Archive for July, 2010

IATR and the World Classical Tamil Conference

July 24, 2010

IATR and the World Classical Tamil Conference

Noboru Karashima

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article528744.ece

Dr. Noboru Karashima. Photo: K.V.Srinivasan
The Hindu Dr. Noboru Karashima. Photo: K.V.Srinivasan

A new International Association of Tamil Research must now be created to function as a real academic body.

The World Classical Tamil Conference that was held in Coimbatore last month attracted lakhs of people, according to reports. The International Association of Tamil Research (IATR), which is an older academic organisation of international scholars and of which I am President, kept its independence from this Conference. I will explain here the reasons for this and also contemplate the future of the IATR and Tamil studies in general.

Circumstances that led to the formation of the World Classical Tamil Conference

In September 2009, I was informed that the Tamil Nadu government had decided to hold the 9th session of the IATR conference in January 2010 in Coimbatore. I was greatly surprised as I had not been consulted on this matter. For accepting the government’s kind offer to sponsor our 9th Conference, I put forth the following as conditions.

1) A period of at least one year to organise the conference, as I felt it was impossible to organise any big international academic conference within four months. The earliest possible date of the Conference, I said, could be December 2010 or January 2011.

2) The clear demarcation of the academic sessions of the IATR conference from the political events and programmes associated with it.

3) The release for distribution by the Government of the five-volume Proceedings of the 8th IATR Conference held in 1995 in Thanjavur sponsored by the then State Government. These had been ready for distribution in 2005, but had been kept in the Tamil University despite repeated requests for their release to the present Government.

In response, the State Government postponed the Conference from January 2010 to June 2010, and accepted my second and third points. I was strongly urged to accept this offer, as the Government could not put off the date later than June 2010 in view of the expected State Assembly election. I however held to the position that the conference should not be held earlier than December 2010. Incidentally, in the case of the 14th World Sanskrit Conference that was successfully held in Japan in September 2009, the first circular was issued two years before the conference.

Having consulted many internationally reputed scholars in various countries on this matter and having secured their support, I sent my final answer to the Government in the negative — with a statement, however, that the Government could hold any Tamil Conference of its own, if it did not involve IATR. Accordingly, the Government decided to hold its own conference, the World Classical Tamil Conference, in June 2010 in Coimbatore.

History of the IATR and past conferences

The IATR was established by some eminent scholars who were deeply concerned about the development of Tamil studies on the occasion of the 26th International Congress of Orientalists held in New Delhi in 1964. The first IATR Conference was held in Kuala Lumpur in 1966, and the second in 1968 in Madras. The 1960s witnessed the culmination and triumph of the Dravidian Movement, and the government headed by C.N. Annadurai of the DMK was voted to power in 1967 — just before the IATR conference in Madras.

It was quite natural that the Madras conference turned out to be a massive political celebration of the victory of the Dravidian Movement, though the conference showed its strength academically too. Therefore, the political statement made by this academic conference was understandable and probably permissible, although politics cast a shadow over the following conferences held in Tamil Nadu. The 5th Conference held again in Tamil Nadu in 1981 in Madurai, under the sponsorship of the AIADMK Government, became a political show again as the government made it a platform for the forthcoming elections. The 6th Conference, which was held in Kuala Lumpur in 1987, was equally affected by regional politics, as it was attended by a large group of Tamil Nadu politicians.

Although I was absent from the 7th Conference held in Moka in Mauritius in 1989, I was elected President of IATR on that occasion. I therefore organised the 8th Conference held in Thanjavur in 1995 with the sponsorship offered by the Tamil Nadu Government. Although I tried my best to separate the academic session from the political programme, two lakh persons attended the closing ceremony held in the stadium. Moreover, the conference was spoiled by the deportation of some Sri Lankan scholars. Though I sent a letter of protest to the then Chief Minister asking for an explanation, I did not receive a reply.

Historical role of IATR

The Dravidian Movement, or the Non-Brahmin movement as it was called, arose in the 1910s spearheaded by the Justice Party. Language became the focus of the movement by the late 1930s, and great emphasis was placed on the economic and political struggle by the South (Dravidian) power against the North (Aryan) power. The movement demanded the overturning of the North/Aryan ‘oppression’ of the South/Dravidian.

