Monday, October 17, 2011

Sentences in the Indus Script?

The city seal of Ur, bearing possible writing or proto-writing (after Collon 2005: 106, no. 455).

Dominique Collon describes the inscriptions found on Near Eastern cylinder seals (1987/2005: 105-7).  The earliest examples, dating to the third millennium BCE, seem to contain only names, whether names of cities, deities, or humans.  More information appears in later seals, with names and multiple attendant titles by the time of Ur III (2334-2000 BCE).  Old Babylonian seal inscriptions generally give the owner’s name, his or her filiation (son or daughter of named person number two), along with a third element indicating that the owner is the servant of a particular deity or, less often, a king.  Professions sometimes appear in early inscriptions, but disappear by this time.  Prayers begin to appear at the end of this period.  By the time of the Kassites, prayers and incantations are common and can be fairly long.  An example of this type reads, “Oh Marduk, sublime lord, prince in whose hands the power of decision in heaven and on earth has been vested: the servant who worships you, by your look may he be happy” (2005: 107, no. 460).  This dates from after 1500 BCE, a time when the Indus script had essentially disappeared from use.  But the presence of some full sentences on these Mesopotamian seals suggests to some researchers the possibility that their neighbors, the Harappans, might also have written complete sentences on their own seals.
Inscription from a cylinder seal that depicts heroes battling lions; it reads "Naram-Sin,
god of Akkad, Urag, scribe, is his servant" (after Aruz 2003: 208, no. 134).

In this post, I will examine some of the inscriptions whose structure might suggest sentences in the Indus script.  A number of scholars have examined the inscriptions in Indus script, looking for positional regularities (signs that typically begin or end an inscription) and for small groups of signs that generally appear together (usually pairs of signs, but sometimes groups of three).  Among these, the study by M. Korvink carefully distinguishes between structural regularities on the one hand, and possible meaning on the other.  He classifies the components of the inscriptions as (1) prefix, containing one or more variable signs plus a single constant; (2) the medial segment, which often contains one or more fish-like signs in a standardized order; and (3) the terminal, containing one or more signs in a standard order (2007).  I abbreviate these sections as P, M, and T, respectively in the following.

A minority of inscriptions include sequences other than PMT (in which each segment is optional).  These are the focus of this post.  The first inscription I will analyze is from seal M-670:


The first two signs form a common pair (CUPPED POST / THREE POSTS), together making up M.  They are followed by SPEAR, which is T.  The presence of the next sign, SINGLE QUOTE, is rather surprising, since it is normally the constant sign in P.  I will assume here that this sign retains this function despite its position after a terminal.  The fifth sign, SINGLE POST, must be another M, followed by another T, POT-HATTED BEARER.  Thus, the inscription as a whole seems to be analyzable as MTPMT.  In some inscriptions, such an analysis indicates simply two units of information, each of which could be an independent inscription: MT + PMT.  But there is an anomaly in the group of signs preceding SINGLE QUOTE.  Korvink notes that the constant causes other signs to move to initial position to become part of P (2007: 25-26).  The signs that usually appear as variables in P, though, are found in M when not followed by the constant.  What appears to be going on here, instead, is that a whole “phrase” (MT) is functioning as the variable.  We might express this as (MT)PMT.  In other words, the initial MT phrase + constant is P in this case.  Such an analysis removes the anomalous character of the inscription.
Seal M-782 with inscription: TRIPLE BRICK / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / CAGED TETRAPOD / POT.

Another example of a “phrase” as the variable in P is seal M-782:


The TRIPLE BRICK is M, followed by the most frequently occurring T, POT.  This MT “phrase” again appears to be the variable portion of P, as it is followed by a constant, SINGLE QUOTE.  There follows another MT sequence (CAGED TETRAPOD + POT).  Again, the overall analysis is (MT)PMT.

A third, similar example is found on seal M-1135:


Once more, the initial sign is M, with the second sign T.  This MT phrase precedes a constant, BI-QUOTES, thus forming P.  After this complex segment, the rest of the inscription includes a single sign for M and repeats the same T for an overall analysis of (MT)PMT.
Bar seal M-1267 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND (partially restored here) / BI-QUOTES / HUNCHBACK / FLANGE TOPPED POT / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-RAKE (note the presence of two different prefix constants here).

