Sunday, May 3, 2009

[Yasmin_discussions] Oral traditions and digital media


by coincidence this debate about whether the indus script is a writing system or
not came across my email from sharada srinavasan on the LASSI list on
art and science
in asia

maybe five thousand years from now scholars will be arguing about
whether certain
new media protocols are performative or not !! or how to perform a
new media score ?

it is an amazing fact that there are many early writing systems that
have never been
deciphered- so on top of oral traditions that are interupted we have
elaborate writing and scoring systems
that can no longer be decoded


From: sharada srinivasan <>


FYI Article by Iravatham Mahadevan on Indus script following Science
article and responses
Indus 'non-script' is a non-issue


There is solid archaeological and linguistic evidence to show that the
Indus script is a writing system encoding the language of the region
(most probably Dravidian). To deny the very existence of the script is
not the way towards further progress.

The Indus script appears to consist mostly of word-signs. Such a
script will necessarily have a lesser number of characters and
repetitions than a syllabic script.

Is the Indus Script 'writing'?

"There is zero chance that the Indus valley is literate. Zero," says
Steve Farmer, an independent scholar in Palo Alto, California. "As
they say, garbage in, garbage out," says Michael Witzel of the Harvard
University. These quotations from an online news item (New Scientist,
April 23, 2009) are representative of what passes for academic debate
in sections of the Western media over a serious research paper by
Indian scientists published recently in the USA (Science, April 24,

The Indian teams are from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,
Mumbai, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and the Indus Research
Centre of the Roja Muthiah Research Library (both at Chennai), and
backed by a team from the University of Washington at Seattle. They
have proposed in their paper, resulting from more than two years of
sustained research, that there is credible scientific evidence to show
that the Indus script is a system of writing which encodes a language
(as briefly reported in The Hindu, April 27, 2009).

This is a sober and understated conclusion presented in a refereed
article published by an important scientific journal. The provocative
comments by Farmer and Witzel will surprise only those not familiar
with the consistently aggressive style adopted by them on this
question, especially by Farmer. Their first paper, written jointly
with Richard Sproat of Oregon Health and Sciences University,
Portland, has the sensational title, "The collapse of the Indus script
thesis: the myth of a literate Harappan civilization" (Electronic
Journal of Vedic Studies 11: 2, 2004).

The "collapse of the Indus script thesis" has already drawn many
responses, including the well-argued and measured rebuttal by the
eminent Indus script expert, Asko Parpola, "Is the Indus script indeed
not a writing system?" (Airavati 2008), and a hilarious and
intentionally sarcastic rejoinder (mimicking the style of the
"collapse" paper) by Massimo Vidale ("The collapse melts down", East
and West 2007). Here is a sampling from the latter: "Should we be
surprised by this announced 'collapse'? From the first noun in the
title of their paper, Farmer, Sproat and Witzel are eager to
communicate to us that previous and current views on the Indus script
are naïve and completely wrong, and that after 130 years of illusion,
through their paper, we may finally see the truth behind the dark
curtains of a dangerous scientific myth."

I am one of the co-authors of the Science paper. But my contribution
is limited to making available to my colleagues the electronic
database file compiled by me in collaboration with the computer
scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and partly
published in my book The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables
(1977). I have no background in computational linguistics. However, I
have closely studied the Indus script for over four decades and I am
quite familiar with its structure. The following comments are based on
my personal research and may not necessarily reflect the views of the
other co-authors of the Science paper.

In a nutshell, my view is that there is solid archaeological and
linguistic evidence to show that the Indus script is a writing system
encoding the language of the region (most probably Dravidian).

Archaeological evidence


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