Running head: THE INDUS SCRIPT
The Language and Writing of the Ancient Indus
Caren della Cioppa
University of Alaska
The Language and Writing of the Ancient Indus
A Brief History of Writing Systems
One of the greatest human
achievements is the creation and development of writing systems. Prior to the advent of writing, all useful
information had to be memorized. History
and the knowledge of a civilization were passed on from generation to generation
through stories and speaking between individuals. Most early civilizations have legends of how
their writing came to be. Most suggest
that writing was brought as a gift from the gods in some fashion. Although the legends are fascinating, it is
very apparent that human language existed long before even a single word was
written down. The invention of writing
systems comes much later than the beginnings of language. The earliest writing likely developed
gradually with its beginnings as early as twenty thousand years ago in the form
of early cave drawings, called petroglyphs.
Later drawings clearly became pictograms, or picture writings that were
a direct image of the object represented.
Such early forms of writing were relatively unrelated to the language
spoken because they simply represented physical objects rather than the sounds
used linguistically to identify the objects.
Later the meanings of many pictograms were extended to represent
concepts related to objects such as a picture of the sun to represent heat, or
daytime, etc. Such pictures are called
ideograms since they represent an idea rather than an object alone. Later as the pictures progressed, they became
simplified and stylized to the point where they would only be understood by
those educated in the system. As the
evolution of writing progressed, the pictograms and ideograms became symbols
that represented the linguistic sounds that represented the ideas, and objects
and the words of the language. (Fromkin & Rodman, 1998)
The oldest known writing system is
that of the Sumerians, an ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia
from over six thousand years ago. Their
pictograms progressed to ideograms and later to a simplified set of symbols
produced by a wedge shaped stylus pressed into clay tablets. This form of writing is called cuneiform
writing from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge-shaped. The cuneiform writing system spread
throughout the Middle East and Asia Minor,
and was borrowed by the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Persians. At around 4000 B.C. the Egyptians were also
using a pictographic writing system called hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians living in what is now Lebanon,
aware of both the Egyptian and Sumerian writing developed the West Semitic
Syllabary by 1500 BC. composed
of only consonants. The ancient Greeks,
using some of the characters to represent vowels, were able to apply it to
their language, consequently starting the first known alphabetic writing system
of 26 characters. The Chinese writing
system is a word writing system where each character itself represents an
entire word or idea. The Chinese system
has a thirty-five hundred year uninterrupted history. (Fromkin
& Rodman, 1998)
The Indus Writing System
Valley civilization was the first
major urban culture of Southern Asia dating from around
2600 to 1900 B.C. This civilization
flourished along the broad fertile floodplains of the Indus
and Ghaggar-Hakra Rivers in what is now Pakistan. Geographically the Indus Civilization was
comprised of about 1000 settlements of varying sizes, and includes almost all
of present-day Pakistan, parts of India as far east as Delhi and south as
Bombay, as well as parts of Afghanistan.
Most of what is known about the writing system of the Indus
civilization is found on about 4000 inscribed soapstone seals that were used to
make impressions on malleable material such as clay. Most seals have holes in them possibly
indicating that they might have been strung to be worn around the neck. Inscriptions with both writing and pictures
have been found on small copper tablets as well as many fragments of
pottery. This writing system is quite
different from that of the Sumerian script of relatively nearby Mesopotamia. In addition to writing symbols, many pictures
of animals are depicted on the seals.
Such animals as the elephant, water buffalo, rhinoceros, tiger,
crocodile, antelope, bull, goat, and even the unicorn are depicted on the
seals. Another common theme is a figure
seated in the yogic cross-legged position wearing a buffalo-horned headdress.
