Friday, August 20, 2010

Indus Script Sign One: Single Quote

I'm starting this blog as part of a quixotic quest to put a little order into one end of an academic field very few people are interested in.  There aren't many people who get excited about linguistics, you see.  Most don't even know what that is.  In this morning's paper, linguistics was blamed for a little mix-up about some bridges between Texas and Mexico, in fact.  The real culprit is semantics, which is only one branch of linguistics.  The problem, it seems, is that the officials in charge of these bridges don't call them bridges because the structures were built to control the Rio Grande, not to enable people to cross it.  But cross the river people do, as demonstrated by footprints on the structures.  And that's what's gotten people's knickers in a twist and made them give linguistics a bad name.  Bad, bad linguistics!  If only those officials had called those structures bridges right from the get-go, those river-crossers wouldn't have crossed that river -- or so the argument seems to imply.

Well, that's neither here nor there.  I'm just a mild-mannered linguist and I'm perfectly willing to call a bridge a bridge and let anybody cross it who wants to.  My real interest lies elsewhere -- in the Indus script.  Back in the Bronze Age, on the shores of a very different river, some folks were using symbols and not leaving notes about it that we can read today.  Their river is now known as the Indus, and archeological remains of their civilization reside in museums in India and Pakistan.  But no one can read their script and no one knows for sure what their symbols mean.  Plenty of people have made attempts and any number of claims of success have appeared in print and on the internet over the years.  It's even conceivable that somebody is correct.  The only problem with granting success to one of those decipherers is this.  Since all those successful decipherers disagree with one another, how does the observer know which one is right?  Who really deciphered it if each one says he's right and all the others are wrong?  Personally, I'm not impressed by the loudest screamer or the most popular charmer.

Let's back up a bit and try something a little more scientific.  How many signs are there in this script, to start with?  Unfortunately, there isn't even an agreed-upon answer to this question.  Depending upon which expert one asks, one discovers that there are anywhere from about 200 signs to about 700 signs.  That's rather a large difference.  Various scholars have published lists of these symbols from time to time, including Asko Parpola, Iravatham Mahadevan, Bryan Wells, and Walter Fairservis.  Some have published concordances as well, listing all of the inscriptions.  In addition, there are two volumes of photographs showing the actual seals, tablets, and other artifacts, in case you want to puzzle out the information for yourself.  A third volume is apparently about to be published or has just recently come out.

A group of scholars has recently attacked the very idea that this is a writing system (Farmer, Witzel, and Sproat 2005).  Their argument is complex and covers a number of angles.  No single point is altogether convincing by itself, but putting them all together makes a pretty good case.  Some of the quicker points include these observations:  there are no long texts in this script, only short ones; there are no depictions of scribes on archeological artifacts; the script did not develop a cursive style; there are no monuments with inscriptions; and as more seals and things are discovered, more signs are discovered.  So the number of signs is increasing rather than decreasing, as time goes on.

Still, even if we assume that this was not true writing, the symbols must have had some sort of meaning.  And fully developed writing systems -- like Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian cuneiform -- are not the only types of symbol systems known.  In his review of the history of writing, I.J. Gelb discusses several types of symbol systems that aren't quite writing (1963).  He groups them all under the term "semasiography."  This coined expression apparently didn't catch on, which is unfortunate.  Instead, one usually sees the clumsy expression "proto-writing" for the systems that preceded cuneiform and hieroglyphs.  That's good enough for a system that eventually evolved into a fully developed writing system.  But next door to "proto-cuneiform" in ancient Iran, there was a symbol system that was quite similar.  It was meaningful, it was complex, but it was not closely tied to speech.  But it did not evolve into writing.  Instead, it died out.  It is known as proto-Elamite.  But it is most likely not an ancestor of the historical Elamite writing, despite that name.

Proto-cuneiform is comprised mostly of symbols that appear only once or a few times, far less than 100 times apiece.  These are thought to represent owners, in some sense.  They may be individuals or institutions, such as temples or palaces.  Aside from this large set, there is a small set of signs that appears very often.  These are better understood.  They represent mostly commodities, with a few indicating some quality or qualification of the commodity.  There are also numerical symbols.  But, to begin with, there is not a clearcut distinction between numeral and commodity.  To represent a concept such as "6 sheep," a scribe might well duplicate the sheep symbol six times rather than write one symbol for "six" and one for "sheep."

