The Indus script as proto-writing

Asko Parpola asko.parpola at HELSINKI.FI
Thu Jul 14 14:50:25 UTC 2011

Quoting "George Hart" <glhart at BERKELEY.EDU>:

> 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

I take up George Hart's challenge with the following reply:

The Indus script as proto-writing

Asko Parpola

It is widely agreed that the Archaic Sumerian script or  
"Proto-Cuneiform" is the world's oldest writing system, used in the  
Late Uruk Period (Uruk strata IV and III, c. 3400-3000 BCE).  It was  
used as an administrative tool to record on clay tablets such matters  
as grain distribution, land, animal and personnel management, and the  
processing of fruits and cereals. "The script can be 'understood' in  
some sense, but it cannot be fully read; although there has been some  
doubt concerning the language that was the basis for this written  
expression, there is clear evidence that it was Sumerian" (Michalowski  
1996: 33).  Archaic Sumerian was logosyllabic writing because its  
signs stood for elements of a spoken language, words and morphemes,  
with initially rare phonetization. It was not from the beginning able  
to record everything: it took many centuries of ever increasing  
phonetization for this "nuclear writing" to develop into a "full  
writing" where all grammatical elements were written. Yet it is  
considered "true writing", because it was a language-based system of  
visual aigns.
	The Egyptian Hieroglyphic writing was certainly used in Pre-Dynastic  
times. The royal tomb U-j at Umm el-Qa'ab near Abydos in Upper Egypt,  
dated to c 3200 BCE, contained 150 inscribed bone tags originally  
attached to grave goods recording the places of origin of these goods,  
as well as pottery inscriptions and sealings. These were excavated in  
1988 and published ten years later (Dreyer 1998). This earliest form  
of Egyptian script was already a well-formed logophonic writing  
system, which can be partially understood on the basis of later  
Egyptian writing. "By the early 1st Dynasty, almost all the  
uniconsonantal signs are attested, as well as the use of classifiers  
or determinatives, so that the writing system was in essence fully  
formed even though a very limited range of material was written."  
(Baines 1999: 882). "Many inscribed artifacts are preserved from the  
first two Dynasties, the most numerous categories being cylinder seals  
and sealings, cursive annotations on pottery, and tags originally  
attached to tomb equipment, especially of the 1st Dynasty kings.  
Continuous language was still not recorded" (Baines 1999: 883). Thus  
until the beginning of the Old Kingdom starting with the 3rd Dynasty  
in 2686 BCE — for about 600 years equalling the duration of the Indus  
Civilization — the Egyptians used a language-based, phoneticized  
writing system, but did not write full sentences, only very short  
texts fully comparable to the surviving texts in the Indus script.  
Early administrative documents are assumed to have existed but have  
not survived (cf. Baines 1999: 884).
	When defining the Indus script as logosyllabic, I noted several  
constraints to be observed in its analysis: "the linguistic elements  
that are expected to correspond to the signs are morphemes rather than  
phonemes. Secondly, all of the morphemes pronounced in the spoken  
Indus language may not, and are not even likely to, have a counterpart  
in its written form. In the third place, all preserved Indus  
inscriptions are very short, appearing on objects like seals, which  
are not so likely to contain even normal sentences, with such basic  
constituents as a verbal predicate or an object, let alone complex  
sentences." (Parpola 1994: 89).  This was before Damerow (1999)  
suggested the term 'proto-writing' for the earliest, linguistically  
incomplete notations (cf. Houston ed. 2004: 11); on these earliest  
writing systems see especially Houston ed. 2004.
	In my opinion Farmer, Sproat and Witzel (2004: 19 and 33) err when  
they suggest that "the Indus system cannot be categorized as 'script'  
... capable of systematically encoding speech", and that it "cannot  
even be comfortably labeled as a 'proto-script', but apparently  
belonged to a different class of symbols."  Their principal arguments,  
the shortness of Indus texts, their restriction to only a few text  
types, and the long duration (c 600 years) of this stage of script  
evolution, are effectively annulled by what is said above about the  
early Sumerian and Egyptian scripts. For their other arguments I refer  
to an earlier paper of mine (Parpola 2008).
	George Hart wrote yesterday (13 July 2011): "None of this proves or  
disproves that the fish symbol might have been pronounced [in  
Dravidian]  mīṉ. Steve Farmer wrote in reply (13 July 2011): Probably  
one of the silliest claims ever made about the symbols, with no  
evidence whatsoever to back it. My reply: there is actually a lot of  
evidence to back it (see Parpola 1994: 179-272; and new evidence in  
Parpola 2009). Due to a complete lack of bilinguals, it is very  
difficult to verify sign interpretations, but not altogether  
impossible. Perhaps the most important test stone is supplied by the  
nominal compounds actually existing in languages that are historically  
likely to be related to the Harappan language: these can be compared  
to Harappan sign sequences that can be pictorially interpreted and  
perhaps deciphered with the help of linguistically acceptable  
homophonies (used in all early scripts for phonetication: the rebus  
puns). The accumulation of iconically acceptable, systematic and  
interconnected interpretations can eliminate chance coincidences in a  
process comparable to filling cross-word puzzles.


Baines, John, 1999. Writing: invention and early development. Pp.  
882-885 in: Kathryn A. Bard (ed.), Encyclopedia of the archaeology of  
ancient Egypt. London and New York: Routledge.

Dreyer, Günter, 1998. Umm el-Qaab I: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j  
und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse. (Archäologische Veröffentlichungen  
86.) Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern.

Farmer, Steve, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzel, 2004. The collapse  
of the Indus-scrpt thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan  
civilization: Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 11 (2): 19-57.

Houston, Stephen (ed.), 2004. The first writing: Script invention as  
history and process. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michalowski, Piotr, 1996. Mesopotamian cuneiform: Origins. Pp. 33-36  
in: Peter T. Danies & William Bright (eds.), The world's writing  
systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parpola, Asko, 1994. Deciphering the Indus script. Cambridge:  
Cambridge University Press.

Parpola, Asko, 2008. Is the Indus script indeed not a writing system?  
Pp. 111-131 in: Airavati: Felicitation volume in honour of Iravatham  
Mahadevan, Chennai: Downloadable from

Parpola, Asko, 2009. 'Hind leg' + 'fish': Towards further  
understanding of the Indus script. Scripta 1: 37-76. (Downloadable at

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