Steve Farmer's Reply
glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Jul 13 17:58:06 UTC 2011
The following reply from Steve Farmer lays out his position in a short and lucid way. I am posting it with his permission, as I think others will be interested. I don't want this forum to become a locus of IV speculation, as there is no end to that, but I do believe it's worth summarizing some of the current thinking. Perhaps someone on the other side ("It is writing") could post a similarly clear and abridged statement of their position. George Hart
Dear George [Hart],
Just a quick follow-up on one interesting and critical issue you raise, re. rebuses:
> It also strikes me that if there were two people named "Hart," someone might put a pot over the heart to indicate that was the Hart that was also a potter as opposed to the Hart that ran an inn. This would be a partially phonetic system.
Premodern peoples punned compulsively, as we know from many different types of sources globally. And visual puns of the sort you point to also show up in every known ancient civilization, both literate and non-literate.
But the use of visual-verbal puns (rebuses) certainly is not unique to what any specialist would view as a "script" in the technical sense of the term. Writing as understood by specialists in literate systems entails a lot more than just casual phoneticism.
The usual claim about the so-called Indus script (at least before we published our 2004 paper - claims now are far more modest) was that it was a "full script," implying that it was capable in principle of encoding any speech act.
That takes a lot more than the kind of casual phoneticism you point to, which is pervasive globally in emblematic, clan, and heraldic symbol systems (even in Mongolian horse branding systems).
In Western heraldic systems, for example, this kind of punning is known as "canting arms," which often included extraordinarily complex multi-symbol puns of the sort you refer to.
For many nice examples, see < http://www.heraldica.org/topics/canting.htm > (see especially the section entitled "Complex Rebuses").
But use of rebuses aside, no one would sanely call systems of heraldic signs, which include a lot of casual phoneticism, "writing systems" or "scripts" as linguists typically use that term.
Can you write a book with heraldic signs? Or perform the ultimate test I'd contend of a "writing system" -- write a book about another book. Could you write a post using those signs about an ancient pseudo-script? :^)
Neither finding "nonrandom order" in symbols -- ALL symbol systems, linguistic and nonlinguistic, are nonrandom in order (try to come up with a counterexample!) -- nor casual phoneticism or punning or use of rebuses, is evidence of writing. Order is found in ALL symbol systems, not just literate one; and punning is common, in linguistic and non-literate systems both.
Did the Indus peoples in whatever languages (certainly multiple) that they spoke make puns? Certainly, if they were like all other ancient peoples we know (the way the brain is structured punning is in fact inevitable).
Did they have a writing system in the technical sense of that term? The evidence argues strongly against that -- starting above all with the embarrassing shortness of every one of the many thousands of Indus symbol strings that have come down to us, on over a dozen different kinds of materials.
One of the most interesting things about the Indus civilization, given its massive size, is precisely the fact that all indications point to its nonlinguistic status. This is far from unique in the premodern world -- many major urban civilizations in premodern Mesoamerica and South America also functioned without writing. And the same seems to have been true of the urban civilizations neighboring the Indus on the southeastern Iranian plains as well, and north as well.
But writing is a major enabling technology in civilization, and the apparent nonliterate status of the Indus goes a long way towards explaining a number of obvious differences between the urban remains associated with the Indus and those associated with their distant literate neighbors in the Ancient Middle East. Pace Possehl and others, major urban civilizations certainly do NOT require literacy.
Michael Witzel and I discussed some of problems the old script thesis introduced into studies of Indus civilization -- and some of the new approaches opened up in those studies by the non-script view -- in a paper presented at Harvard last October. Abstract here:
Unfortunately I'm under the gun and really can't take this any further at the moment. But I did find your comments about punning interesting.
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