[Indo-Eurasia] **The Farmer-Sproat-Witzel Model

George Thompson gthomgt at COMCAST.NET
Wed Feb 7 00:56:10 UTC 2007


I think that Mahadevan would be a fool to accept your offer.  This is 
not an open list.  It is YOUR list, and you set all of the ground rules.

What will happen is that a post from Mahadevan would appear on the list 
-- at your leisure --  immediately prefaced by a moderator's note, and 
then a closing refutation from you.  This is no way to carry on an open 
debate.  You get the first word and the last word -- every time.

Instead, this debate should be conducted on an unbiased list with a 
moderator who is not so invested in the issue.

I agree with you that we are not dealing with a script here, but I do 
not agree at all with  this policy of always having to have both the 
first word and the last.

I can think of two other lists that might serve as an unbiased place 
where a genuine debate could occur.


George Thompson

Steve Farmer wrote:

>Here is a letter that I just wrote to Iravatham Mahadevan, which I am 
>copying as well to the Indo-Eurasian Research List (750 Members and 
>hundreds of other daily readers).
>It contains an invitation to Mahadevan to discuss evidential issues on 
>the List involving the Indus symbol system, so we can resolve this 
>issue quickly. The invitation is open to anyone else working seriously 
>in the field as well.
>Iravatham says in the newspapers that he wants open scientific 
>discussion. Well, here is his chance: let's settle this issue once and 
>for all, on strictly evidential grounds.
>Dear Iravatham,
>Yesterday I read your recent article in The Hindu. The article carries 
>the title "Towards a Scientific Study of the Indus Script":
>My initial criticisms of it are found in a post that I made last night. 
>There is no need for me to repeat the arguments I made then, which 
>undercut the old assumption -- and it was simply an unexamined 
>assumption -- that the short symbol chains found in Indus inscriptions 
>were part of a "writing system." The evidence as a lot of people
>see it today, including many Indus researchers, suggests otherwise.
>You'll find my criticisms from last night here:
>One part of any genuine "scientific study" is that it acknowledges all 
>claimed counter-evidence against any proposed theories. This is 
>especially important when the data you cite for your views come from 
>studies 30-40 years old, which is true in your case. There is no 
>substantial claim in your article that you hadn't already made way back 
>in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a long time ago.
>Moreover, all of those claims have already been discussed, sometimes in 
>great detail, in the paper that Michael Witzel, Richard Sproat, and I 
>published in December 2004 -- which was, of course, widely publicized 
>at the time via a feature news story in _Science_ magazine.
>Here is a link to our article again, which I know you've read:
>I would like to invite you to come on our List, where you can discuss 
>these issues publicly and at leisure with me, Michael Witzel, and a 
>large and diverse group of historical researchers, including script 
>experts, Indus archaeologists, linguists, etc. We can make sure that it 
>takes place in an orderly way, point by point.
>Open discussion of this sort is what science is all about: Science 
>isn't conducted in newspapers, where critics don't get an opportunity 
>to question dubious claims that have been repeated whatever the 
>evidence for decades.
>These issues will also be taken up at the public Workshop at Stanford 
>University that we are holding on July 11th, in conjunction with the 
>Linguistic Society of America (LSA), where these issues will be 
>discussed before another body of linguists attending the LSA's summer 
>school. Michael and I will be participants, as will Asko Parpola, 
>Richard Sproat, and a large cast of linguists and script experts. You 
>are welcome to attend as well, if you want: we do everything we can to 
>facilitate open discussion.
>Here is a link to our preliminary announcement of that Workshop, which 
>is being funded in part by the National Science Foundation:
>There is certainly a lot to discuss in relation to your studies. You'll 
>see in our 2004 paper, for example, that the core views you have been 
>proposing for some 40 years, and that you simply repeat in your new 
>article, are criticized at length:
>-- For example, on page 21, note 5 (see also below), you'll find us 
>using your own evidence to falsify your claims that sign positions 
>supposedly link the inscriptions to the Dravidian language family; 
>Michael also underlined this fatal criticism of your work on the List 
>earlier today;
>-- On page 22, note 6, we deal with your anachronistic association of 
>Indus signs with Tamil traditions from thousands of years after the 
>demise of Indus civilization, which reflects your well-known Dravidian 
>ideological views;
>-- On page 28, n. 14, we discuss your misapplication of Mackay's 
>formula as a supposed indicator of linguisticity (Sproat, incidentally, 
