Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Last of the Two-Stroke Signs

There are four more signs in the Indus script each of which contain two strokes.  I mentioned II18 in passing when discussing the CEE and BACK CEE in an earlier post.  This sign is an angular version which looks like the mathematical "greater than" sign in Wells' list (W578).  It does not have a KP number nor does it appear in Fairservis' list.  I imagine that in both cases the authors simply considered it a rare variant of the CEE.  Wells shows it as appearing twice, both times at Harappa, and as having a single variant.  However, the two references he gives, H-60 and H-450, appear different to my eyes.  The first seems to me to be a LESS THAN sign (the reverse of what he shows) and the second is a curved CEE.

Animal tracks -- possible meanings for two-stroke signs
The closest parallel in Egyptian is the Old Kingdom form of T15, the throwstick or club.  In modern Chinese, zhuan3 "small water course, rivulet" has taken a form similar to < (Wieger 1965: 39).  In Old Chinese it resembled the Indus sign BACK ESS.  Proto-cuneiform has two similar signs, a "greater than" version, LISH, which came to mean "morsel, crumb," and a "less than" form, which came to mean "cover; to set" (SHU2).  Proto-Elamite has only the "greater than" version (M064).

In the rock art of North America there are some angled motifs that resemble both the "greater than" and "less than" signs.  Neither is particularly common (Newcomb 1996: 131, Pl. 87, both signs; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 182, fig. 119 i, "less than").  I have not observed this motif in Australian rock art.

Another rare sign in Indus script comprising two strokes is II19, DOUBLE SLASHES or DOUBLE BACKSLASHES.  This one appears only in Fairservis' list where it is given the designation R-1.  This author considers it to mean "drought," stating that it is "not to be confused with || or // the angle differs" (Fairservis 1992: 188).  The sign appears on a broken seal from Chanhujo daro (C-13) as DOUBLE SLASHES.  Here the angle is very slight, so slight, in fact, that one wonders whether slashes were intended or whether these should be read as DOUBLE POSTS.  In comparison, we can view the Harappan inscription H-65 with DOUBLE BACKSLASHES, where the slant is more pronounced.  Even so, here too we may wish to read DOUBLE POSTS and consider this sloppy workmanship.  See also the off-kilter TRIPLE POSTS in H-53.

Isis spreading her CEE and BACK CEE?
There are three Indus symbols that use SLASH and BACKSLASH to bracket another sign as a form of ligature.  Using KP numbers as identifiers, we can point out KP46 (COW LEG BETWEEN SLASHES), KP104 (BUD BETWEEN SLASHES), and KP348 (BARBELLS BETWEEN SLASHES).  In each case, although I have described the signs as "between slashes," there is a slash on the left and a backslash on the right.

In modern Chinese the character bing1 "to freeze, ice" contains two oblique strokes.  However, they are not parallel to each other.  Instead, the top stroke resembles the backslash while the bottom stroke resembles the slash.  In Luwian hieroglyphs there is a single backslash representing the syllable ra or ri (that is, it can represent both).

CEE AND BACK CEE or PARENS receives a sign number in my list (II20) although it is not an independent symbol.  These two curving lines bracket a number of other signs, as mentioned in the earlier discussion of the single CEE.  KP174 is )( or BACK CEE & CEE, a sign comprising the two signs back to back.  In this configuration, these two signs bracket other signs also )X( such as the SKEWERED CHEVRON.  More often, the same two signs bracket another sign just as our parentheses do (X), such as SEVEN QUOTES.  There is also the occasional sign bracketed simply by two of the same type: )X).

Egyptian provides no parallels to this type of bracketing as far as I am aware.  Two glyphs are sometimes put together or overlapped, but I do not know of any situations where one is broken apart so that another sign can go in between.  The closest thing I can think of is the use of the serekh, a glyph of a type of building used in the Old Kingdom to surround the glyphs spelling the pharaoh's name.  Later the cartouche surrounded the pharaoh's name.  This is rather different since both the serekh and cartouche are continuous and unbroken, with or without other glyphs inside.

In Old Chinese, there is a character that appears bracketed: gong1, "common; division and distribution of private goods" (Wieger 1965: 57).  The outside lines are not as simple as parentheses, reminding me of the outline of a fat Coke bottle.  Inside is a circle surmounted by a short vertical line.  A different type of apparent bracketing can be seen in the old form of xiang3, "to offer a gift to a superior" (Wieger 1965: 193).  The brackets are chevron-like, one pointed upward, the other downward.  Between them are two circles, one above the other.  The modern form of the character is entirely different.

In proto-cuneiform also there are forms that appear to be brackets.  For instance, two verticals on either side of a circled cross are described in the following manner:
| (UDU~a x TAR)~a |
The first element in this compound, UDU, represents a sheep.  The second element, TAR, came to mean "to determine, inquire, separate, terminate, destroy, etc."  Putting those two together strains my brain somewhat.  If readers can shed some light on this, I welcome suggestions.  In any case, this proto-writing system did place one symbol inside another or between two others.

The last of the two-stroke signs in the Indus script is considerably more common than these others.  This is II21, a sign comprising a long and short stroke, usually in that order from left to right but sometimes reversed.  Originally I called this "thumb and forefinger" because that is what it reminded me of.  But that is much too long a descriptor.  As a shorter reference I am now terming it the PINCH.  It is KP120, W231, and P-15 in Fairservis' list.  The latter author considers it a leg with an affix, meaning "lineage" or "group of."  The affix is the SINGLE QUOTE (i.e., the short stroke), indicating the genitive case.  Korvink notes that this sign (the PINCH, that is) is a prefix creator, causing other signs to precede it (2007).

Egyptian has a semi-hieratic glyph that is an alternative to the post of the balance scales (U40).  It resembles an upside-down version of the PINCH with an additional horizontal line across the bottom.  This hieroglyph and the hieratic variant serve as determinative in the word wtst "post (of balance)" and in a verb related to this, wts, "to lift, carry, wear."

In Old Chinese there is a character that slightly resembles the most curved versions of the PINCH.  The Chinese character is a kind of curving, backward "L" shape with an additional horizontal stroke attached in the middle, to the left.  This is shi1, "a seated man.  The living person who anciently represented the dead; by extension, a dead person" (Wieger 1965: 91).

If we look hard and long, we can find a long and short stroke together in the art of North America (Newcomb 1996: 101, Pl. 58; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 188, fig. 125 d).  This is not a regular motif but more of an accident, it seems to me. 

In the Indus script, though, this is clearly a common sign.  According to Wells' figures, it appears 120 times.  Wells sees four variants, but these are only the major ones.  There are many minor differences. Some of the occurences include a long stroke than is straight while others are slanted.  Still others are curved.  In one case the long stroke is hooked (L-90).  The short stroke sometimes begins at the same height as the long, often begins at a higher point, occasionally at a lower point.  A number of variants are made smaller than the other signs in the inscription, but not all.  Many of those on the bar seals are curved, but some of the curved versions are not curved.  In general the long stroke is on the left on seals, on the right on tablets and in impressions (also called tags).  In a few cases, the two strokes are the same length and it is only the angle that differentiates them.  This sign is found at Mohenjo daro (77 occurrences), Harappa (22 occurrences), Lothal (10), Kalibangan (2), Chanhujo daro (4), Banawali (1), Khirsara (1), Rakhigarhi (1), Nausharo (1), and Nindowari-damb (1).

Is this sign a representation of a hand gesture?  Is it an animal's footprint?  This is one of the more common signs but surely one of the most enigmatic!

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