From the 1970s, however, the situation changed in accordance with the changes in caste society and the gradual economic growth of the South. The Dravidian Movement could be said to have fulfilled its historical role to a certain extent. From the 1980s, we see a shift in the aims of the movement. The political mobilisations by the DMK and AIADMK, and their appeals to the regional sentiments of the Tamil people, were primarily aimed at the expansion of their political vote base.

The Proceedings volumes of the 8th IATR Conference held in Thanjavur in 1995 still remain in Tamil University without distribution. The World Classical Tamil Conference was the best opportunity for their distribution. In the Preface (of the Proceedings), I have suggested that IATR should change its structure, free its conferences from politics, and respond to new academic trends.

It is true that IATR had not been able to conduct the 9th Conference since 1995. However, it is important to note that IATR originally planned to hold the 8th Conference in London in 1992, but as that did not materialise, it recommended in Thanjavur in 1995 the U.K., U.S.A. or South Africa as the venue for the 9th Conference. However, none of the IATR national units of these countries came forward to invite IATR to hold the conference; they were daunted perhaps by the inevitable political overtones that enter the conferences.

As for new trends in research, the “Tamil Studies Conference” organised by the University of Toronto has held its fifth conference, although on a much smaller scale, in May 2010. Some workshops and seminars on specific areas have been held in various places in the last ten years. I do not deny the advantages of large conferences, provided they are free from politics. However, the time has come now for small-scale workshops and seminars for comparative studies with other fields, instead of big conferences covering all aspects of Tamil studies.

Renaissance for Tamil Studies?

The time has come for the IATR to assume a new avatar. It has completed its historical role by making people realise the importance of Tamil studies, just as the Dravidian Movement did in respect of its original objectives. A new IATR must now be created to function as a real academic body.

My only satisfaction as President of IATR and a lover of the Tamil people and culture who has devoted his life to Tamil studies is the conviction that IATR has defended its academic freedom by keeping its independence from the government-organised and politically oriented conference held last month in Coimbatore.

However, IATR must be resurrected in a new way. Its renaissance rests on the shoulders of young and sincere scholars of Tamil studies.

(Noboru Karashima is the President of the International Association of Tamil Research and Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo.)

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Rebuttal of Sproat, Farmer, et al.’s supposed “refutation” by Rajesh Rao

July 13, 2010

Rebuttal of Sproat, Farmer, et al.’s supposed “refutation”

[Updated: July, 2010]

This article is reproduced here, with due acknowledgements, as it has bearing on the Dravidian researches going on here in Tamilnadu.

Particularly, Asko Parpola had delivered his lecture at Coimbatore and Chennai, but full details are not provided to general readers, as these issues affect them socially and politically.

In 2004, Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel published a paper in “Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies” (entitled “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization”) claiming that the Indus valley civilization was illiterate and that Indus writing was a collection of political or religious symbols.

The publication of our paper in Science elicited hostile reactions from them, ranging from off-the-cuff dismissive remarks such as “garbage in, garbage out” (Witzel) to ad-hominem attacks (labeling us “Dravidian nationalists”) and a vicious campaign on internet discussion groups and blogs to discredit our work. Their first knee-jerk reaction was to call the two artificial control datasets in our study “invented data sets” (Farmer). This was followed by Sproat and others on a blog claiming to have constructed “counterexamples” to our result. Sproat has even attempted to publicize his claims using an article in Computational Linguistics and a web page entitled “Why Rao et al.’s work proves nothing”(!), despite the fact that our work has now been published in journals like Science, PNAS, PLOS One, and IEEE Computer.

Here, we respond to their arguments in a point-by-point fashion. First, their arguments:

(1) Two datasets, used as controls in our work, are artificial.

(2) Counterexamples can be given, of non-linguistic systems, which produce conditional entropy plots like those presented in our Science paper.

(3) Conditional entropy cannot even differentiate between language families.

(4) The absence of writing material and long texts is “proof” that the Indus people were illiterate.

We view arguments (1)-(3) as arising from a misunderstanding of our approach and an overinterpretation of the conditional entropy result. Some of these arguments are made with a narrow computational linguistics point of view without considering other properties of the Indus script and the Indus civilization (see below). The last argument has been controverted by several other researchers as discussed below.

