Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Indus Script- Is It Or Isn't It?

Brawling scientists, Hindu nationalism, Markov chains, mysterious ancient symbols that one man believes he can interpret... there’s a Dan Brown novel in there, I think. There’s certainly a fascinating story, which I shall attempt to explain.

The Indus Valley scripts are associated with a people about whom little is known except that they lived in that area around 4,000 years ago. Where they came from, where they went, whether they sliced their tomatoes along the equator or through the poles... these are things which may never be known. And the language they spoke is also unknown.

A lot of people, for many different reasons, would like to think they know the answers, and to this end a lot of work has been done to analyse the symbols that have survived on a number of clay artefacts, a few thousand symbols in a few hundred inscriptions, most no more than three or four symbols long.

The script is unknown, as is the language that it encodes, and, given the scarcity of information that can be extracted from such a small amount of data, that is not going to change unless a bi-lingual tablet turns up identifying is as an already known language.

It is far from certain that the symbols represent language at all. That is a point which might, at some time, be determined, but so far it is still in doubt. It matters (to the people who care about these things) because writing was probably developed independently in only three or four places in history. If the Indus script encodes a language, it would be another one, and it would mean that the Indus Valley civilization was literate. This matters not only to linguisticians and historians, but also to various flavours of Indian nationalist.

Back in 2000 Michael Witzel and Steven Farmer wrote a paper demolishing the pet theory of N. S. Rajaram, who claimed to have translated these inscriptions, in the course of proving that the Harappan civilization used domesticated horses. It is generally believed that horses were introduced to that area much later. You wonder why Witzel and Farmer even bothered with the witterings of someone who clearly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, but it served as a warm-up for their 2003 paper, with Richard Sproat, which attempted to show that the Indus script could not be a language, and more generally that the Harappan people could not have been literate.

Last year, Rajesh Rao and others used a technique involving Markov chains to try to detect the sort of structure they thought the inscriptions would have if they really were language. They measured the conditional entropy (a term pinched from physics but the concept is well defined in information theory and computational linguistics) of the script, in a way that they describe in the notes to the paper.

The entropy measured for the script was in the same narrow range as the (very few) real language scripts that they analysed in the same way, and far from the values of the control scripts they tested, which were artificially produced, one to have very rigid structure and the other to be almost completely random. They thus announced that this was evidence that the Indus script was a written language.

But is it? They have no way of knowing how significant the presence in that narrow range of the entropy values is. Without analysing a far larger number of natural scripts that do and do not encode language, it is not clear that any script that is used to encode information in a real situation can fall outside that range. It is easy to construct, and indeed to find, scripts which that do not represent language, but which fall in that same range. It may well be that any script that contains sufficient structure to contain information, whether or not it is given linguistically, and is employed by a real person, will tend to be in that range. The paper does not consider what the result actually means, or if it means anything at all.

Richard Sproat answered with a paper of his own, which was answered by Rao, and reanswered by Sproat. They was also a bit of vigorous debate hosted by Rahul Siddharthan at this (excellent) blog, and Mark Liberman at the Language Log got involved as well. Rob Lee et al have tried to apply the same analysis to the Pictish inscriptions, with similar results.

Sproat descended into anti-nationalist ranting, more it would seem from exasperation than from lack of arguments or from axe-grinding. Though he has made a heavy professional investment in the illiteracy of the Harappan civilization he is clearly a serious scientific researcher (and so is Rao).

Rao et al have now expanded on their previous work, fleshing out the background and context of their results in order to give their method much greater interpretative power. The matter is far from decided, and when the scientists finally agree, one way or the other, is when the nationalists will take over the fight. It promises to be fun.

9 comments:

Vincent said...

I couldn't get my head round the technicalities. When the researchers have made up their minds I'd like to know what they conclude.

CIngram said...

I'm not remotely qualified to judge who's right and who's wrong. I just wanted to outline the state of play, partly to help my own understanding. Like you, I shall be very interested to see whether they can come to any definite conclusion.

Anonymous said...

