Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Letter (Sign) Aitch

It takes three quick strokes to draw AITCH, which looks very much like our letter “H.”  That is obviously where I got the name for it.  The number I assigned is III5, while it is KP293b, W175, Fairservis G-6.  The last named scholar sees it as depicting a space between two poles (1992: 164).  Wells gives its total occurrences as only four, three times at Mohenjo daro, once at Harappa. 
Indus pot shard (Shah and Parpola 1991: 363, Rhd-115)

The Harappan occurrence is fairly tall and thin, the horizontal stroke placed close to the middle.  On seal M-274, the AITCH is even more slender and the horizontal is just below the middle.  On M-1164, the AITCH is wider and again the horizontal is centrally placed.  But on M-1204, the tall and thin AITCH has a very low horizontal.  Wells states that there is only one variety but I say that thin versus wide makes two.  And high-waisted versus low-waisted adds a third variety.  In addition, I find two more of this sign on pot shards from Rahman Deri, Rhd-171 and Rhd-172.  The photos show the sign sideways so that it looks more like an elongated capital “I” with enormous serifs.  But I believe it is the same AITCH.  That brings the total to a still measly 6.

There are two similar glyphs in ancient Egyptian.  One represents a channel filled with water (N36).  It is closer to the sideways image on the pots, since it is written with two horizontal lines parallel to one another.  These are joined with shorter lines.  Unlike the AITCH, the joining lines are not straight but slightly curved.  The other similar glyph is a later version of this same one (N23).  The straight horizontals become much shorter and the joining lines are no longer curved but have become two backslashes.  At this point it looks like a leaning Roman numeral II.
Re-Osiris, the good, great god
(from Nefertari's tomb)

Old Chinese also has two characters that resemble the sideways version of the AITCH.  The first is a close match, gong1, “It represents the ancient square [a tool].  By extension, work, skill, labour” (Wieger 1965: 212).  My modern Chinese dictionary clears its throat here, politely amending the meaning of this character as “a laborer, worker” (Far East Chinese-English Dictionary 2000).  The second character is more the upright letter “H” except that the outside lines are curved.  Thus, it is something like parentheses turned inside-out: ) (.  Then a short horizontal line joins them near the top.  This is jiung3, “The suburbs, the country, the space.  The two vertical strokes delineate the limits; the horizontal stroke represents the interval between them, the void space” (Wieger 1965: 94).  This is the 94th radical now, which no longer resembles our letter in the least but has come to look more like the Indus element I term the TABLE (like a bracket [ but turned sideways like a coffee table).

There are motifs in the rock art of North America that resemble the AITCH, although none are as symmetrical and tidy as our letter and the Indus sign.  In each case, one vertical is shorter than the other.  Thus, when they are joined, the short one pulls the long one over.  Neither one ends up perfectly vertical.  The Texan AITCH is listing to the left (Newcomb 1996: 151, Pl. 102, no. 7).  Two AITCHES further west also lean to the left while a third tilts to the right (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 153, fig. 90m; 134, fig. 71a).

Proto-cuneiform does not include an AITCH.  However, there is a sign made with two long horizontal lines parallel to each other.  These are not normally joined, but rather each has a short stroke attached at a slight angle.  In one variant the two short strokes combine into a single stroke which, in effect, stands above the first of the two lines, passes through it and goes on to the second long line.  Thus, PA~a becomes a type of “H” lying down.  This came to mean “leaf, branch, wing, feather.”

Proto-Elamite has one symbol that contains two plus signs: + +.  A variant runs these together, making a type of low “H” with an overly long central horizontal (M007~b).  Another sign resembles an outlined letter “H” (M324).  The meanings are unknown. 

A word about proto-Elamite is in order.  Generally speaking, proto-Elamite signs can be divided into a very few classes.  There are numerical signs which are understood reasonably well through their similarity to proto-cuneiform.  There are also a few often repeated signs that apparently represent commodities, which appear alongside the numerical signs (Damerow and Englund 1989).  But the vast majority of signs, thought to represent “owners,” appear too seldom to be identified with any degree of accuracy.  This general state of affairs is largely due to the nature of the texts which are economic in nature. 

It may well be that the majority of signs in the Indus script also represent something akin to “owners,” whether people or institutions.  Some researchers have suggested that the small core of common signs in this script should represent phonetic symbols.  But I am skeptical.  It seems to me more likely that these represent commonly repeated concepts.  For example, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, one often sees the little flag that represents a deity (see second illustration above).  In this fully developed writing system it also has a phonetic realization (ntr), but this need not have been the case at the origin of the script.  This may not have been the case in the script of a neighboring civilization either, namely in the Indus Valley, where people may well have spoken more than one language.  It seems particularly unlikely that every single symbol should make use of the rebus principle right from the start.  That wasn’t the way it worked in Egypt or Sumer or China right from the start.  Why should it have worked that way in the Indus Valley?

No comments:

Post a Comment