Here is the point-by-point rebuttal:

(1) As stated in our Science paper, the two artificial data sets (which Farmer et al. call “invented data sets”) simply represent controls, necessary in any scientific investigation, to delineate the limits of what is possible. The two controls in our work represent sequences with maximum and minimum flexibility, for a given number of tokens. Though this can be computed analytically, the data sets were generated to subject them to the same parameter estimation process as the other data sets. Our conclusions do not depend on the controls, but are based on comparisons with real world data: DNA and protein sequences, various natural languages, and FORTRAN computer code. All our real world examples are bounded by the maximum and the minimum provided by the controls, which thus serve as a check on the computation.

(2) Counterexamples matter only if we claim that conditional entropy by itself is a sufficient criterion to distinguish between language and non-language. We do not make this claim in our Science paper. As clearly stated in the last sentence of the paper, our results provide evidence which, given the rich syntactic structure in the script (and other evidence as listed below), increases the probability that the script represents language.

The methodology, which is Bayesian in nature, can be summarized as follows. We begin with the fact that the Indus script exhibits the following properties:

  • The Indus texts are linearly written, like the vast majority of linguistic scripts (and unlike nonlinguistic systems such as medieval heraldry or traffic signs);
  • Indus symbols are often modified by the addition of specific sets of marks over, around, or inside a symbol. Multiple symbols are sometimes combined (“ligatured”) to form a single glyph. This is similar to later Indian scripts which use such ligatures and marks above, below, or around a symbol to modify the sound of a root consonant or vowel symbol;
  • The script obeys the Zipf-Mandelbrot law, a power-law distribution on ranked data, which is often considered a nec­essary (though not sufficient) condition for language (see our PLOS One paper);
  • The script exhibits rich syntactic structure such as the clear presence of beginners and enders, preferences of symbol clusters for particular positions within texts etc. (see References), not unlike linguistic sequences;
  • Indus texts that have been discovered in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf use the same signs as texts found in the Indus region but alter their ordering. These “foreign” texts have low likelihood values compared to Indus region texts (see our PNAS paper), suggesting that the script was versatile enough to represent different subject matter or a dif­ferent language in foreign regions.

Given that the Indus script shares the above properties with linguistic scripts, we claim that the similarity in conditional entropy of the Indus script to other natural languages provides additional evidence in favor of the linguistic hypothesis.

We have recently extended the result in our Science paper to block entropies for sequences of up to 6 symbols (see IEEE Computer paper for details):

IndusBlockEntropies-RajeshRao

IndusBlockEntropies-RajeshRao

The language-like scaling behavior of block entropies in the above figure, in combination with the other properties of language enumerated above, could be viewed in a Bayesian framework as further evidence for the linguistic nature of the Indus script.

The above figure also addresses objections raised by some (e.g., Fernando Pereira) who felt conditional entropy (which considers only pairwise dependencies) was not a sufficiently rich measure.

Let us now consider the nonlinguistic systems that have been suggested:

  • Mark Liberman, Sproat, and Cosmo Shalizi in a blog constructed artificial examples of nonlinguistic systems whose conditional entropy was similar to the Indus script but their examples have no correlations between symbols – these examples do not exhibit the entropy scaling property exhibited by the Indus script and languages in the above figure, let alone other language-like properties like those exhibited by the Indus script.
  • Two natural nonlinguistic systems that have been suggested, medieval heraldry and traffic signs, are not even linear, nor do they exhibit other script-like properties such as those listed above.
  • The Vinca markings on pottery are linear but scholars have established that the symbols do not appear to follow any order – the system thus can be expected to fall in the maximum entropy range (MaxEnt) in the above figure.
  • The carvings of deities on Mesopotamian boundary stones are also linear but the ordering of symbols appears to be more rigid than in natural languages, following for example the hierarchical ordering of the deities. This system can thus be expected to fall closer to the minimum entropy (MinEnt) range in the above entropy scaling figure than to natural languages.

We therefore believe that the new result above from our IEEE Computer paper, showing that the block entropies of the Indus script scale in a manner similar to natural languages, when viewed in conjunction with the other language-like properties of the script as described above, adds further support to the linguistic hypothesis.

