Indus Valley symbols linked to language

Harappan civilisation was indeed literate, says new study

New York: The 4,000-year-old Indus Valley civilisation that thrived around what is now the Indo-Pakistan border might have been marked by a literate society that used a script that is close to present-day languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit and English, a new finding claims.

A group of Indian scientists conducted a statistical study of the symbols found in Indus Valley remains and compared them with various linguistic scripts and non-linguistic systems. They found that the inscriptions closely matched those of spoken languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit and English. It had been believed that Indus Valley’s was not a literate civilisation.

The results, published in the journal Science, show that the Indus script could be an “as-yet-unknown language.”

Rajesh Rao, the lead author of the paper ,who is with Washington University, said: “A widely publicised article in 2004 claimed that the Indus script does not represent a language at all, but just represented religious or political symbols. The claim was made that the Indus civilisation was not a literate civilisation. At this point we can say that the Indus script seems to have statistical regularities that are in line with natural languages.” Scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai and the Indus Research Centre in Chennai collaborated with Mr. Rao to develop models which helped compare the symbols with present-day languages. According to the scientists, symbols in any language follow neither a random order nor a rigid one but have some amount of flexibility in choosing the next letter or word. This flexibility, also known as conditional entropy, helps in the analysis of the structure of a language.

Mr. Rao explained: “For example, the letter ‘t’ can be followed by vowels like ‘a,’ ‘e,’ and some consonants like ‘r’ but typically not by ‘b,’, ‘d,’ etc. We measured this flexibility, or randomness, in the choice of the next symbol in a sequence using the mathematical concept of conditional entropy.”

Scientists found that randomness in symbols for Indus inscriptions closely match those of natural spoken languages. “Despite more than a hundred attempts, the script has not yet been deciphered. The underlying assumption has always been that the script encodes language,” Mr. Rao said.

“This is to our knowledge the first quantitative evidence that the Indus script likely encoded natural language rather than just religious or political symbols, suggesting the Harappans were likely a literate civilisation after all,” Mr. Rao said in an e-mail interview.

The Indus Valley civilisation, also known as the Harappan civilisation, was contemporaneous with Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. It was spread across present-day eastern Pakistan and the northwestern parts of India.

The researchers are now working on deciphering the grammar and rules governing the language. “For now we want to analyse the structure and syntax of the script and infer its grammatical rules. Someday we could leverage this information to get to a decipherment,” Mr. Rao said.

The team hopes that if the script is proven to be of a spoken language, then deciphering it would give detailed insights into the ancient civilisation. — PTI

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