Indus signs discussion

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at CHELLO.NO
Thu Feb 15 08:44:41 UTC 2007

Like Dean Anderson, I am also sad that there is not going to be a more
comprehensive discussion of the matter on either of the lists. But the
discussion would under all circumstances be "asymmetric". Parpola works on
the assumption that the Indus script is a script, whereas the
Farmer-Witzel-Sproat theory (FWS) disputes that the Indus sign system is a
script at all on the basis of formal statistical criteria, as well as other
criteria. A discussion of the FWS would therefore primarily be a discussion
of the formal character of script systems with special reference to the
Indus sign system. 

I occasionally receive "background noise" from people who claim that FWS has
not received universal acceptance among people who hold competent opinions
on script systems. Unfortunately, I have not been able to make such people
offer a formal, statistically informed rebuttal of FWS. But clearly, that is
where we have to start. Engaging Parpola before a more comprehensive
discussion of script systems based on statistical theory has taken place,
does not seem meaningful to me. The upshot of this is that the problem is
not really Indological, or even philological or linguistic. As formulated by
FWS, it mostly belongs to a different sphere.

If the conclusion were that the Indus sign system really IS a script, then
the obvious question would be: is there enough information in the material
to allow us to make a meaningful interpretation? That again, is not
necessarily a philological or linguistic question. The plethora of
interpretations (the Indus script is "cracked" at least once a month,
apparently), shows that the sign system can be construed as almost any
number of languages ancient or modern, a phenomenon which is due to the
statistical properties of the material. None of these solutions work a 100%,
but some of them are good enough to convince at least the credelous. 

May I politely suggest that the matter is referred to a group of people who
have comprehensive and competent views on script systems? Such a group could
have its own list dedicated to this particular problem. Candidates for the
list - apart from Farmer, Witzel etc. - would be people working with such
scripts as cuneiform, Mayan script etc., combined with statistically
competent persons who could contribute to the study of the statistical
properties of known script systems. I suggest that relevant persons are
identified and invited to join such a discussion. 

I personally feel that the "probability mass" for the moment favours FWS. It
would be the job of a critic to reverse that situation by demolishing the
FWS ideas on the statistical properties of script systems. Although other
arguments in my opinion also would seem to favour FWS, the formal properties
of the sign system are the "pièce de résistance". 

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

From: Lars Martin Fosse 
Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114, 
0674 Oslo - Norway 
Phone: +47 22 32 12 19 Fax:  +47 850 21 250 
Mobile phone: +47 90 91 91 45 
E-mail: lmfosse at


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at] On Behalf Of 
> Dean Anderson
> Sent: Thursday, February 15, 2007 4:34 AM
> Subject: Re: Indus signs discussion
> I understand and agree with the position of Harry Falk and 
> others who are dismayed by the personal tone this discussion 
> has taken. 
> However I would respectfully disagree with those who feel 
> that discussion of the subject in this forum would not be 
> fruitful. I have already found items of value in this thread 
> pertaining to my own interests about the Harappan script. 
> As has become amply clear, some members of this community do 
> not feel comfortable in discussing this issue in the 
> Indo-Eurasian Research forum which makes this probably the 
> only other place where discussions of this caliber can be held.
> Dean Anderson

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