(3) Sproat has endeavored to produce a plot where languages belonging to different language families have similar conditional entropies, thereby claiming that the conditional entropy result “proves nothing.” This claim is once again based on an overinterpretation of the result in our Science paper. We specifically note on page 10 in the supplementary information that “answering the question of linguistic affinity of the Indus texts requires a more sophisticated approach, such as statistically inferring an underlying grammar for the Indus texts from available data and comparing the inferred rules with those of various known language families.” In other words, conditional entropy provides a quantitative measure of the amount of flexibility allowed in choosing the next symbol given a previous symbol. It is useful for characterizing the average amount of flexibility in sequences of different kinds. We do not make the claim that it can be used to distinguish between language families – this requires a more sophisticated measure.

(4) With regard to the length of texts, several West Asian writing systems such as Proto-Cuneiform, Proto-Sumerian, and the Uruk script have statistical regularities in sign frequencies and text lengths which are remarkably similar to the Indus script (Details can be found in http://indusresearch.wikidot.com/script). These writing systems are by all accounts linguistic. Furthermore, the lack of archaeological evidence for long texts in the Indus civilization does not automatically imply that they did not exist (“absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”). There is a long history of writing on perishable materials like cotton, palm leaves, and bark in the Indian subcontinent using equally perishable writing implements (see Parpola’s paper below). Writing on such material is unlikely to have survived the hostile environment of the Indus valley. Thus, long texts may have been written, but no archaeological remains are to be found.

As regards the argument for literacy from the point of view of cultural sophistication of the Indus people, we believe Iravatham Mahadevan has addressed this adequately in his op-ed piece below (see also Massimo Vidale’s entertaining article).

References

  • Final version of the Science paper (including Supplementary Information), 2009:

o        http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/rao/ScienceIndus.pdf

  • IEEE Computer review article with new block entropy result:
    Probabilistic analysis of an ancient undeciphered script, 2010:

o        http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/rao/ieeeIndus.pdf

  • PLoS One paper: Statistical Analysis of the Indus script using n-grams, 2010:

o        http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0009506

  • PNAS paper: A Markov model of the Indus script, 2009:

o        http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/rao/PNASIndus.pdf

  • Asko Parpola’s point-by-point rebuttal of Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel:

o       Parpola A (2008) Is the Indus script indeed not a writing system? in Airavati: Felicitation volume in honor of Iravatham Mahadevan (Varalaaru.com publishers, Chennai, India) pp. 111-131.

http://www.harappa.com/script/indus-writing.pdf

  • Massimo Vidale’s “The collapse melts down: a reply to Farmer, Sproat and Witzel”:

o        http://www.docstoc.com/docs/document-preview.aspx?doc_id=9163376

  • Iravatham Mahadevan’s “The Indus non-script is a non-issue”:

o        http://www.hindu.com/mag/2009/05/03/stories/2009050350010100.htm

  • Syntactic structure in the Indus script:

o       Koskenniemi K (1981) Syntactic methods in the study of the Indus script. Studia Orientalia 50:125-136.

o       Parpola A (1994) Deciphering the Indus script. (Cambridge University Press), Chaps. 5 & 6.

o       Yadav N, Vahia MN, Mahadevan I, Joglekar H (2008) A statistical approach for pattern search in Indus writing. International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics 37(1):39-52.

http://www.harappa.com/script/tata-writing/indus-script-paper.pdf

o       Yadav N, Vahia MN, Mahadevan I, Joglekar H (2008) Segmentation of Indus texts. International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics 37(1):53-72.

http://www.harappa.com/script/tata-writing/indus-texts.pdf

Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation: Asko Parpola

July 7, 2010

Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/79062/sanskrit-has-contributed-indus-civilisation.html

Sanskrit has also contributed to Indus civilisation
Saturday, July 03, 2010
Ancient civilisations and long un-deciphered mysterious scripts have always been hauntingly engaging challenges to the human consciousness.
Fired by John Chadwick’s classic in archaeology, ‘The Decipherment of Linear-B’, that chronicles how the secrets of the late Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation in ancient Greece were unveiled, renowned Indologist Prof Asko Parpola set out on an equally challenging task over 45 years back to crack the script of the Indus Valley Civilisation. For someone who has done a lifetime of monumental research on ‘Deciphering the Indus Script’ even using modern computerised tools, Parpola, whose path-breaking study on ‘A Dravidian Solution to the Indus Script Problem’ had bagged the ‘Kalaignar M Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Research Award’ at the ‘World Classical Tamil Conference (WCTC)’ in Coimbatore, is remarkably self-effacing and realistic. A diligent scholar from Finland in both ‘Vedic’ and ‘Dravidian’ studies,spoke to M R Venkatesh of ‘Deccan Herald’.

