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

June 25, 2010

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!


War of words in the cradle of south Asian civilisation!

May 14, 2010

War of words in the cradle of south Asian civilisation

In the heart of Pakistan, the ruins of a 4,000-year-old city have spawned a cross-continental row about language, culture – and racism in academia, By Andrew Buncombe, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Curator Mohammed Hassan
ANDREW BUNCOMBECurator Mohammed Hassan

At the quiet ruins of Harappa, one of the two main centres of an ancient civilisation that once spread from the Himalayas to Mumbai, Naveed Ahmed took in the arid hills dotted with thorn-bush. “I think the people who lived here were very different from us,” said the part-time guide. “The stones and the beads [they made]; it was as if they were more sophisticated.”

However peaceful this ruined city of the Indus civilisation may appear, the former residents of Harappa and the remnants of their society are today at the centre of one of the most acrimonious disputes in academia, a controversy that has allegedly led to death threats and claims of racism and cultural chauvinism.

Many experts in south Asia and elsewhere believe that symbols and marks inscribed on seals and other artefacts found here represent an as yet undeciphered language. Arguing it may be the predecessor of one of several contemporary south Asian argots, these experts say it is proof of a literate Indian society that existed more than 4,000 years ago.

But other experts based in the West say although the symbols may contain information, they are not a true language. They claim the judgement of their counterparts in south Asia may be swayed by regional nationalism.

Mohammed Hassan is curator of the museum beside the dust-blown ruins. Before leading a tour, the government official served tea and biscuits in his office and insisted the people of Harappa must have possessed a written language to store information. “If they were not literate, then how could they do so many things?” he said. “They had well-made pottery, big cities that were well-planned. They had a lot of knowledge about these things. They grew cotton, wheat, rice and barley. They traded with other cities.”

The Indus civilisation covered more than 500,000 square miles and lasted, during what experts term its “mature phase”, from 2,600 till 1900 BCE. The ruins, 100 miles south-west of the Pakistani city Lahore, the ruins were rediscovered in the early part of the 19th century.

The skills of its residents – at least in terms of making bricks that could endure centuries – were revealed by two British engineers, John and William Brunton, who were building the East Indian Railway Company line to connect Lahore and Karachi and needed ballast for their track. The engineers later wrote that locals told them of well-made bricks from an ancient ruined city that the villagers had made use of. With little concern for preserving the ruins, huge numbers of the Indus-era bricks were reduced to rubble and used to support the tracks heading west.

In the early 20th century, excavation of Harappa proceeded along with that of the other Indus city at Mohenjo-daro, in the south of Pakistan, and it was at that time many of the seals now on display in Mr Hassan’s museum containing symbols and images of animals were discovered. And they have continued to beguile, fascinate and frustrate scientists, causing a running controversy that has played out on internet message boards, scientific papers and at academic conferences.

Like Mr Hassan, Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert in epigraphy from southern India who has been awarded the country’s highest civilian award for his work, has no doubts the symbols on the Indus seals represent a genuine language. “Archaeological evidence makes it inconceivable that such a large, well-administered, and sophisticated trading society could have functioned without effective long-distance communication, which could have been provided only by writing,” he wrote last year in a magazine.

“And there is absolutely no reason to presume otherwise,considering that thousands of objects, including seals, copper tablets, and pottery bear inscriptions in the same script throughout the Indus region. The script may not have been deciphered but that is no valid reason to deny its very existence.”

Mr Mahadevan believes the Indus script may have been a forerunner of so-called Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, spoken today in southern India and Sri Lanka. In addition to technical clues, he says the continued existence of a Dravidian language in modern Pakistan – Brahvi, which is spoken by people in parts of Balochistan – supports his idea.

Over the years, there have been plenty of other theories both from established experts and enthusiastic amateurs. Some, with the backing of Hindu nationalists, have claimed the script may be an early Indo-European language and that remnants of it may even exist in Sanskrit, an ancient language that is the root of many present languages in north India, including Hindi. It has even been claimed the Indus script belonged to metalsmiths, and others believe it died out with the city of Harappa itself and gave rise to no successor.

Part of the problem for the experts is that, unlike for those who cracked the hieroglyphics of Egypt, there is no equivalent of the Rosetta stone, the slab of granite-like rock discovered in 1799 that contained Egyptian and Greek text. In the 1950s, academic interest in Mayan hieroglyphics intensified when experts began to study modern spoken Mayan, but for the Indus scholars there is no agreement on which, if any, modern language is the successor to their script.

In 2004, the debate was jolted into a war of words after three American scholars claimed the Indus symbols were not a language at all. In a paper provocatively subtitled The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilisation, they said there was insufficient evidence that the symbols constituted a proper language. They pointed to various factors: that there was no single long piece of text; that there was disagreement over the number of actual symbols and that other well-organised societies had been illiterate. The symbols, they argued, may well contain information in the same way that an image of a knife and fork together might represent a roadside eatery but they were not a language that could record speech.

The ensuing uproar came mainly from south Asians. One of the American scholars, Steve Farmer claimed people would approach him in tears after he gave talks and that he had even had death threats. Comments on internet discussion boards accuse him and his colleagues of trying to prove that “non-Western cultures were less advanced”. Mr Farmer, who lives in California, said he believed much of the anger was driven by those wishing to promote pet theories about Dravidians, indigenous Aryan Hindus or “the general man in the street who wants to think ancient India was of the same order as Egypt or Mesopotamia. It’s total rubbish”. He added: “I have never seen anything like the passion that there is in India. There is not that sort of passion in the Middle East about ancient things.”

More recently, the Indus controversy has been joined by a team of Indian scientists who ran computer programmes which led them to conclude the symbols almost certainly constitute a language. Central to their claims, published last year in Science, was the theory of “conditional entropy”, or the measure of randomness in any sequence. Because of linguistic rules – such as in English the letter Q is almost always followed by a U – in natural languages the degree of randomness is less than in artificial languages.

One of the authors, Rajesh Rao, who was born in Hyderabad but is now based at the University of Washington, became fascinated by the Indus culture after studying it at school. His team measured the randomness with which the individual Indus symbols appeared on seals and compared that to the randomness of several natural and artificial languages. Mr Rao said it was closest to a natural language. “The Indus civilisation was larger than the ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian civilisations and the most advanced in terms of urban planning and trade,” he said. “Yet we know little about their leaders, their beliefs, their way of life, and the way their society was organised. Many of us hope that decoding the script will provide a new voice to the Indus people.”

Yet as soon as Mr Rao’s team published its findings, Mr Farmer and his colleagues hit back, denouncing their conclusions and methodology. Mr Rao, whose team has since issued a detailed defence of their theory, said he was surprised at the level of contention, within south Asia and beyond, but also at some of the comments he claims Mr Farmer’s group levelled at him.

So whether the Indus is a script with hidden meanings may never be deciphered. Naveed Ahmed, a 24-year-old part-time guide, whose family has lived “forever” in a village on the edge of the ruins speaks Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language from the same family as Sanskrit. Was it possible a linguistic thread connected the language he used with what had been spoken – and possibly written – by the people who once occupied the ruined city? “I don’t know if it is the same,” he said. “But it’s a possibility that our language came from them. It is always a possibility.”