The reconfirmation and reinforcement of the indus script thesis . please find my published paper. this clearly proves the indus script was logo-syllabic.


http://www.scribd.com/doc/46387240/Sujay-Indus-Script-Final-Version-Final-Final

Anonymous said...

Few sensible scholars will be able to deny that the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script. Facts about the Dholavira signboard. However seals may have been non-linguistic. (a) It is one of the most famous of Harappan inscriptions. (b) It was very large in size. (c) It was located in Far from Mesopotamia Dholavira and in one of the furthest sites from Mesopotamia. (d) It hung over the citadel there. (e) It must have represented the name of the place and must have been closely tied to speech: note the sign repetition. (f) The sign which was used as a determinative was a very common Indus sign. (g) The sign used as a determinative appears to have been also similar to determinatives in other writing systems. (h) The Indus script was also related to Proto-Elamite which means it probably had a linguistic component. (i) The other signs with which the determinative was used were also common Indus signs. (j) Few sensible scholars will now dispute the fact that the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script on the basis of this evidence. (k) Few sensible scholars will deny the fact that speech encoding was one of the major functions of the Indus script and had this feature had reached a very precocious maturity. (l) This inscription was apparently more closely tied to speech than most proto-Elamite inscriptions. (m) Dholavira was not even the most important of sites. (n) The fact that it was hung over the citadel meant it was meant to be read by elites. (o) It was put to the most frivolous use. (p) Speech encoding would have been a prized possession: no one would have used it just for a decorative signboard at far-from-Mesopotamia Dholavira. Why would a man who had inscribed this, done so (a) if nobody else could read it (b) why would he have learnt to encode speech only to inscribe this signboard? This automatically implies the existence of longer texts. It also shows that the Indus elites used more complex forms of communication. (q) Even if we assume that speech-encoding was added in Mature Harappan 3B, this logic would still hold good. (r) This logic is already accepted by mainstream Indus archaeologists as a precursor to the existence of longer texts


please refer to the book by English archaeologist Jane Macintosh (Mcintosh 2008 p 374) "The Harappans did not create monumental art or architecture on which such inscriptions may have been written. The nearest that the Harappans came to this is the Dholavira signboard which is quite possibly the tip of the iceberg of a now vanished public inscriptions.Farmers arguments fail to account convincingly for the structural regularities that analysis have revealed in the use of Harappan signs. These strongly seem to support the hypothesis that the Indus script represent a writing system"

Anonymous said...

British archeologist
Jane Mcintosh demoslishes the non-script thesis

“Farmer also draws attention to the absence of long Harappan inscriptions on potsherds. If the Harappan signs were a script, he contends, this absence would make it unique among the scripts of literate cultures, who all used potsherds often like scrap paper. This need only, imply however, that the Harappans had other media that were easier to scribble on, such as cotton cloth or wooden boards, or that the writing medium was not well suited for use on sherds. Likewise the absence of long monumental inscriptions seems significant to Farmer, but the Harappans did not create monumental art or architecture on which such inscriptions might have been written; the nearest they came to this is the Dholavira signboard, which is quite possibly the tip of an iceberg of a now vanished public inscriptions.”

“He (Farmer) also considers that the proportion of singleton and rare signs is unusually high; other scholars such as Parpola (2005) demonstrate that this is not so, since in general logo-syllabic scripts contain a small corpus of frequently used signs and a large number of much less common ones. Moreover, new signs are continuously added, even when the writing system is a fully developed one, something Farmer also denies. Statistically the Harappan script does not differ significantly in its sign proportions from other logographic scripts. A further point regarding the singletons is that Wells (n.d.) has demonstrated that many are variants or ligatures of basic signs, rather than completely different signs; again, this is something to be expected in a genuine script”

“Perhaps more significantly, the brevity of the majority of the Harappan texts (four to five signs on average) makes it less likely that signs would repeat within them than it is in the longer texts with which Farmer compares them (McIntosh 2008, p. 374).