Excerpts:

What prompted you to undertake this amazing intellectual journey?

Well, my interest in the Indus Script was aroused during my student years. I also studied the classical languages of Europe, Greek and Latin, when I became a student of Helsinki University in 1959. At that time there was much discussion whether the ‘Linear-B Script’ had been deciphered or not. Actually it had been deciphered in 1952. A book on it by John Chadwick came out in 1960. I read it and it was quite fascinating. I was quite convinced that this (decipherment) is correct though there were still some Greek scholars who were sceptical. And then, my childhood friend Seppo Koskenniemi who was working for IBM in Finland asked if I would like to try computers for any problem in my field. He volunteered to do the programming; so at that time I thought we might do something useful to promote the study of the Indus Script. Because compiling statistics (on the frequency with which signs are repeated, etc.) has been very useful in all decipherment
attempts. My brother Simo who studied ‘Assyriology’ also joined the team.

How did you use computer technology in this study of Indus Script as India’s renowned epigraphist, Iravadham Mahadevan says you are the first person to have done it?

Asko Parpola: Well, it is not me. Seppo Koskenniemi and his brother Kimmo Koskenniemi, who is now Professor of Computer Linguistics at the University of Helsinki, assisted me. They have been there from the beginning.

On your seminal work on the Indus Script, what effected your change of approach to include sociology, anthropology and linguistics, instead of just an epigraphist approach that failed to make headway earlier?

Well, actually, I have not changed my approach. It has been there all the time.
I think every aspect has to be taken into consideration. We have to take advantage of every possible source (of knowledge) at our disposal.

Your solution to the Indus Script riddle – that the underlying s a syncretism rather than a collusive view of Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian family of languages. Your comments please?

Yes, I think these two language families have been in contact with each other ever since the Indo-Aryan speakers entered South Asia. It is impossible to leave Indo-Aryan sources out of account. They have preserved very important information of Harappan heritage.

One of 20th century’s greatest philosophers Wittgenstein had said understanding a language is understanding a whole form of life. Has your findings on Indus Script vindicated that insight on how language works?

Well, may be. You are putting it in very lofty words. I think every language is a unique way to see the world. I am using this phrase in connection with the tragic situation that is prevailing now in the world. So many languages, minority languages, are disappearing. At the moment, we are still having may be some 5,000 languages in the world, but very rapidly a large number of them have disappeared. It is just as with plant and animal species. Once they have gone, you can’t get them back and each of them is a unique
creation which is very valuable.

But these linguistic identities, when politicised, could lead to all kinds of disastrous consequences. So how is a harmonious understanding of world languages possible?

Yes. Besides Tamil, there are other Dravidian languages that have descended from the proto-Dravidian. But Tamil has preserved the language structure in a very archaic form. And also it has very ancient sources that are very precious. But at the same time, we must say that ‘Sanskrit’ has also preserved a very important part of the Indus heritage. So, it is impossible to say that there is something like ‘pure Dravidian’ or ‘pure Aryan’. They should not be pitted against each other. I mean, there has been mixture from the beginning. And even if you look at the history of Tamil Nadu, the ‘Brahmins’ were here
already in ‘Sangam’ times. So, they have also contributed hugely to the Tamil civilisation. So you have at least these two main language groups in India from very early times, side by side.

Your next project: will you continue your work on the Indus script?

I think it will be difficult not to continue, but actually my PhD was originally on ‘Sama Veda’ and I have been doing ‘Sama Vedic’ research in South India for many decades. There is a lot of material which I have not really had a good opportunity to work on, but which I would like to publish. Also, the ‘Thirukkural’ (of Tamil Saint-poet Thiruvalluvar) is a timeless book. I am working on a translation of it into Finnish and I would like the Finns also to have it.

How do you see the WCTC’s significance? Has it provided a platform to take forward your work on the Indus script?

Yes, I think so. For the Indus script it (WCTC) is certainly very important, a big boost to draw the attention of more Tamil and other Dravidian scholars into this venture. Scholars should get funds to pursue the studies further.