A more complex type appears in M-1267:


In this example, the first five signs form a complete series, P (VEE IN DIAMOND + BI-QUOTES), M (HUNCHBACK), and T (FLANGE TOPPED POT + POT).  Since this precedes a prefix constant, SINGLE QUOTE, the whole initial PMT can be analyzed as the prefix variable.  The final sign, BI-RAKE, is a second M.  The overall analysis is (PMT)PM.  The same pattern appears in the inscription M-1284: SINGLE POST / STRIPED TRIANGLE / BI-QUOTES // CIRCLE TRI-FORK / WHISKERED FISH // SPEAR // SINGLE QUOTE // BI-RAKE, or (PMT)PM.
Bar seal H-143 with inscription: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT HATTED BEARER (identical to H-8 except the FLAIL in H-143 is AY in H-8).

All the examples quoted thus far have been from Mohenjo daro.  But this interesting phenomenon also occurs at Harappa.  Inscription H-8 has the same structure as the last two examples above: BOAT / CROSSROADS EX / BI-QUOTES // CUPPED SPOON / THREE POSTS / MALLET / QUAD-FORK // POT // SINGLE QUOTE // PRICKLY CORN HOLDER, or (PMT)PM.  The previous type above appears in the Harappan inscription H-27: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND // POT // SINGLE QUOTE // AY ON FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK // POT HATTED BEARER, or (MT)PMT.  The inscription on H-143 is identical except that instead of AY ON FOUR QUOTES, there is a FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES.
Broken seal C-24 with inscription: DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-QUOTES / TWO POSTS / CAGED FISH / BI-QUOTES / CUPPED TWO / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK (last 3 signs are broken).

A somewhat different complex example comes from Chanhujo daro, where C-24 reads: DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-QUOTES // TWO POSTS / CAGED FISH // (2nd row) BI-QUOTES // CUPPED TWO / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK.  The signs in the second row are not complete because the seal is broken horizontally.  Before the BI-QUOTES in this row, there is a small loop that could be part of a broken sign.  I am assuming that it is not, instead forming the ear of an iconic animal (not the unicorn, since there is no horn, and not the elephant, which has no such ear).  But it might be the head of an anthropomorphic sign, since the MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH has a head of almost the same shape.  However, if I have transcribed the inscription correctly, its analysis differs from previous examples in that the first line forms PM.  The second line, beginning with BI-QUOTES, would seem to make of the first a prefix variable.  Then the last three signs form a second M.  The overall analysis is (PM)PM.

In the examples cited and in other, similar inscriptions, the structural complexity does not prove that these are actually sentences.  This complexity is similar to that of sentences with embedded clauses.  In English, subordinate clauses follow the noun or pronoun they describe (as in “That’s the man who bought the car,” where “who bought the car” describes “the man”).  In Chinese and in Turkish, such clauses precede the noun or pronoun they describe.  Languages such as English, with clauses that follow, are termed right-branching, while the Chinese or Turkish type is termed left-branching.  Some scholars have interpreted similar evidence as indicating that the language underlying the Indus script is left-branching (Koskenniemi and Parpola 1982: 12, citing their own conclusion and that of the Soviet scholars, Y.V. Knorozov, M.F. Albedil, B.Y. Volchok).  This is one reason that Parpola and others think that the Indus script represents a Dravidian language.

In some Bronze Age scripts, though, a single or double stroke functions as a punctuation mark of a sort, rather than a phonetic or ideographic symbol.  This is the case in Assyrian cuneiform and in the Linear B writing of Mycenaean Greece.  It is possible that this is what SINGLE QUOTE, DOUBLE QUOTE, and PINCH are in the Indus script.  That is, these may simply be marks separating units of information.  Each prefix would then represent one unit of information and the following M(T) a second such unit.  In the complex examples cited above, there would be more, namely three units of information. 

This may be the best analysis for now, rather than interpreting the apparent complexity as evidence of embedding.  Where I have analyzed an inscription above as (MT)PM(T), I now amend this to MT “ M(T), with the double quotation mark indicating the presence of a prefix constant which marks a boundary between the first and second units of information.  Presumably the three constants do not all indicate precisely the same thing, though, since occasionally there are two different ones in the same inscription (as in H-8 and M-1284).  This implies that they are not just separating two units, but also have some significance or meaning of their own. 
In conclusion, then, there is apparent complexity in some inscriptions.  Such complexity may be interpreted as evidence for sentences.  But given what is known about other scripts, it seems more likely that there is a simpler explanation.  There is stronger evidence that some inscriptions are compound, in that they contain more than one unit of information.  But what seems to be embedding (and thus complex sentences) on first examination is better analyzed simply as the separation of the multiple units.


Aruz, J., ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Collon, D. 1987 & 2005. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. London: British Museum.

Joshi, J.P. and A. Parpola. 1987. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 1. Collections in India. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Korvink, M.P. 2008. The Indus Script: A Positional Statistical Approach. Gilund Press (Amazon).

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

Shah, S.G.M. and A. Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

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