The figure, which is surrounded by many animals, leads some archaeologists to
suggest that it may represent an early form of the Hindu deity, Shiva, Lord of
the Beasts. (Price & Feinman, 2001)
The Language History of the Indus
In India there are 18 languages
officially recognized by the constitution, and these fall into two major
groups: Indic, or indo-Aryan, and Dravidian. Additionally, there are over 1600
minor languages, and dialects. The official language of Pakistan is Urdu, but comparatively few people use it as their
first language. Punjabi is probably the most widely spoken language, and
Sindhi, Pashto, Saraiki and Baluchi are also spoken by many people. Brahui, another Dravidian language is also spoken in Pakistan mainly in the Kalat and
Hairpur regions. The total number of Brahui speakers is estimated to be
approximately 2,000,000 people. All Brahuis are bilingual and most of them also
speak Baluchi. In addition,
English is extensively used by educated people in both India and Pakistan today. (Services International, 2001)
The Dravidian languages consist of a family of
about 23 languages that appear to be unrelated to any other languages. These languages are now spoken by over 200
million people in South and Central India as well as in Northern
Sri Lanka and parts of Pakistan. Research indicates that the Dravidian
languages probably evolved from a language spoken in India
prior to the invasion of the Aryans around 1500 B.C. Dravidian languages have some distinct
characteristics such as the formation of a large number of sounds in the front
of the mouth. The verbs have both a
negative and affirmative voice, and gender classification is made on the basis
of rank rather than sex, with one class including beings of a higher status and
the other beings of a lower status that includes inanimate objects and
sometimes women. Another distinctive
feature is that there is a great use of suffixes but not prefixes with the
nouns and verbs. Dravidian languages
have their own alphabets that can be traced back to a common source related to
the Devanagari alphabet used for Sanskrit.
Brahui, however, uses the Arabic script. (Encyclopedia.com, 2001)
The Aryans were part of a great
migratory movement that spread in successive waves from Southern
Russia and Turkistan around 2000 B.C. Their warrior bands invaded many urban
centers throughout Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Most of the languages spoken in northern India
are of the Indo-Aryan language family.
The general script of the Aryan languages is different from that of
Dravidian languages as well. The modern
Aryan languages are considered to have evolved from Sanskrit, the classical sacred and literary language of the Hindus of India. Sanskrit is a complex
language that is highly inflected and is subject to certain alternations of
vowels and context-influenced modifications of sounds. It has three genders
(masculine, feminine, and neuter) and three numbers (singular, dual, and
plural). In addition to ancient Sanskrit, the Indo-Aryan language family
includes the medieval languages called Prakrits; and modern languages such as
Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, and other languages of India, Nepali, and
Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The Dardic
languages, which include Kashmiri and Romani (Gypsy), are considered to
be an Indo-Aryan subgroup or a third Indo-Iranian branch. (Encyclopedia.com,
The Indus Script and Language
samples and seals of Indus writing have been studied by various scholars for over 70
years, but still there has been little progress in deciphering this interesting
and elegant script. There are several
significant causes for this difficulty.
Unfortunately, most of the samples of Indus script are very short
texts. The average number of symbols on
the seals is only 5, and the longest example contains only 26. The language actually used by the Indus people is still unknown,
although several theories abound. To
this date there have been no bilingual texts discovered to assist in solving
the language mystery.
Among the experts there are several theories about the
language the Indus Script represents:
1. The language is completely
unrelated to any other.
2. The language is Indo-Aryan
and therefore Indo-European.
3. The language belongs to the
Munda family of languages spoken largely in eastern India, and related to some
Southeast Asian languages.
