Indus inscription: FISH UNDER CHEVRON / HAIRY HUNCHBACK / POT (replica of tablet).
This sign is only shown in Wells as W39, where it is shown to be a singleton (M-633). Apparently Koskenniemi and Parpola classified it with the three-stroke SHISH KEBAB, if they noticed it, as did Fairservis.
It has few parallels outside of China, where the older style of writing was quite different. The upper horizontal was not straight but a "U" shape, representing the branches of the tree. Likewise, the lower horizontal was not straight either, but an upside-down "U" shape (or ROOF, in my terminology), indicating the roots (Wieger 1965: 26).
The Old European repertoire includes a similar motif that is an upside-down version of this one, OE13. It may have been a representation of a plant also. On punch-marked coins of later India, of the Magadha type, there is shorter version of the Old European motif inside a circle. It, too, may have represented a tree.
In Meroitic hieroglyphs, the sound of a nasal consonant transcribed with "n" with a tilde over it (or "ny") is written with two glyphs of the sedge plant. This has an upside-down "J" shape rather than a straight vertical stalk, across which there are two curved schematic leaves. This derives ultimately from Egyptian, where a single sedge plant was a biliteral glyph, M23, used to represent Upper Egypt. This is getting pretty far from the Indus symbol.
Fish swim in the water coming the shoulders of Enki, Sumerian god of the sweet waters of the Abzu
(based on cylinder seals).
Our next sign is the FISH, IV26, also known as KP50, W112, and Fs Q-1. Fairservis does not think it represents a fish since it does not occur in horizontal position or have an eye, as do the more realistic fishes painted on pottery. He considers it another example of the cord or twist of thread (L-3) with an affix (P-11) of two strokes which syllabize the basic word or else designate meaning (and how does one decided which?). He defines the FISH as "great man, lord, chief."
Wells gives the frequency of this sign as 187, with 118 occurrences at Mohenjo daro, 46 at Harappa, eight at Lothal, six at Kalibangan, four at Chanhujo daro, two at Banawali, and one each at Nausharo, Nindowari-damb, and Pabumath. Clearly then, this is one of the core signs of this type of proto-writing. In spite of the protests of Fairservis, most authors do consider this to represent a fish and it does seem to occur once in horizontal position, at Harappa (H-350C). On the "B" of this rectangular tablet, the inscription is the very common CUP (vee shape) / FOUR POSTS (IIII). If one turns the tablet over so that it is aligned in the same fashion, the FISH is the only symbol on the "C" side, oriented horizontally. Since it is by itself, one could also turn the tablet the other way and say it was oriented vertically, though.
Wells states that there is only one variant of this sign, but I see more than one. The FISH is sometimes tall and thin, as on the just-mentioned H-350C, sometimes off kilter and leaning a bit to one side (B-3), sometimes very squat and chunky (K-34). Such variation may be meaningless, but it still exists.
Fish-like symbols occur widely around the world, which is hardly surprising considering the fact that fish do as well. Egyptian hieroglyphs include seven different species of fishes, each carefully distinguished from the others (K1-K7). Each has an eye, the correct number of fins, and usually other details such as gills. All are shown horizontally. In hieratic, the details are often lost, but then fish don't show up in writing all that often. It is interesting to compare the realism of these fish glyphs with the scorpion (L7). This beast is missing his tail, which is left off because it was too scary and dangerous to draw! But without it, the depicted critter looks very little like a scorpion.
Fish swim beneath the boat of Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen in this replica (fishes are K1 and K2 glyphs).
Old Chinese also has a fish, yu2, which looks much like the Indus character in outline and is always shown vertically (Wieger 1965: 310). However, it also has an eye and cross-hatching to indicate scales. As time goes on, the eye disappears, the fins on the side transform, the cross-hatching is revised, and the modern character is unrecognizable as a fish. The 195th radical is now a square containing a cross with four dots below. On top is a quick two-stroke flourish that adds nothing to remind one of its fishy origin.
Proto-cuneiform includes a sign, GIR~a, among whose many meanings one is "fish, possibly a carangid." The "a" version is a backward "D" shape with additions to make it seem it has hair on the rounded side. The "b" version is striped, but has fins added in the same linear style as the Indus sign.
Proto-Elamite has somewhat similar signs (M281~c, M281~d). These are based on a diamond shape, with the lines extended at one end to create what appear to be the back fins. Elements similar to the Indus "ear" are affixed to the sides which resemble side fins. Inside the "c" version is a small wedge which may be an eye, although it is centered and not near the "front." Inside the "d" version is a small "<" or "less than" sign in the same location. Another similar sign is M282, but the front of the diamond is truncated. These may not be fish, as beer containers and milk jugs sometimes take this form (Damerow and Englund 1989). The "fins" on the sides may be handles. The "eye" may be a sign indicating the quality of the internal commodity or its origin (goat milk, cow milk, etc.).
Two fish, a barracuda and a bonito, as depicted in Moche art in Peru (van Dinter 2006: 266).
In rock art, similar shapes also appear, as at Panaramitee North (Flood 1997: 115). This seems to be a marine fish with both eyes depicted on one side. In Texas, an almost identical shape appears to be a human figure (Newcomb 1996: 91, Pl. 51, no. 3). Another instance certainly is (1996: 129, Pl. 86, no. 6).
In a few instances, the Indus sign shows a variation in the way the fins on the side are depicted. This is the CHEVRON BELTED FISH, IV27, also known as W141. Wells sees this as a singleton at Kalibangan (K-96). I also see one at Mohenjo daro (M-256) and one at Lothal (L-2). These may all be the result of the way the FISH symbol is made, with the seal carver overshooting the original lines of the FISH when he carved the "fins."
Note that on punch-marked coins of later India (Magadha type), there is a fish symbol with two sets of fins on the sides. There is also a fish-like rune -- but without fins -- both in the Norse and the Anglo-Saxon alphabets (FUTHARK and FUTHORC). In both cases, Indian and pan-Germanic, the symbol is often oriented vertically even though fish hardly ever swin that way. In addition, neither has an eye. Thus, the objections Fairservis expressed can neither prove nor disprove that the Indus symbols represent real fish. By calling these signs FISH, I do not intend to state my position either way. They may represent fish, jugs, people, or something else entirely. But they look enough like fish that this makes a useful term of reference. That is all.