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The Markov Model of Indus Script - varnamvarnam
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The Markov Model of Indus Script

(From a Tantra t-shirt)

There is a school of thought which believes that the Harappan seals convey something linguistic; after all they had extensive trade contacts with literate Mesopotamia. Thus it is possible that these symbols — found on seals, pottery, terracota tablets — convey data regarding the origin of the consignment or owner. Then there is another school which believes that, yes, the seals had some meaning, but definitely not linguistic; maybe they were political or religious symbols.

As this battle continues — much like the one over the Aryan homeland — a new paper has been published, which analyzes the sequential dependencies between the symbols. In English we know that the the letter “s” is most likely to be followed by “e” or “o” or “u” than “x” or “z”. Similarly in the Harappan seals it was found that given a symbol, only a subset of the symbols could follow it. This order can happen only if there are some rules regarding the placement.

To find out if this model could predict the missing or illegible symbols in a damaged seal, a known data set was intentionally damaged. The model could predict the missing symbol with 74% accuracy. Also analysis of Harappan seals found in Mesopotamia and West Asia found that they were of a different encoding; maybe they represent different subject matter.

Our results appear to favor the hypothesis that the Indus script represents a linguistic writing system. Our Markov analysis of sign sequences, although restricted to pairwise statistics, makes it clear that the signs do not occur in a random manner within inscriptions but appear to follow certain rules: (i) some signs have a high probability of occurring at the beginning of inscriptions whereas others almost never occur at the beginning; and (ii) for any particular sign, there are signs that have a high probability of occurring after that sign and other signs that have negligible probability of occurring after the same sign. Furthermore, signs appear to fall into functional classes in terms of their position within an Indus text, where a particular sign can be replaced by another sign in its equivalence class. Such rich syntactic structure is hard to reconcile with a nonlinguistic system. Additionally, our finding that the script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia argues against the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols [A Markov model of the Indus script]

Now it turns out that Soviets and Finns had done such studies in the 60s and reached the same conclusion: there is a positional order in Indus symbols. What’s unique about this new study is that it uses the Markov model for the first time.

This paper does not decipher the script, but is work which hopefully will lead to an acceptable decipherment. The word “acceptable” is used because there are many decipherments right now, but without scholarly consensus. But what the paper suggests is that the symbols, most likely, encode a linguistic system and not religious or political symbols.

This work, like the previous one , has got extensive media coverage, with even the Time, writing about it. But anything connected to the Indus is controversial and this paper is no different: first the authors were accused of being Tamil/Dravidian nationalists and once that was found to be incorrect, it was about the deteriorating editorial standards in various journals. In response Prof. Dilip K Chakrabarti wrote, “There is a conscious attempt in certain quarters to disassociate this civilisation from the later mainstream tradition of Indian/ Vedic culture.”

Historically, the beginning of this attempt can be traced to the period around India’s Independence when Mortimer Wheeler proposed that the impetus for this civilisation came from Mesopotamia. Earlier, when India was a jewel in the British crown, there was no compulsion to depict it as an offshoot of Mesopotamian or other contemporary civilisations. The early excavators had no problem hypothesising that this civilisation was deeply rooted in the Indian soil and that many of its features could be explained with reference to the later Indian civilisation. [From Indus to India]

Besides this political side show, there is a serious question: is this method sufficient to show that the Indus seals represent a linguistic system? Can such statistical studies prove or disprove that the symbols represent a language.?  The answer depends on whom you ask.

On the other hand, if you believe that the symbols are non-linguistic, there is another question: why would the Harappans send non-linguistic symbols on seals, created on hard to work materials, with a certain syntax to their trading partners to the West and North. What was the relevance and what non-linguistic information did it convey to someone in Mesopotamia?

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