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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Indus Script: A Study of its Sign Design

Nisha Yadav and M. N. Vahia

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

Large unicorn seal
The Sindhu Unicorn
The Abstract:
The Indus script is an undeciphered script of the ancient world. In spite of
numerous attempts over several decades, the script has defied universally
acceptable decipherment. In a recent series of papers (Yadav et al. 2010; Rao et
al. 2009a, b; Yadav et al. 2008a, b) we have analysed the sequences of Indus
signs which demonstrate presence of a rich syntax and logic in its structure. Here
we focus on the structural design of individual signs of the Indus script. Our study
is based on the sign list given in the concordance of Mahadevan (1977) which
consists of 417 distinct signs. We analyse the structure of all signs in the sign list
of Indus script and visually identify three types of design elements of Indus signs
namely basic signs, provisional basic signs and modifiers. These elements combine
in a variety of ways to generate the entire set of Indus signs. By comparing the
environment of compound signs with all possible sequences of constituent basic
signs, we show that sign compounding (ligaturing) and sign modification seem to
change the meaning or add value to basic signs rather than save writing space. The
study aims to provide an understanding of the general makeup and mechanics of
design of Indus signs.
The Svastikas
From Conclusions:
The signs have been designed with care and combining signs with
other signs or modifiers seems to have been a practice known to all sites.
Indus people seem to employ several interesting techniques such as using
a set of modifiers to modify the basic sign and sign compounding. We also
find instances of doubling and mirroring in the design of Indus signs. The
usage of a similar set of constituent basic signs in different configuration in compound signs seem to convey different information. The designers of the
Indus signs also placed a special emphasis on symmetry and there seems to
be an underlying effort to retain the overall aesthetic value of Indus signs.
All this makes it clear that like all other writing systems, Indus writing is
an intellectual exercise of great significance and a lot of thought, planning
and utility issues have been taken into consideration while designing these
signs. The Indus civilisation was spread over an area of about a million
square kilometres and yet, the sign list over the entire civilisation seems to
be the same indicating that the signs, their meaning and their usage were
agreed upon by people with large physical separation. This arrangement
worked satisfactorily for about 700 years. Hence the understanding of
Indus signs and their meaning must have been robust and yet versatile and
easy to use. This is also reaffirmed by the fact that Indus script has been
found on seals discovered in West Asia with a different grammar (Rao et
al., 2009b). The usage of modifiers at almost all sites (Table 4) suggests
that the manner of sign modification was universally agreed over the entire
area of the Indus valley civilisation and was not intended for a small group
of people.

If some one asks me I will say beside the uniquenesses that can be found from the above research and other related ones,the script was most probably a hybrid script where the principals of Hieroglyphs and Linguistic grammar were combined....

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