>has recently shown that Mackay's formula doesn't even work for the 
>languages to which Mackay claimed it was applicable; more on that on 
>July 11th);
>-- On page p. 36, and again in Figure 7, we discuss the unorthodox 
>methods you have used to understate the anomalous numbers of 
>"singleton" signs in Indus inscriptions, which aren't easily compatible 
>with any linguistic model;
>-- In Figure 12, striking examples are given of the way that you 
>overstandardize inscriptions, which help makes mythological symbols 
>look more like "writing"; 
>-- And so on.
>There are so many problems in your recent article, deriving above all 
>from the very old studies on which you depend, that it is impossible to 
>deal with all of them.
>Let me just emphasize four points:
>1. Most importantly, perhaps, no linguist who has followed the field 
>could possibly endorse your central view, based on very old studies, 
>that the fact that Indus symbols have some positional order to them -- 
>i.e., with some signs showing up more often than others at the front, 
>back, or middle of symbol chains -- is evidence  that Indus 
>inscriptions contain "writing."
>That argument may have convinced people many decades ago, but today it 
>is well-known that positional regularities in the distribution of 
>symbols show up in virtually EVERY class of symbol systems known -- 
>linguistic and nonlinguistic alike. You find such regularity in the 
>order of symbols in mathematical equations, boy-scout badges, army 
>medals, highway signs (see the amusing examples in the PDF below!), 
>alchemical signs, god signs in Near Eastern kudurrus and seals, Mauryan 
>symbols, Mongolian tamgas, horoscopal signs, heraldic symbols -- and 
>everyplace else that symbols show up.
>In this two-page PDF you'll find a reductio ad absurdum of old 
>claims that order in Indus inscriptions implies either that they were 
>linguistic or that they encoded some Dravidian language:
>"What do highway signs have in common with the 'Dravidian' model?":
>(note there are two pages here; the punchline is on the second page).
>How do you deal with this problem? You can't just pretend that the 
>problem doesn't exist, which is all you've done since we published our 
>paper. I showed you these data way back in 2003.
>2. As noted in my post last night, and as I mention again above, your 
>key claim about the inscriptions supposedly encoding some early 
>Dravidian language is easily falsified -- ironically even on your own 
>data. You write in your article, based again on studies made way back 
>in the 1960s, when the word "computer" still had some magic associated 
>with it:
>>Computer analysis has shown that the Indus texts possess only 
>>suffixes, not prefixes or infixes. This indicates that the Harappan 
>>language was of the suffixing type (like Dravidian), not of the 
>>prefixing type (like Indo-Aryan).
>This claim, which has been endlessly repeated, is totally unsupported 
>even by the raw (if not interpreted) data found in those old studies. 
>In fact, as we point out in footnote 5 of our 2004 paper, data from 
>your own concordance unambiguously falsifies your own core claim.
>Any pretence to conducting a "scientific study" that ignores evidence 
>of this sort can't be taken seriously:
>>...the claim is repeated often that positional regularities in the 
>>symbols prove that the ‘script’ encoded an exclusively suffixing 
>>language (cf., e.g., Knorozov 1968, 1970; Parpola, Koskenniemi, 
>>Parpola, and Aalto 1969: 20-1; Fairservis 1992; Mahadevan 1986; 
>>Possehl 1996: 164; 2002a: 136) — which not coincidentally would rule 
>>out early Indo-Aryan or Munda languages, since these included 
>>prefixing and (in the case of Munda) extensive infixing as well. 
>>However, even using the Dravidian proponents’ own data (e.g., 
>>Mahadevan 1977: Table 1, 717-23), it is easy to show that positional 
>>regularities of single Indus signs (and the same is true of sign 
>>clusters) are just as common in the middle and at the supposed start 
>>(or righthand side) of Indus inscriptions as at their supposed end, 
>>which if we accepted this whole line of reasoning could be claimed as 
>>evidence in the system of extensive infixing and prefixing — 
>>ironically ruling out Dravidian as a linguistic substrate.
>Your response? You can't just ignore this evidence, unless you are 
>satisfied with just talking to mass audiences via newspaper articles. 
>But that isn't "science," which deals with evidence, counter-evidence, 
>Your other claims about the Indus symbols supposedly encoding Dravidian 
>are equally out of date, and have been for a long time. You point, 
>e.g., to the "survival" of Dravidian languages like Brahui in North 
>India, but most historical linguists today (and Michael can comment 
>better than I can on the evidence here) view Brahui as a medieval 
>arrival in North India, not an ancient "survival" of an older 
>distribution in the north of Dravidian languages.
>You also point to the "presence of Dravidian loan words in the Rig 
>Veda." Unfortunately, it has been known for at least a decade that such 
