Underlying language of Indus script, Proto-Dravidian: Asko Parpola

Underlying language of Indus script, Proto-Dravidian: Asko Parpola




The underlying language of the Indus script was Proto-Dravidian, Asko Parpola, Professor-Emeritus of Indology, Institute of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, Finland, said on Friday.

Declaring that “an opening to the secrets of the Indus script has been achieved,” Prof. Parpola said the results of his readings kept within narrow limits: fertility cult connected with fig trees, a central Hindu myth associated with astronomy and time-reckoning and chief deities of Hindu and Old Tamil religion.

Delivering the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Research Endowment Lecture on “A Dravidian solution to the Indus script problem” at the World Classical Tamil Conference here, the Indologist said the readings were based on reasonable identifications of the signs’ pictorial shapes. The results made good sense in the framework of ancient Indian cultural history.

“These readings have been achieved with strictly adhered methodology which is in full agreement with the history of writing, methods of decipherment and historical linguistics including the comparative study of Dravidian languages,” he told the audience that included Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Displaying nearly two dozen illustrations of Indus seals and inscriptions, he dwelt upon the topic by explaining two broad aspects — underlying language and type of the script — that were essential in the decipherment of an ancient script. He also substantiated his thesis with an etymological analysis of certain Tamil words such as ‘muruku’ and ‘miin’.

Hinting that Harappan language had a genetic relationship with the Dravidian language family, Prof. Parpola said 26 Dravidian languages were now mainly spoken in central and southern parts of India. However, one Dravidian language, Brahui, had been spoken in Baluchistan of Pakistan for at least one thousand years. In contrast to Burushashki, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic languages, very small minority languages in south Asia, the Dravidian speakers until recently constituted one-fourth of the population in India.

Loanwords from the Dravidian family had been identified from Indo-Aryan texts composed in northwestern India around 1100-600 BCE. Besides, Indo-Aryan had several structural features that had long been interpreted as borrowings from Dravidian. “Historical linguistics thus suggests that the Harappans probably spoke a Dravidian language.”

Referring to the type of writing system, Prof. Parpola said the number of known Indus signs was around 400 “which agrees well with the logo-syllabic type but is too high for the script to be syllabic or alphabetic”. Though word divisions were not marked, many inscriptions comprised one, two or three signs and longer texts could be segmented into comparable units. The Indus script was created before any syllabic or alphabetic script existed.

Pointing out that the confirmed interpretations and their wider contexts provided a lot of clues for progress, he acknowledged there were still serious difficulties in the decipherment of the script. “One is the schematic shape of many signs which makes it difficult to recognise their pictorial meaning with certainty. Possibilities of proposing likely readings and their effective checking are severely limited by our defective knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary, compounds and phraseology.”

The problem of the Indus script resembled to some extent that of the logo-syllabic Maya script, where advance was phenomenal after Mayan speakers were trained in the methods of decipherment.

The Indologist said those who had good acquaintance with the realities of Indian culture and south Asian nature could make useful contributions in suggesting possible pictorial meanings for the Indus signs. For this, there was no need to be a Dravidian speaker.

Iravatham Mahadevan, eminent archaeologist, presided over the event.

Acceptance speech of Asko Parpola, recipient of the Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award


Your Excellency the President of India, Srimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, distinguished dignitaries, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, Vanakkam!

It is indeed a very great honour to receive the first Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award from the President of India. Yet I feel embarrassed, because my work is only partly related to Classical Tamil, while there are Classical Tamil specialists who really would have deserved this award. But as this is not the only time when the award is given, I humbly accept that this is my turn. I am most grateful for the very considerable support for my continued work in this field.

The Government of India has rightly recognized Tamil as a classical language, a status that it fully deserves in view of its antiquity and its rich literature that in quality and extent matches many other classical traditions of the world. Yet, Tamil is not alone in possessing such a rich heritage in India, which is really a very exceptional country with so many languages having old and remarkable literatures, both written and oral. Sanskrit with its three thousand years old tradition has produced an unrivalled number of literary works.

Sanskrit goes back to Proto-Indo-Aryan attested in a few names and words related to the Mitanni kingdom of Syria between 1500 and 1300 BCE, and to earlier forms of Indo-Iranian known only from a few loanwords in Finno-Ugric languages as spoken in central Russia around 2000 BCE. But none of these very earliest few traces is older than the roots of Tamil. Tamil goes back to Proto-Dravidian, which in my opinion can be identified as the language of the thousands of short texts in the Indus script, written in 2600-1700 BCE. There are, of course, different opinions, but many critical scholars agree that even the Rigveda, collected in the Indus Valley about 1000 BCE, has at least half a dozen Dravidian loanwords.

Old Tamil texts constitute the only source of ancient Dravidian linguistic and cultural heritage not yet much contaminated by the Indo-Aryan tradition. Without it, it would be much more difficult if not impossible to penetrate into the secrets of the Indus script and to unravel the beginnings of India’s great civilization. In my opinion the Tamils are entitled to some pride for having preserved so well the linguistic heritage of the Indus Civilization. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that, though their language has shifted in the course of millennia, people of North India too are to a large extent descended from the Harappan people, and have also preserved cultural heritage of the same civilization.

Nanri! Tamizh vaazka!

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5 Responses to “Underlying language of Indus script, Proto-Dravidian: Asko Parpola”

  1. chapter18 Says:

    Tamil is indeed a great language and has made vast contributions to our literary traditions. But so also has been the contribution of Sanskrit to the richness of South Indian culture. I have blogged about this at http://chapter18.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/classical-languages-political-agendas/


  2. S. M. Sullivan Says:

    I’m here to let you know that he is completely wrong, except where he says that some Tamil scholar might have deserved the award more.

    For further details, please see the article at this link:


  3. நொபுரு கராஷிமாவிற்கு ஜப்பானிலேயே பத்மஶ்ரீ விருது வழங்கப்பட்டது! | செம்மொழி Says:

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  4. நொபுரு கராஷிமா: தமிழ், கல்வெட்டு, செம்மொழி மாநாடு, திராவிட இயக்கம் | ஆரிய-திராவிட இனமாயைகளும், கட Says:

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