Indus Valley script encodes spoken language, says study

April 30th, 2009 - 5:06 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, April 30 (IANS) The Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian artefact, has allowed 19th century scholars to translate symbols left by an ancient civilization thus enabling them to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
But the symbols found on many other ancient artefacts remain a mystery, including those of a people that inhabited the Indus valley between Pakistan and India.

Some experts question whether the symbols represent a language at all, or are merely pictograms (pictorial representations of an object) that bear no relation to the language spoken by their creators.

A University of Washington computer scientist has led a statistical study of the Indus script. He compared the pattern of symbols to various linguistic scripts and non-linguistic systems, including DNA and a computer programming language.

The results found the Indus script’s pattern is closer to that of spoken words, supporting the hypothesis that it codes for an as-yet-unknown language.

“We applied techniques of computer science, specifically machine learning, to an ancient problem,” said Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering and study co-author.

“At this point we can say that the Indus script seems to have statistical regularities that are in line with natural languages,” he said.

The Indus people were contemporaries of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, inhabiting the Indus river valley in present-day eastern Pakistan and north western India from about 2600 to 1900 B.C. They were an advanced, urbanized civilization that left written symbols on tiny stamp seals, amulets, ceramic objects and small tablets, said a UW release.

“The Indus script has been known for almost 130 years,” said Rao. “Despite more than 100 attempts, it has not yet been deciphered. The underlying assumption has always been that the script encodes language.”

These findings were published online by Science.

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