>loan words are NOT found in early strata of the text, which argues 
>again strongly *against* an early Dravidian presence in NW historical 
>India. This is again  explicitly discussed in our paper (p. 45) and in 
>Witzel 1999, 2003.
>Any scientific approach to the Indus inscriptions obviously can't be 
>based on the kind of evidence you cite, which has been out of date for 
>3. There are lots of other types of evidence that you just ignore. The 
>most obvious has to do with the absurdly short length of Indus 
>inscriptions, which in your concordance average no more than 4.6 
>symbols in length -- no matter what kinds of materials they were placed 
>on. That certainly isn't like any writing system encountered in any 
>other society, in any part of the world.
>Hence our $10,000 challenge to anyone who comes up with a 
>(non-existent) well-provenanced "long" Indus inscription, even one a 
>scant 50 symbols long! For details on our prize, see:
>We wouldn't make that challenge, quite obviously, unless the data 
>indicated that no such inscriptions ever existed. :^)
>As we note in our paper, the standard way of getting around the problem 
>of the absurd brevity of the inscriptions -- invented in desperation in 
>the 1920s by Hunter and Marshall, and unquestioned until 2001 -- was to 
>claim that all supposedly long Indus texts were written on perishable 
>writing materials. But a close look at this thesis (for details, again 
>see our paper, pp. 22-26), shows that the claim is quite impossible.
>There are several ways to  demonstrate that (for details, see our 
>paper, pp. 22-26), but the simplest is to point to a powerful piece of 
>cross-cultural evidence, stated a bit tongue-in-cheek (although the 
>argument is dead serious) in our "one-sentence refutation of the 
>Indus-script myth":
>The punchline:
>>No ancient literate civilizations are known — not even those that 
>>wrote extensively on perishable materials — that did not also leave 
>>long texts behind on durable materials.
>NB: there are no counterexamples, anywhere in the world.
>How do you deal with this problem? The Harappans certainly weren't shy 
>about public displays of their symbols: they put them on well over a 
>dozen different types of materials, and even apparently hung them on 
>their city walls, as in the case of the so-called signboard at 
>Dholavira. All symbol chains -- and we now have thousands of them -- 
>are uniformly short. That is not like any "writing system" anywhere in 
>the world.
>You can't just ignore evidence like this: you have to deal with it, if 
>you want to promote "scientific study" of the Indus symbols.
>4. Finally, I'd like to comment on something you say about your views 
>supposedly being free of any ideology, which is contradicted by a lot 
>of evidence.
>You write:
>>I should like to lay particular emphasis on the fact that the IRC 
>>[your new "Indus Research Centre"] is a forum for scientific 
>>investigations without any ideological bias. This does not of course 
>>mean that the centre will not undertake research into the linguistic 
>>aspects of the Indus Script. After all, linguistic decipherment of the 
>>Indus Script is the ultimate objective of research. What we mean when 
>>we say there should be no ideological bias is that we should not start 
>>with preconceived notions or presuppositions and tailor our research 
>>to fit into ideology-driven linguistic models.
>The preconceived notion arises from the claim that these  short symbol 
>chains are supposedly markers of a literate society. You can throw in 
>the word "linguistic" as many times as you want, but using the word 
>doesn't mean that you've offered any evidence for your views or 
>answered all the quite explicit evidence cited against it.
>Also ideological is the claim you keep making that the "language of 
>the Indus inscriptions" is Dravidian. You've pushed that idea for
>decades in the face of all counter-evidence, as noted above.
>There is clearly a nationalistic component at work here. Most 
>tellingly, last year, when that supposed Indus axehead of *extremely* 
>dubious authenticity showed up in Tamil Nadu, conveniently carrying a 
>sign that you (alone) claim stands for the Tamil god Murukan (!), you 
>quickly publicized it, despite all the oddities in the piece. You again 
>used The Hindu as your outlet, rather than a scholarly forum where the 
>authenticity of the piece would be questioned -- as it was questioned, 
>sharply, on this List.
>To date, not even one high-resolution photo of that inscription has 
>been released, I suspect for quite obvious reasons. It wouldn't take 
>much to decide on the authenticity or inauthenticity of this particular 
>Why at a minimum hasn't a high-resolution photo of it been released? 
>Can you provide us with one?
>In any event, there is in fact a lot to talk about. If you want a real 
>discussion of the evidence, point-by-point, let's do it on the List in 
>front of everyone. I promise you we could do it in an orderly way and 
>quickly get to the bottom of all this.
>My best wishes,
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