4. The language is Dravidian.
Among the four basic hypotheses, only two of the alternatives
have wider support. These are that the Indus people spoke either an
Indo-Aryan language related to Sanskrit, or Dravidian. Asko Parpola, the Finnish world expert on the
Indus script, has devoted 30
years to the study and decipherment of the Indus script. Asko Parpola puts forth significant arguments
in favor of the Indus language being Dravidian rather than Sanskrit. His main argument is that he feels it is
difficult to reconcile chronologically with the dates of the Indus civilization. The Indus civilization was at its
peak at about the second half of the third millennium B.C. but the Aryans who
are responsible for the creation of Sanskrit didn't enter the Indus area until the second
millennium B.C. Another interesting
observation by Parpola was that, although the Aryans were nomads who were known
to rely heavily on the use of horses, no horses appear in any of the animal
representations in the art of the Indus civilization. Also, the Aryan-speaking nomads, although
they had superior military force because of their horse drawn chariots, were
far less in number than the estimated Indus population of five
million. It would be highly unlikely
that such a huge population would have been all killed off by the Aryans. Parpola suggests that through time the original
Indus people simply assimilated
the Aryan language, but that the original Indus language was likely closely
related to the North Dravidian languages represented today by the Brahui
language of Baluchistan and Afghanistan, and the Kurukh spoken in Northern India from Nepal and Madhya Pradesh to
Orissa, Bengal and Assam. (Parpola, 2001)
Iravatham Mahadevan, India's Indus script pioneer has also
devoted 30 years of his life to the study of the Indus script. He was initially interested in collecting
ancient coins but became interested in writing in order to read the legends on
the old coins. He is known for his
decipherments of the Tamil Brahmi script, which is the earliest deciphered
script from the Tamil, caves in Southern India. Because of his breakthrough discoveries
regarding the Tamil script, he was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship and
was asked to work on the Indus script problem, in 1970.
Mahadevan concurs with Parpola that the language of the Indus Valley was probably of Dravidian
origin because most world scholars now believe that the Aryan immigrations came
later than the time of the Indus Civilization.
This would of course rule out Aryan influence on the early language of
the Indus people. He also believes that since Brahui, which is
a Dravidian language, is still spoken in the area, chances are good that the
ancestors of the Brahuis were also living there at the time of the Indus civilization. He states that evidence from excavations in Pakistan and elsewhere indicates
that the Indus culture has been there from
the 8th millennia B.C. The
age of the culture makes it likely that it developed there rather than was
brought in by immigration and invasion.
Although Mahadevan strongly feels that the Indus language was of Dravidian
origin, he is careful to state that it is still only a theory. (Mahadevan,
There are some other scholars, like Prof. Kinnier-Wilson of Cambridge, who even believe that the Indus language may have been a
form of Sumerian. But there is little
evidence to substantiate this theory because there is no similarity between the
Sumerian language and the modern Pakistani and north Indian languages.
Due to the fact that to this date there have been no long
narratives of Indus script discovered, and there still are no bilingual
inscriptions, the language of the Indus people will continue to
remain a mystery. The hope of the
dedicated scholars who have devoted their lives to the Indus script, is that
one day along the Makran coast or somewhere in the Middle East, there will be
discovered a clay tablet or a seal that is inscribed in two languages, thus
offering a translation into some known language. It is the hope that one day there will be
found an Indus equivalent of the Rosetta Stone. On the Rosetta
Stone the text appears in form of hieroglyphs (script
of the official and religious texts), of Demotic (everyday Egyptian script),
and in Greek. This representation of a single text of the three scripts enabled
decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. (Figure 1)(Schade
& Wäsch, 1996)
Figure 1: The Rosetta Stone (Schade & Wäsch, 1996)
The Inscriptions and
Attempts at Decipherment
With no definite knowledge of the underlying language, and no
samples of translations of the Indus writing into another known language, researchers have little
to go on in their quest to decipher the script.
There is no known way to determine the pronunciations of words that
might be represented by the script.
However, comparisons with pictographic scripts from other languages can
often offer some clues to the possible meanings of some of the characters. Table 1 shows examples of pictographic
scripts from several other ancient cultures, and obvious similarities can be
noted. ( Parpola, 2001)
Table 1: The Indus Script and
other writing systems (Parpola, 2001)
is probably reasonable to predict that pictographs that resemble certain things
in one language system may well represent the same thing in another writing
system, such as the characters representing a mountain in these various writing
systems. However, pronunciations of the
words represented can't be determined by the meaning alone, without knowledge
of the language represented. (Parpola, 2001)
comparison with other pictographic systems, very important clues are given by
archeological findings from the Indus
civilization. Artifacts such as art,
tools, weapons, and architecture,
painted pottery, and the carvings on the seals and amulets are particularly
significant. These are direct evidence
of how the Indus people represented certain objects.
because of the demand for fluency in writing, the meanings in a pictographic
system are not always immediately recognizable.
