Saturday, 25 April 2009

Indus script, language or not?

The Indus script, dating from around 2500 to 1900 BC, has long been thought not to be a true written language. Just mere imagery relating to religion and/or politics.

The Indus Valley Civilization (think modern Pakistan) was very formative in the development of humankind. At that period they were unprecedented in making measurements, particularly of weight and scale. This leads me to guess they were trading widely and were very shrewd in business deals. Their spoken language however, is unknown. As are any writings other than a few symbols, often just 4 or 5 (the longest has 26), grouped together.

But a new study reveals tantalising hints of a true written language. Rajesh Rao et al from the University of Washington in Seattle, compared the Indus script to known languages and non linguistic forms with a computer analysis of randomness, or as they call it, 'conditional entropy'. This relies on the fact that the positioning of letters in words, or words in phrases, has an underlying structure. ie in English the letter 't' can be followed by the vowels plus some letters like 'h' or 'r' but not 'b' or 'd'. Similarly, in a short phrase, 'the cat sat on the...' could be followed by 'mat' or 'wall' but never 'learn'. It's nonsensical ('the cat sat on the green' made me think though).

Rao's analysis also included DNA and protein sequences, the computer language FORTRAN and simulated scripts for controls; one totally random, one totally ordered.

As you may have expected FORTRAN code was very highly ordered, it's got to be unambiguous. Known languages had more disorder, whilst DNA and protein had the highest randomness.

The Indus script fell into line with other languages.

No translations yet, no Rosetta stone, just more evidence that our ancient cousins were not the illiterate barbarians many people imagine.


Daphne said...

I've had a good read of your blog today and really enjoyed it - thank you! I'll be back - - -

Andy Holroyd said...

Thanks Daphne, It's nice to know I'm doing something right.