“Farmer’s arguments fail to account convincingly for the structural regularities that analyses have revealed in the use of the Harappan signs; these seem strongly to support the hypothesis that the Harappan signs represent a writing system. The theory put forward by Farmer and his collaborators has not been widely accepted, but it has been valuable in compelling scholars to look afresh at their assumptions about the script and in provoking a stimulating debate from which a deeper understanding of the script should emerge (McIntosh 2008, p. 374).

Anonymous said...

terminologies pertaining to literacy must be used carefully:

not linked to language: proto-literacy

not linked to language + small linguistic component = literate

by Farmers own admission, the ivc was literate

Anonymous said...

Few sensible scholars will be able to deny that the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script. Facts about the Dholavira signboard. However seals may have been non-linguistic. (a) It is one of the most famous of Harappan inscriptions. (b) It was very large in size. (c) It was located in Far from Mesopotamia Dholavira and in one of the furthest sites from Mesopotamia. (d) It hung over the citadel there. (e) It must have represented the name of the place and must have been closely tied to speech: note the sign repetition. (f) The sign which was used as a determinative was a very common Indus sign. (g) The sign used as a determinative appears to have been also similar to determinatives in other writing systems. (h) The Indus script was also related to Proto-Elamite which means it probably had a linguistic component. (i) The other signs with which the determinative was used were also common Indus signs. (j) Few sensible scholars will now dispute the fact that the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script on the basis of this evidence. (k) Few sensible scholars will deny the fact that speech encoding was one of the major functions of the Indus script and had this feature had reached a very precocious maturity. (l) This inscription was apparently more closely tied to speech than most proto-Elamite inscriptions. (m) Dholavira was not even the most important of sites. (n) The fact that it was hung over the citadel meant it was meant to be read by elites. (o) It was put to the most frivolous use. (p) Speech encoding would have been a prized possession: no one would have used it just for a decorative signboard at far-from-Mesopotamia Dholavira. Why would a man who had inscribed this, done so (a) if nobody else could read it (b) why would he have learnt to encode speech only to inscribe this signboard? This automatically implies the existence of longer texts. It also shows that the Indus elites used more complex forms of communication. (q) Even if we assume that speech-encoding was added in Mature Harappan 3B, this logic would still hold good. (r) This logic is already accepted by mainstream Indus archaeologists as a precursor to the existence of longer texts


please refer to the book by Jane Macintosh (Mcintosh 2008 p 374) "The Harappans did not create monumental art or architecture on which such inscriptions may have been written. The nearest that the Harappans came to this is the Dholavira signboard which is quite possibly the tip of the iceberg of a now vanished public inscriptions.Farmers arguments fail to account convincingly for the structural regularities that analysis have revealed in the use of Harappan signs. These strongly seem to support the hypothesis that the Indus script represent a writing system"

CIngram said...

Thanks for your interest and for the links, Sujay. As I said, I am not remotely qualified to comment on or have a position on this matter, but I am having fun learning a little more about it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Cigram,

Please find books written about the Harappans by American and European researchers.

It was in many ways more advanceed than Egypt and Mesopotamia -technology. it was the largest Bronze age civilization in the world

Please find books by american and european scholars

Gregory Possehl

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=pmAuAsi4ePIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=indus&hl=en&ei=-L38TZWBGNHwrQeRocjCDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hazel Richardson

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=fGNP3703-SYC&dq=indus&source=gbs_similarbooks

Jane Shuter

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=3TYhqWCUoBAC&dq=indus&hl=en&ei=-L38TZWBGNHwrQeRocjCDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEgQ6AEwBg

Jane Mcintosh

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=pmAuAsi4ePIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=indus&hl=en&ei=-L38TZWBGNHwrQeRocjCDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Rhona Dick

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=jtsbNL78PTYC&dq=indus&source=gbs_similarbooks

Ilona Arononskry

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=N3SWHT3XnZQC&dq=indus&source=gbs_similarbooks

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=DK3tAAAAMAAJ&dq=indus&source=gbs_similarbooks

Mortimer Wheeler

http://books.google.co.in/books?id=9cs7AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=indus&hl=en&ei=-L38TZWBGNHwrQeRocjCDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEMQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false