The original pictures become simplified and are eventually reduced to
only the essentials of the original picture, such as in the case of the
Sumerian cuneiform writing that was eventually reduced to a series of lines and
wedges. To interpret such a system,
there need to be samples of the different successive forms as the writing
became simplified. Documentation of this progression is not available with the Indus writing. (Parpola, 2001)
of the samples of written text available of Indus writing are in the form of carved seal
stones for stamping in soft clay.
Analyses of the articles that bear the stamps offer the best clues of
the intended meanings of the seals. Since many of the tags have impressions of
woven cloth and matting, it is believed that they were once attached to bales
of goods. This indicates that they were
probably involved in economic transactions.
Some examples of Indus seals found in Western Asian sites indicate
that trade existed between the Indus civilization and that of Mesopotamia. The
Mesopotamian seals are readable so it is reasonable to assume that the Indus seals are analogous to the Mesopotamian ones
of the same period. (Parpola, 2001)
classical Indian civilization, proper names of individuals often mention
divinities, so it is reasonable to assume that such a practice might have also
occurred in the early Indus civilization. Since many of the Indus signs appear to be in the pictorial form of
a fish, it is thought that the fish sign may have
actually had an intended meaning of a god.
This interpretation was made because
in most Dravidian languages the word for 'fish' is 'meen'. However, a homonym 'meen' which also means
'star' also exists in the Dravidian languages. There is speculation that the
fish sign may have actually been a symbol for the star as well as for the
fish. In the cuneiform writing, the
pictogram for 'star' is a prefix to every divine name to indicate
divinity. The Mesopotamians associated
their divinities with specific heavenly bodies and stars. In India, the planets have been worshipped as minor
divinities for at least two thousand years, with each one associated with one
of the gods of Hinduism. So, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Indus people also associated their gods with the
stars. Further support for the
interpretation of the fish sign to be linked to the star, is the obvious
practice of astronomy by the Indus civilization. It has been found that the very straight
streets throughout the Indus cities are always oriented towards the
cardinal directions. This is an
indication that the Indus people had an understanding of
astronomy. There was also a star
calendar used during the peak of the Indus
civilization during the 23rd century B.C., which was later, adopted
by the Aryans in India. Indus scholars speculate that the fish symbol
rather than a star symbol was used to represent the concept of god because in
the early Harappan religion, the fish had a central position. The fish seems to appear in most of the early
painted pottery. It is felt that the
fish may be a symbol for the God of Waters.
The fish symbol seems to have a divine place in most of the early
civilizations of the Indus era, including the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
In addition to the
fish symbol, another frequent symbol of the Indus script
is interpreted to represent the large Indian fig tree.Parpola points out that one of the Sanskrit names for this
tree is vata, which is of Dravidian origin from the word vatam meaning cord or
rope. Earlier explanations that link the
symbol with the Indo-Aryan seem to conflict with the fact that the Aryans
nomads didn't bring this tree with them, but in fact encountered it there when
they arrived. It is also found that in
Dravidian, the word vata also has the meaning north. Therefore there is
speculation that the symbol of the fig tree next to the symbol of the fishmight
represent the word vata-meen, which is the Old Tamil name for the North Star. In this fashion, the various symbols of the Indus script
are studied and analyzed in attempts to determine a true meaning for each. (Parpola, 2001)
At this time,
there is still no accepted Indus Dictionary, but Tables 2 and 3 show some
examples of the Speculations on the various signs by both Parpola and
Mahadevan. (Khan, 2001)
The word meen designates
both fish and star in most Dravidian languages. Suggests the heavenly bodies
were conceived of as fish swimming in the ocean of heaven, representing gods.
space + fish
vel (i) + meen
Vel-meen and Velli both
mean Venus in Tamil.
3 + fish
mum (m) + meen
The new year asterism
Pleiades has this name in Tamil; in myth the wives of the Seven Sages.
