The Indus script as proto-writing

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Jul 14 18:03:07 UTC 2011

In reading over the interchange between Steve and Asko, I can't help wondering: if the IV civilization was in contact with other civilizations in the Near East, as it apparently was, why didn't they borrow writing from them if they had none of their own?  It seems to me -- and I admit to being naive on this point -- that writing systems spread quite readily and inevitably.  Thus Brahmi in South Asia, Phoenician in the Middle East and Europe, Chinese in East Asia, etc.  Wouldn't the IV civ. have borrowed cuneiform writing if they had none of their own?  It's hard for me to imagine that their traders came into contact with something so useful as a developed writing system and didn't either imitate it or borrow it.  George Hart

On Jul 14, 2011, at 9:35 AM, Steve Farmer wrote:

> The URL I give to our 2004 paper in the section below was incomplete. The correct address to download it:
> On Jul 14, 2011, at 9:16 AM, Steve Farmer wrote:
>> However, the "proto-writing" idea Asko has in recent years adopted as a fall-back position doesn't work either, for quite obvious reasons we already discussed in our 2004 paper. (Over 200,000 reprints of that paper have been downloaded from my server alone since it was first published, but sometimes I wonder if anyone has actually read it through, given some of the odd comments made about it.)
>> On page 33 of that study, after discussing evidence of a lack of significant phoneticism in Indus symbol strings known from stratigraphic evidence to be exclusively very late (on bar inscriptions without iconography) we comment that this evidence
>>> suggests that the Indus system was not even
>>> evolving in linguistic directions after at least 600 years of use. Since we  know that Indus elites
>>> were in trade contact throughout those centuries with Mesopotamia, if the Harappans really had a
>>> script, by this time we would expect it to have possessed significant phoneticism, as always
>>> assumed. (The usual claim is that the system was a ‘mixed’ script made up of sound signs, whole-
>>> word signs, and function signs, like the Luwian system, cuneiform, or Egyptian hieroglyphs.)
>>> The implication is that the Indus system cannot even be comfortably labeled as a ‘proto-script’,
>>> but apparently belonged to a different class of symbols: it is hardly plausible to argue that a proto-
>>> script remained in a suspended state of development for six centuries or more while its users were
>>> in regular contact with a high-literate civilization.
> Steve Farmer

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