Language and Script

Wednesday, 09 July 2003

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The methods of verbal and written communication of the Harappan Tradition. This includes weights, scales, calendars, languages, scripts, etc.


Language, whether spoken or nonverbal, both divides and unites. Language is one of the primary means by which people express their personal and group identity. An understanding of the language(s) utilized by the Harappan Civilization and their distribution would go a long way toward distinguishing how the population perceived the world.

Several possibilities have been offered for the language of the Harappan Civilization: Sumerian, Dravidian, Indo European, Vedic Sanskrit, and unknown languages. Cambridge scholar Kinnier-Wilson feels that form of Sumerian He posits this hypothesis primarily from archaeological and historical interpretations and not on linguistic data. No evidence for a Sumerian or Akkadian sub stratum or place names.

The current consensus, among scholars not fanatics, is that the primary language represented by the Harappan script is related to modern Dravidian. Marshall was the first to suggest a linguistic link between the Harappans and Dravidians (Marshall, 1931). His theory was based on the assumption that the Indo-Aryan dialects found in modern India are invasive. This invasion was dated from other sources to after the Harappan Civilization. The dating was not reliant on archaeological remains but was rather based on the then accepted linguistic paradigm of Indo-European origins, movement, and chronology.

Dravidian is currently spoken by many indigenous groups of South India. Two isolated groups of spoken Dravidian can be found in Iranian and Pakistani Balochistan and Northeastern India. These isolated dialects seemed to support the contention that in the distant past Dravidian existed as a major if not the dominant language group.

A variety of Dravidian loan words (i.e., phalam- ripe fruit, mulcham- mouth, khala- threshing floor) in Vedic Sanskrit suggests that the two languages existed for a time in close proximity. A substratum of Dravidian may be represented in Vedic Sanscrit by the existence of retroflex consonants which do not occur in Iranian or European languages (Rahman, 2000).

David McAlpin calls Elamite a cognate of Dravidian (McAlpin David, 1975). 20% of Dravidian and Elamite vocabulary are cognate; a further 12% are probable cognates (1975). Dravidian and Elamite are similar in several ways. They posses similar second person pronouns and parallel case endings (McAlpin David, 1975). Elamite and Dravidian have identical derivatives, abstract nouns, and the same verb stem+tense marker+personal ending structure (1975). Further, both have two positive tenses a ‘past’ and a ‘non-past’ (1975).

The Indo-Aryan languages entered the subcontinent in two distinct waves. The first was Dardic around 2000 B.C.E. It entered in the northwest and stopped just over the mountains. The second form entered at approximately 1400 B.C.E. and quickly became dominant.

Some day, the question as to what language(s) was utilized in the Harappan Civilization will be answered. The most promising avenue lies in that it was literate. A script was developed which is probably syllabilic. This conclusion is based on the number of signs in the script. Far to many for alphabetic and too few for it to be Tablized script characters.logographic.

Harappan Script inscriptions range in size from isolated signs to 26 characters in length. It was utilized in many types of inscriptions, including: seals, grafitti, potters marks, etc. The script was written from right to left with a few being boustrophedon.

There is as much disagreement as to when and where the Harappan Script originated as to what language it represented. Durrani, Lal, Khan and Thapar suggest the early Kot Dijian potter’s marks as a beginning for Harappan Script (Rahman, 2000). Asko Parpola suggests a disconformity between the early graffiti and potter’s marks and the Harappan Script. Writing moved from a center around the Indus to other parts of the civilization. No writing or seals found at many sites in the pre-Harappan (Kalabangan)

Paul Rissman in studying the Harappan seals with a unicorn motif identified two stylistic groupings. In the first, the unicorns are decorated with hatching on the faces. This form is associated with Harappa and the Sarasvati River sites. The second group of unicorns have collared necks and are found in the south around Mohenjodaro. (Insert illustrations for both)

Numerous seals displaying Harappan script have been excavated in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. Seals from the Gulf have been recovered from Lothal and off Bet Dwarka Island. During the Ur III Period, a Harappan village is reported to have existed in Lagash. The inhabitants are often referred to as "new Sumerians." Those living in Mesopotamia may have served as agents of trade. Parpola and Brunswig have located several references to people with Meluhha as a part of their name.

During the Akkadian Period, Meluhha trade enclaves were located throughout the Gulf and Mesopotamia. In ca. 2370 B.C.E. during the reign of Sargon I, references to ‘holder of a Meluhha ship.’ A greenstone seal in the Louvre self reports itself as the former was the property of a translator of the Meluhhan language De Clercq and Menant, 1888. A seal dating to ca. 2250 BCE British Museum lists enemies of King Naram-Sin, among them is a 'man of Meluhha' by the name of _ibra. Trade and close political contacts between Mesopotamia and the Harappan Civilization presents the possibility that bilingual texts exist and will eventually be uncovered.

According to Fairservis, the Harappan Civilization utilized a base 8 numerical system (1975). He based this determination on the octesimal progression in both the system of weights and the numbering associated with the script. There is no signs of the use of other systems. In fact the system of weights was used in Dilmun (Bahrain) and in Oman.


At Mohenjodaro, 62% of script is from the Lower City not from the Citadel (Fairservis, 1975).

graduated scale (Tharpar, 1973).


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