6 + fish
(*c) aru + meen
In Tamil, the name of Ursa
Major, the 'Seven Sages' in India.
elu + meen
In Tamil, the name of
Ursa Major, the 'Seven Sages' in India.
dot/drop + fish
pottu + meen
1. carp fish
(= rohita 'red' in Sanskrit)
2. star or red dot/blood drop (= rohini 'red' in Sanskrit)
The red dot painted on
the forehead at marriage = the 'third' eye of the Heavenly Bull < alpha
Tauri = the ancient star of the new year (marriage of Sun + the heavenly
bride rohini, 'menstruating'), represented by the red fish (scales as
halving + fish
pacu + meen
in Tamil, paccai
refers to greeness and the planet Mercury, which represents the green-hued
child god Krishna.
roof + fish
mey/may + meen
Saturn's name in
Tamil. Saturn rides a turtle, a 'fish' with a 'roof'.
fig tree + fish
vata + meen
Vata-min is the star 'Alcor,'
orig. probably Thuban. 'Banyan fig' is the tree of 'ropes' (vata): starts
do not fall because they are fixed to the North Star (in Dravidian also
'fig/rope star) by means of visible ropes.
fig tree + intermediate
vata + vel(i)
In Tamil, velli
means both (1) 'the planet Venus) and (2) 'star (=meen)
4 + fig tree
nal + vata
Banyan as '(the tree)
possessed of hanging ropes': nal/nal/al 'to hang down' seems to be the
etymology for al (a-maram) ' banyan tree'. Indus tablets with '4 +
fig' have a solitary fig leaf on the reverse.
The sign occurs in
priestly titles paralleling Mesopotamian titles 'Man/Servant (of the god X)';
the most common Dravidian word for man also means servant.
boy, youth, Muruku (the youthful god of
love and war)
The sign signifies
'royal ear-rings' in [Tibetan] Lamaism. The sign recurs, sometimes alone, on Indus stone bangles; Indus tree-gods wear bangles;
in later folk religion, bangles are offered to sacred trees with prayers for
off spring (cf. muruku ' boy').
(head of) cow
The interpretation of this
important sign remains open; this is just a suggestion that needs testing.
Table 2: An Indus
Dictionary - Parpola (Parpola, 1994)
The most frequent and
almost always terminal sign of the Indus script is read as a
jar and connected to the legend of 'jar-born' sages and the symbolism of the
jar connected to priestly ritual in Indian tradition.
Also a terminal sign,
pr suffix associated with names or titles on seals like the 'jar' sign above.
Servant, attendant or lower functionary
frequently shown with ' jar' (lower order of priestly functionary?) but never
with ' lance' sign.
Officer or functionary
Also appears to be a
suffixed element, interpreted as officer because of later Indian traditions
referring to senior officers of the king referred to as 'yoke bearers.'
Jar + Bearer
Officer or functionary with priestly
Clearly combination of
two signs, could be related to later Indian
traditions combining the two motifs.
Lance + Bearer
Officer or functionary with military
Also combination, perhaps
designating officer with military duties.
Farmer, tiller, tenant
characteristically a terminal sign, sometimes in conjunction with ' jar,' '
lance,' or ' bearer' signs, suggesting combination of categories or serving
Table 3: An Indus
Dictionary - Mahadevan (Mahadevan, 1982)
Hopes for the Future
"Since 1986, the joint Pakistani American Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP) has been carrying
out the first major excavations at the site in forty years. These excavations
have the shown Harappa to have
been far larger than once thought, perhaps supporting a population of 50,000 at
certain periods. These excavations, which continue in 1998, are rewriting
assumptions about the Indus Valley.
New facts, objects and examples of writing are being discovered each
Figure 7 shows the important trade routes and areas of
natural resources of the Indus civilization. Figures 2,3,4,5,& 6 are examples of some of the artifacts found
in these recent excavations. Continued
excavations and further research by dedicated scholars such as Parpola and
Mahadevan may someday unlock the fascinating mysteries of the People of the
Indus Civilization, what language they spoke, and why they disappeared. Perhaps lying buried in the sands of the Indus
Valley lies an Indus
"Rosetta Stone" waiting to reveal its secrets to the world.
