctly.
Phonogram is the most popular way to create Chinese characters today. Generally speaking, it's "meaning + pronunciation".
Phonograms are also called "pictophonetic characters". It may seems confusing at first. Actually, a "Phonogram" is made up of two parts: one indicating meaning and the other pronunciation.
The part indicating meaning is usually a pictograph or an indication. It is called "racical", suggesting the meaning of the phonogram. The other part "phonetic" is another easy character with the same or similar pronunciation as the phonogram. In this way, one can understand a phonogram approximately by understanding its radical and pronounce it by pronouncing its phonetic. Phonogram is the biggest part in Chinese characters(more than 90% today).
# Basic Structures
There are 8 basic arrangements of radical and phonetic.
# Index of Radicals
There are over 100 frequently-used radicals in Chinese today. They stand for different meanings and most of them are pictographs of indications themselves.
Here is a simple index:
1 Astronomy / Geography
2 Living things
|5 Abstract concepts|
|6 Daily articles|
With those radicals, people can easily get the general idea about a phonogram's meaning.
Why more and more characters were created as phonograms? Obviously, phonogram is more flexible. There are many objects and abstract ideas in the world, which are difficult to express through pictography or ideography.
For example, there are many kinds of birds in nature, such as pigeon, chicken, swan, goose, nightingale... But how to describe them separately in pictography? How to show the slight differences among them in such little characters? Use phonograms. Simple add different phoentics to the same radical which stand for "bird". Whether knowing the very kind of bird or not, everyone will understand that this character stand for a kind of bird, and it's different from other ones because of the special, only phoentics.
Another example is about elements. Chinese had no idea about the Periodic Table of the Elements before it was introduced in 1800s. Some of the elements were unknown to Chinese people, so new characters were needed to stand for them. Therefore, scientist made a lot of phonograms, using only 4 radicals:
Phonograms have obvious advantages in creating new characters.
Phonograms also have shortages that often make people puzzled.
a. Some radicals can be interchangable, so one phonogram may have other styles. Sometimes it's difficult to recognize.
b. Some radicals have some different styles. For example, the radical standing for "Feeling, heart" has 3 different styles when applied in different situations.
c. A lot of phoentics have changed their pronunciations since it was created. As a result, many phonograms are not pronounced as its phoentic today, which made it easy to mispronounce.
The situation need to be improved now.