The Indus Script

The Indus Script

Structural Analysis by Parpola

Token or tablet  from Harappa
No attempt at linguistic decipherment of an unknown script can hope to succeed unless it is preceded by a thorough structural analysis of the available inscriptions to bring out the typological features of the script as well as the underlying language. [Token or tablet from Harappa]

A great merit of this book is that Parpola has presented in it a very detailed structural analysis incorporating the previous work of the Finnish group and advancing further. The following is a very brief summary of his main results in a somewhat simplified form.

A) Direction of Writing

Parpola has summarized the already well-established evidence proving the general direction of the Indus script to be from right to left. External evidence for the direction of writing is provided by the shorter inscriptions starting at the right edge leaving blank space nearer the left edge, and the displacement of the left-most signs of the longer inscriptions to the second line for want of space. Internal evidence for the direction of writing is obtained by comparing single-line and two-line sequences of identical inscriptions.

Even though the question of direction of writing in the Indus script is now a settled fact, Parpola's re-statement is timely as claims of 'decipherment' based on a left to right direction still continue to be made.

B) Sign Analysis

Parpola lays down clear guidelines for the recognition of basic signs, graphic variants and composite signs. The numerals are identified as a set of short stroke signs comprising up to nine strokes arranged in one or two tiers. Groups of small inverted semi-circles which occur along with the 'stroke' numerals are very likely to be tens.

The estimate of the number of signs as about 400 (with only about half of them basic signs) leads to an important deduction regarding the typology of the Indus script. It is well known that the total number of signs is specific to each type of writing within a range. The number of signs in the Indus script is too small for a purely logo-graphic script (with word-signs only) and too large for a purely alphabetic or syllabic writing. Thus the Indus script is most likely to be logo-syllabic writing with a mixture of word-signs and syllables.

C) Word-Division

Segmentation procedures lead to the identification of probable words, phrases and longer syntactic units. Segmentation has shown that the Indus texts mostly consist of phrases of one to three signs.

D) Language Typology

The very short Indus texts are unlikely to be complete sentences. They may consist of mostly noun-phrases only. Subject to this limitation some typological features of the language can still be detected. For example, the occurrence of numerals before the enumerated objects makes it likely that in the Harappan language the adjective precedes the noun it qualifies. Parpola has devised a 'grid' in which inscriptions are so arranged as to place identical or similar signs in the same columns. On the basis of this analysis Parpola constructs a general model of Indus 'sentences' with a maximum of three main positions or 'slots' corresponding to linguistic units in the language. However he admits frankly his "present inability to identify morphological markers with any certainty"(p.97).

Parpola's structural analysis is brilliant and mostly on sound lines. I am particularly struck by the fact that despite differences in detail there is a clear convergence of results flowing from the Soviet, Finnish and Indian computer-aided structural analyses. The major points of agreement are on the logo-syllabic character of the Indus script, the syntactical pattern of the inscriptions and the Dravidian-like features of the Harappan language. A major area of disagreement concerns the identity and functions of morphological markers. I have no doubt that the areas of disagreement will progressively get eliminated as we learn more about the Indus script through objective analysis of the kind undertaken by Parpola in this book.