Figure 2: A steatite unicorn seal from Harappa with Indus script
seal dates to around 2450-2200 BC. When pressed into clay the impression will
be reversed. Since the Indus script may have been read from right to left, the last two
signs visible at the top right hand edge of the seal might in fact be the last
two signs of the inscription." (Kenoyer & Meadow,
Figure 3 Three clay sealings
"Three sealings from
the Harappa Phase levels (2600-1900 BC) that may have come from large bundles
of goods shipped to the site from a distant region. The clay does not
appear to be the same type of clay as found near Harappa and each sealing has the
impression of two different seals." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)
4: Molded tablets
"Molded tablets sometimes have
impressions on one, two, three or four sides. This group of molded tablets
shows the complete set of motifs. One side is comprised entirely of script and
has six characters, the first of which (on the very top) appears to be some
sort of animal. A second side shows a human figure grappling with a short
horned bull. A small plant with at least six branches is discernible behind the
individual. The third panel portrays a figure seated on a charpoy or throne in
a yogic position, with arms resting on the knees. Both arms are covered with
bangles, and traces of a horned headdress and long hair are visible on some of
the impressions. A second individual, also with long hair and wearing bangles,
is seated on a short stool to the proper left of the individual on the
"throne." The fourth panel shows a deity standing with both feet on
the ground and wearing a horned headdress. A branch with three pipal leaves projects from the center of the headdress.
Bangles are seen on both arms."
(Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)
5: Long rectangular seal with no animal motif
"This type of seal is only
found in the last part of the Harappan Phase." (Kenoyer & Meadow,
6: Impression of an
Indus-style cylinder seal of unknown Near Eastern origin
"One of the two
anthropomorphic figures carved on this seal wears the horns of water buffalo
while sitting on a throne with hoofed legs, surrounded by snakes, fishes and
water buffaloes. Copyrighted photo by M. Chuzeville for the
Departement des antiquites orientales, Musee du Louvre." (Parpola,
Figure 7: Raw
Materials and Trade Networks
"This map shows raw material
distributions in the Indus Valley
and adjacent regions. The extensive trade networks of the
Harappan Period (2600-1900 BC) linked distant resource areas to the major
cities in the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys.
Goods were shipped by boat along the rivers or by oxcart overland. The use of
seals and sealings appears to have been integral to
the development of trade networks. Seal impressions probably identified the
owner(s) of goods, and perhaps the contents of the terra cotta vessels they
were shipped in. Impressed clay was also used to seal rope or cloth that bound
bales of goods." (Kenoyer & Meadow, 1998)
(2001). Encyclopedia.com - Results for Aryan. Retrieved June
14, 2001 from
the World Wide Web: http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/39184.html
Encyclopedia.com (2001). Encyclopedia.com - results for
Dravidian languages. Retrieved June 14, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
Encyclopedia.com (2001). Encyclopedia.com
- Results for Sanskrit. Retrieved June 16, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
Fromkin, V., Rodman, R. (1998). Writing: the ABCs of language. In Michael Rosenberg
(Ed.), An introduction to language (6th
ed., pp. 491-512). Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Kenoyer, J., Meadow, R. (1998). Around the Indus in 90 Slides 2 The
Latest Discoveries 1995-1998. Retrieved June 20, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
Khan, O. (2001). Ancient Indus Valley Script Contents.
Retrieved June 13, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
I. (1982). Terminal
ideograms in the Indus script. In Possehl, G. (Ed.), Harappan Civilization: a
contemporary perspective (p. 316). Oxford: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co.,.
I. (1998). Iravatham Mahadevan.
Retrieved June 14, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
A. (1994). Deciphering the Indus script.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A. (1998). Asko Parpola . Retrieved June
15, 2001 from
the World Wide Web: http://www.harappa.com/script/parpola0.html
T. D., Feinman, G. M. (2001). Chapter 10 - Old world states and empires. In
Beaty, J. (Ed.), Images of the past (3rd ed., pp. 419-429). Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Schade, U., Wäsch, R. (1996). Rosetta Stone. Retrieved June 20, 2001 from the World Wide Web:
Services International (2001). Language,
Indian Language. Retrieved June 20, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.indiatourinfo.com/language.htm