The situation appears to be much the same for Proto-Elamite, although this script is understood much less well than proto-cuneiform.  The vast majority of signs appear only once or a mere handful of times.  Only a relatively small percentage of symbols occur repeatedly.  These appear to mostly represent commodities.  Interestingly, they are often the same commodities found in proto-cuneiform: livestock, bread, beer, grain, and humans of low social status.

Now, nothing is entirely clear as yet about the meaning of the symbols in the Indus script.  But statistics on the appearance of symbols have been published and they are quite similar to those for proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The majority of symbols appear once or only a few times.  A small core of symbols appear more often, often enough that statistical study can be made of them.  This does not prove that the core symbols are commodities in this case.  But it does suggest that the Indus script is another proto-writing system, not a fully developed writing system.

That suggests that there probably never were any long texts on perishable materials, despite what some researchers have supposed.  The Indus people were capable of writing longer strings of symbols on pottery, or on clay tablets, just as their western neighbors did.  But there is no evidence that the people of the Indus Valley ever did this.  There are only seals, metal tablets, bangles (and a few other items), and pot shards with fairly short inscriptions.  These inscriptions have from one symbol to 23 or so -- the exact count varies from one source to the next.  But no inscription has as many as 30 symbols.  That much is clear. 

The fact that the Indus script only appears in short inscriptions means something.  The people chose to do this.  That doesn't make their symbols or their inscriptions defective.  That's why I think "proto-writing" is an unfortunate term.  That's a useful term when you're studying the history of writing.  But not everybody intends to develop writing.  Sometimes people use symbols for other purposes.  For example, if we look at modern Navaho sand paintings, we see a great variety of symbols which have clear purposes, clear meanings, and whose placement is anything but random.  These are not writing and they are not proto-writing.  They aren't meant to be anything like writing.  These kinds of symbols serve an altogether different sort of purpose.

I once had a friend from Brazil who had an emblem that she hung on the inside of her front door.  It was round and bore various markings that I recognized as letters from the Hebrew alphabet and characters in Chinese.  I asked her what the Hebrew letters stood for.  She responded that she was unaware that they were Hebrew letters.  I then asked why the Chinese character for good was drawn in such a curious way.  This character is made by combining the characters for "woman" and "baby."  But in this case the "baby" portion was missing its arms, which is the way one normally writes a rather different character, one which would not combine with "woman" to make the word "good."  She was equally unaware that this was a Chinese character and also unaware that the "baby" was defective.  The whole thing was a good luck charm and each component was also a good luck charm.  Its purpose was to keep her house safe and its placement on her door was to keep bad influences from entering her abode.  The moral of the story is, what looks like writing may not actually be writing.  It depends on why something is made, who made it, and who uses it.

I am going to go through the list of Indus symbols, as I see them, giving each a numerical designation based on the number of strokes it takes to write it.  This organizational scheme derives from Chinese, a modern language which arranges characters according to radical (a root or basic form) and stroke number in the dictionary.  I am also giving each Indus symbol a name, in order to discuss them more easily.  Scholars dealing with proto-Elamite or proto-cuneiform sometimes name one or another symbol, in order to discuss it more easily.  They almost never name all of the signs in any system.  However, it seems a logical move to name all of the Indus signs to enable us to transcribe the inscriptions via a standard computer keyboard.  We could use just the numerical codes, once these assigned.  But nobody can type purely numerical codes without error and these are very difficult to proofread and correct.  Names are, by their very nature, more susceptible to such correction.  Hence the duplication.

The first Indus symbol in my list resembles a single quotation mark.  I give it the numerical designation I1.  The Roman numeral indicates that it takes a single stroke to write it.  The Arabic numeral indicates that it is the first in the one-stroke list.  Its name is SINGLE QUOTE, written in all caps to indicate that it is, in fact, only a name and not the meaning of the symbol.  It so happens that there are two variants of this symbol, which can be distinguished by position.  The high variant we can indicate with a tilde and the letter "a," as is done to designate proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite variants (SINGLE QUOTE~a).  The mid-level variant we can indicate with "b" (SINGLE QUOTE~b).

