Indus signs discussion

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Wed Feb 14 17:23:38 UTC 2007

Dear Harry and All,

"High Noon" is not what we have proposed.

Instead, we have proposed a reasoned, point by point discussion of the 
main theories,  by preference involving the main contenders.          
(So far we have only got personalia. (*)  Enough of that!)

Now that Asko has refused to discuss things on our list (IER: 
<>), we will have 
to do it here
-- (*if* he still wants to do it? -- As he suddenly says today: "I 
intend to withdraw from this discussion as an active participant and to 
remain an attentive listener"). 
But we can only do so if the proponents of our (Farmer-Sproat-Witzel) 
theory, too, are allowed to post here. This is not the case so far as 
far as S. Farmer and R. Sproat are concerned,  and I do not  want to 
"channel" them here all the time, a very tedious procedure.

Also, it would be advisable that Iravatham Mahadevan, whose recent  
Newspaper summary of his views (in the Hindu) has kicked off the 
current debate, would be present, but we do not know yet whether he 
wants to participate or not.


These technicalities apart, I do not think that we will have to wait 
for more years or decades to pass, or until we are all dead, and a new 
generation will pick up the pieces again. Our theory has been out for 
more than 2 years now, and people have had time for reflection -- and 

So far we have only Asko's paper of June 2005, and a short newspaper 
article by I. Mahadevan of Jan. 2007,  both of which need discussion.  
(Plus, some rumors about oral discussions here or there).

In sum, why not take up the main points, pro and contra, in an orderly 
fashion (**), and discuss them  -- without the usual internet-style 
veering off at all tangents (as we have seen already in this thread).

Could one be clearer than this (my INDOLOGY post of February 13, 2007) :

"The idea was to discuss your paper, minus the personal remarks,
and the Farmer-Sproat-Witzel paper in the Current Anthropology format --
just focusing on the evidence.  ... ... We think this can be done in an 
orderly way online,
as we try to do on our list."  (**)

What is wrong, please, with this proposal?

Scholarship, including the humanities, progresses by critique and 
counter-critique, which allows bystanders (and proponents!) to see the 
strong and weak points of the proposed theories, --  not just by 
endless individual rumination.

In this sense, I hope we can make some progress here (once all involved 
can write on this list).



(*) Personalia:

I do not wish to continue this item ad nauseam,  however,  reference 
has been made to A. Lawler's inappropriate characterizations of  (and 
clear inventions about)  Steve Farmer in his Science article of Dec. 
2004.  -- I too speak from experience: never trust any journalist! --

This is a matter of personal honor, but Steve cannot defend himself 
here. Therefore, I  must copy what he wrote about Lawler's "journalism" 
  in our list  
<> :

" hominem remarks directed at me, drawn out of
context from a reporter's biographical fabrications about me, which
contained a number of flagrant misquotations. Parpola has since
circulated a paper on the Web that contains those same ad hominem
remarks and misquotations, which he has represented as fact -- despite
the fact that I told him forcefully in Kyoto [June 2005] that the 
remarks were not

(**) some IER rules:

Rule #4:
> the List's main goal is to encourage discussion of major unsettled
> issues in premodern studies. As a result, it is critical that all
> posts focus exclusively on ideas and evidence, and not on the persons
> proposing those ideas.

> No posts are allowed that claim anything on the
> 'authority' of past researchers or speak ex cathedra; nor will
> messages be posted that include rude comments, 'flames', or ad hominem
> remarks aimed at other posters. ...

> Questioning of standard views of history are encouraged, not
> discouraged, on the List, so long as this questioning is backed by
> plausible and ultimately verifiable evidence.

Rule #2:
Major topics of controversial nature. Topics of special importance
to the advance of premodern Eurasian studies may from time to time be
introduced to the List by core List members.  ...

The moderators will step in as needed to
ensure that these discussions keep on track and don't get diverted
(e.g., through gratuitous 'splitting' of threads) in tangental
directions. The idea is to bring these high-priority discussions to
resolution in an orderly way.

See: <>

On Feb 14, 2007, at 3:23 AM, Harry Falk wrote:

> Dear all,
> I have the feeling that discussing this topic is again getting very 
> personal and will us lead nowhere. Time will tell if the 
> no-script-theory holds good or if there is anything of value in Asko's 
> work. I for one think that his book "Deciphering the Indus Script" 
> from 1994 provides the best reading on how to look at these signs, 
> irrespective of the Dravidian model he advocates personally.
> Academic results don't arise from instant judgements; we have to keep 
> all arguments in mind, pro and contra, for years, or decades, who 
> knows.  One day there will be a result, or not.
> High-noon on Harrapa lane is not what most of us readers look for on 
> this page.
> Harry Falk
> Asko Parpola schrieb:
>> Dear Michael,
>> As I told you, I was asking you to publish a pre-print version of my 
>> NASATYA paper in the Electronic Journal of VEDIC Studies, and would 
>> still be very happy to get critical comments on that paper. I did 
>> make my INDUS paper available in the internet, not just a few days 
>> ago as you suggest in your previous message, but soon after its 
>> publication, about a year ago, at the best-known site on the INDUS 
>> Civilization: I welcome open discussion and frank 
>> criticism, which I appreciate as a fundamental way to advance 
>> knowledge. My own research has much benefited even from very negative 
>> and polemic reviews, in spite of their being painful reading, as I 
>> felt many of them justified.  This concerns especially my  early 
>> publications on the Indus script in 1969-70 written all too self-
>> assertingly and incautiously. I have tried to make amends by openly 
>> admitting my blunders (in the preface to my 1994 book and on p. 43 of 
>> my 2005 paper), abandoning views which I believe have been proven 
>> wrong, and seeking for better formulation and additional evidence 
>> where I feel I am on the right track. You seem suggest to such 
>> readers of this list who have not read my Indus paper that it 
>> contains more personal remarks than evidence.  I think the only 
>> "personal remarks" concerning Farmer, Sproat and Witzel are on page 
>> 35, and the only remark that I have made myself here is when I call 
>> Dr Sproat "a noted computer linguist" (according to the Collins 
>> English Dictionary, noted = distinguished; celebrated; famous).  I 
>> refer to Michael Witzel as "Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies 
>> at Harvard University" and in addition quote your own words reported 
>> in the "Science" journal, saying you were shocked and very skeptical 
>> when first hearing Farmer's contention in 2001.  When Andrew Lawler 
>> published his non-committal review of your paper in "Science" in 
>> December 2004, he felt the need for a page-long characterization of 
>> the main author Steve Farmer, and all I did was to summarize Lawler 
>> in 8 lines, including Farmer's own confession that "I did'nt know 
>> anything about this stuff" when he turned his attention to India in 
>> 1999.  Quoting Lawler's heading, according to which Farmer "revels in 
>> breaking academic taboos" (he quotes other cases besides the Indus) 
>> is in my opinion also relevant information.  You have no qualms in 
>> referring to Lawler's review on your homepage, where it could be even 
>> downloaded in 2005 (but no more!) -- why such a cry of "personal 
>> remarks" now when I just quote Lawler?
>> I do admit calling the title of your paper "provocative" (p. 35), but 
>> is it not? "The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a 
>> literate Harappan Civilization."   I also once call the argumentation 
>> "vociferous", but I trust this is borne out by the quotations in that 
>> context (p. 36-37).  Does this make the paper "rather polemical"?  I 
>> have twice participated in a roundtable discussion on the Indus 
>> script where Dr Farmer has been a participant, and as a result of 
>> these experiences I did not want to join the Indo-Eurasian list when 
>> it was created, nor do I feel tempted to do so now. I much prefer to 
>> receive your (and, I hope, also others') detailed comments on the 
>> INDOLOGY list, if this is acceptable to the members of this list, and 
>> if you find the time give them. I really look forward to getting some 
>> feedback also on my own -- largely INDOLOGICAL -- work on the Indus 
>> script. Subtracting the "personal remarks" mentioned above, my paper 
>> still has about ten pages of detailed critique of the 
>> Farmer-Sproat-Witzel paper (pp.34-44), while Farmer, Sproat and 
>> Witzel bundle me with several other scholars and push all of us aside 
>> in one empty phrase, speaking of "the failure of the Dravidian model 
>> to generate verifiable linguistic readings of a single Indus sign" 
>> (p. 21 -- see my comments on page 43-44).
>> With best regards, Asko
>> Asko Parpola
>> Institute for Asian and African Studies
>> POB 59 (Unioninkatu 38 B)
>> FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland
>> Quoting Michael Witzel <witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU>:
>>> Dear Asko,
>>> Thank you very  much for the Indus-related messages.  Sorry for the 
>>> delay: I'm busy with the new semester, besides deadlines. You said, 
>>> among other items:
>>>> I regret that I did not notify Michael when deciding not send my 
>>>> paper
>>>> to the EJVS, that I missed the chance of getting a "CA"-like 
>>>> [Current Anthropology] treatment (he undoubtedly offered this, but 
>>>> I somehow missed it during our conversation, which took place in 
>>>> the rush of workshop dispersal)
>>> Actually, I have suggested the Current Anthropology format at least 
>>> twice, via email. The idea was to discuss your paper, minus the 
>>> personal remarks, and the Farmer-Sproat-Witzel paper in the Current 
>>> Anthropology format -- just focusing on the evidence.
>>> We think that a consensus could be reached quickly using this kind 
>>> of format, since we think your paper does not really cover our best 
>>> arguments adequately. As mentioned, you were to get the final word.
>>> We like this point-by-point discussion, with immediate feedback, 
>>> since this issue really needs to be resolved, due to its general 
>>> importance in Indian history. We think this can be done in an 
>>> orderly way online, as we try to do on our list. Are you willing to 
>>> do it?
>>> All of us, maybe also Iravatham Mahadevan, will of course have a 
>>> chance finally to discuss these issues with a very large group of 
>>> linguists at the upcoming  Stanford conference on July 11th:
>>> <>
>>> But it would even be better, I think, if we could have a broad 
>>> public discussion that includes Indologists and others, due to  the 
>>> importance of the issue.
>>> Do you accept this proposal?
>>> Best,
>>> Michael
>>> C/C Indo-Eurasian-Reearch  @ Yahoo
>>> Michael Witzel
>>> Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University
>>> 1 Bow Street , 3rd floor, Cambridge MA 02138
>>> 1-617-495 3295           Fax: 496 8571
>>> direct line:       496 2990
>>> <>
>>> <>
>>> <>
>>> <>
Michael Witzel
Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University
1 Bow Street , 3rd floor, Cambridge MA 02138
1-617-495 3295           Fax: 496 8571
direct line:       496 2990

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