Since the accidental discovery of the lost world of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, we have found ourselves beset by countless unanswered questions: Who were the people? Where did they come from? What language did they speak? Where did they disappear? Did they have anything to do with the Aryans? Some of these answers, if not all, can be hoped to be found by deciphering the numerous seals with engraved hieroglyphics excavated from the Indus Valley ruins. About 6 years back, a team of linguists/historians came up with the somewhat disappointing conclusion that the symbols did not represent any language at all and were merely a part of a "nonlinguistic sign system." Today, however, the media is abuzz with the work of Rao et al, which recently appeared in Science, where the team has sought mathematical justification based on an information theoretic approach to support their hypothesis that the Indus Valley hieroglyphics indeed represent a natural language!
The team looked at conditional entropies of 5 natural linguistic systems (including English, old Tamil, and Sumerian) and 4 nonlinguistic ones (including DNA and protein sequences!) They concluded that the conditional entropy of Indus Valley inscriptions is akin to those of the tested linguistic systems. The publication has sparked off a flurry of news reports with catchy headings (some of which seem to give off the impression that the script will be deciphered by early tomorrow morning!) Well, the results do kindle hope! Indeed I was quite excited about it until I came across this speedy rebuttal by Farmer et al, the persistent propounders of the earlier theory suggesting the nonlinguistic nature of the Indus Valley script! Farmer and his team cast doubt on the reliability of conditional entropy as a statistical measure in the world of linguistics. (Linguists, what say you all on that?) It appears that they will come up with a more detailed, full-length rebuttal some time in the near future. It does seem like this battle will wage on, and I'll stay tuned for further updates.
There was a time, many years ago, when my dream was to become an archaeologist who would one day crack the Indus Valley code. (To be honest, back then I was terribly addicted to mystery novels. Archaeology then seemed like the closest real-life approximation to a career as a detective! Well, Sherlock Holmes is fiction, Harappa ain't!) As you can see, that childhood dream was forgotten as I eventually chose a career in engineering. But this current series of events has reignited that spark. Well, I don't mean to say I'm going out for digs now! But I sure will keep looking out for what others have dugg instead. And somewhere inside I'll keep hoping that someday we too will find our Rosetta stone! :-)