Kimmo Koskenniemi and Asko Parpola published a list of Indus symbols and a concordance (1982).  We can designate this sign's position in their list thus: KP121.  Bryan Wells compiled a more thorough list as part of his master's thesis (1998).  We can designate the same sign's position in his list thus: W196 (82 occurrences).  Walter Fairservis also gave this sign a designation, FsP-1 (1992). 

Michael Korvink analyzed the core signs of the Indus script and determined that SINGLE QUOTE functions as part of the prefix (2007).  That is, it tends to occur near the beginning of inscriptions, but not in initial position.  It causes another sign or signs to precede it in initial position.  This preceding position is a variable in the prefix, filled by a number of different signs.  The SINGLE QUOTE is a constant, coming at the end of the prefix.  This whole construction is then followed by the rest of the inscription, hence its designation as a prefix.

This sign is similar to certain symbols found in the scripts of other lands.  In Egyptian hieroglyphs, there is the glyph designated Z1 in Sir Alan Gardiner's list (1976: 534-535).  This is the single vertical stroke, used as an ideograph or determinative to indicative the numeral "one."  It also follows any glyph used as an ideograph to let the reader know that it is an ideograph and not a phonetic glyph.  It is occasionally a space filler, too, since the Egyptians were terribly fond of symmetry and neatness in hieroglyphic writing.  It could also appear in place of human figures on occasion in places where the correct glyphs were thought magically dangerous.

In Old Chinese, there was a dot, a character now pronounced zhu3 which means "point, as of flame" (Wieger 1965: 30).  This dot was first drawn as a small, round, black circle or else as a tear-shaped mark.  Now it is an oblique stroke.

In the rock art of Texas, in a scene including men, animals, and various large tally marks, there is a dot or very short stroke (Newcomb 1996: 94, Pl. 53, no. 1).  Similarly, a collection of rock art from Nevada and eastern California shows a short oblique mark below the left foot of a horned anthropoid figure (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 194, fig. 131 g).

In proto-Elamite, a single round mark, made by pressing the round end of the stylus into the clay, was a numerical symbol.  It was equal to six of the previous symbol (the long wedge placed horizontally), which in turn was equal to five of the previous symbol (the short wedge placed vertically).  Or perhaps it's the other way around and I have it backwards!  (see ).

In proto-cuneiform, a single short wedge, placed horizontally, essentially represents the number one.  The impressed circle (the same seen in proto-Elamite) represents one of a larger unit (see ).

Thus, the SINGLE QUOTE does not seem to be a numeral in the Indus script, although it superficially resembles a single tally mark and the single mark that is the numeral "one" in other scripts.  Korvink's analysis indicates that it has some other type of function in the Indus script.  And we can see that the single stroke has such a non-numerical function in other scripts as well.  It is not always a numeral in Egyptian, although it can be.  In fact, most of the time it is not a numeral.  And in Chinese too, while a single horizontal line represents the numeral "one," a single mark of some other type is not the same thing.

Well, that's a start!


Fairservis, Walter. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1976. Egyptian Grammar. (Originally 1927). Griffith Institute & Ashmolean Museum: Oxford.

Gelb, I.J. 1963. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Heizer, Robert & Martin Baumhoff. 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. (Originally 1962). Berkeley: University of California.

Korvink, Michael. 2007. The Indus Script: A Positional Statistical Approach. Gilund Press. (Amazon)

Koskenniemi, Kimmo and Asko Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.

Newcomb, Jr., W.W. 1996. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. (Originally 1967). Austin: University of Texas.

Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis.  The University of Calgary.

Wieger, Dr. L. 1965. Chinese Characters. (Originally 1915). New York: Dover.


  1. Oops! Left out one source (and got the date wrong):

    Farmer, Steve, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel. 2004. "The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization" in Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 11 (2): 19-57. see