The Harappan language is the unknown language or languages of the Bronze Age (c. 2nd millennium BCE) Harappan civilization (Indus Valley civilization, or IVC). The language being unattested in any readable contemporary source, hypotheses regarding its nature are reduced to purported loanwords and substratum influence, notably the substratum in Vedic Sanskrit and a few terms recorded in Sumerian cuneiform (such as Meluhha), in conjunction with analyses of the undeciphered Indus script.
|Indus Valley, Mohenjo-Daro|
|Extinct||c. 1300 BCE, or later|
There are a handful of possible loanwords from the language of the Indus Valley civilization. Sumerian Meluhha may be derived from a native term for the Indus Valley civilization, also reflected in Sanskrit mleccha meaning non-Vedic or native, and Witzel (2000) further suggests that Sumerian GIŠšimmar (a type of tree) may be cognate to Rigvedic śimbala and śalmali (also names of trees).
There are a number of hypotheses as to the nature of this unknown language:
- One hypothesis places it within or near the Dravidian languages, perhaps identical with Proto-Dravidian itself. Proposed by Henry Heras in the 1950s,
- a "lost phylum", i.e. a language with no living continuants (or perhaps a last living reflex in the moribund Nihali language). In this case, the only trace left by the language of the Indus Valley civilization would be historical substratum influence, in particular the substratum in Vedic Sanskrit.
Hypotheses that have gained less mainstream academic acceptance include:
- an Indo-European language, close or identical to Proto-Indo-Iranian: suggested by archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao.[a]
- a Semitic language: Malati Shendge (1997) identified the Harappan culture with an "Asura" empire, and these Asura further with the Assyrians.
The Indus script only indicates that it was used to write one language (if any). But it is quite possible that multiple languages were spoken in the IVC, similar to how Sumerian and Akkadian co-existed in Mesopotamia for centuries. Jane R. McIntosh suggests one such possibility: Para-Munda was originally the main language of the civilization, especially in the Punjab region. Later, the proto-Dravidian immigrants introduced their language to the area in 5th millennium BCE. The Dravidian language was spoken by the new settlers in the southern plains, while Para-Munda remained the main language of those in Punjab.
Michael Witzel suggested as an alternative, that an underlying, prefixing language similar to Austroasiatic, notably Khasi; he called it "para-Munda" (i.e. a language related to the Munda subgroup or other Austroasiatic languages, but not strictly descended from the last common predecessor of the contemporary Munda family). Witzel argued that the Rigveda showed signs of this hypothetical Harappan influence in the earliest historic level, and Dravidian only in later levels, suggesting that speakers of Austroasiatic were the original inhabitants of Punjab and that the Indo-Aryans encountered Dravidian speakers only in later times. The theory was since further supported by Franklin Southworth.
As of 2019, Witzel prefers to leave the question of the original Indian language(s) open until better reconstructions for Dravidian and Munda substrate components in Indo-Aryan languages have been done.
- Parpola, Asko (2015). The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization. Oxford University Press. p. 353. ISBN 9780190226930.
- "Meluhha interpreter seal. Site officiel du musée du Louvre". cartelfr.louvre.fr.
- An Indus loanword of "para-Munda" nature in Mesopotamian has been identified by Michael Witzel, A first link between the Rgvedic Panjab and Mesopotamia: śimbala/śalmali, and GIŠšimmar? In: Klaus Karttunen and Petteri Koskikallio (eds.) Vidyarnavavandanam. Essays in Honour of Asko Parpola. 2000 (Studia Orientalia, published by the Finnish Or. Soc. 94): 497–508. See also Witzel, The language or languages of the Indus civilization Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine, July 2007.
- Heras, Henry (1953). Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture. Bombay, IN: Indian Historical Research Institute.
Rahman, Tariq. "Peoples and languages in pre-islamic Indus valley". Asian Studies Network Information Center (ASNIC). utexas.edu. Austin, TX: University of Texas. Archived from the original on 2008-05-09. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
... who was the first to suggest that the language of the Indus Civilization was Dravidian.
Cole, Jennifer. "The Sindhi language" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 6, 2007. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
... Harappan language, the ancient script is as yet undeciphered, but a prevailing theory suggests a Dravidian origin.
- Parpola, Asko (1999). "The formation of the Aryan branch of Indo-European". In Blench, Roger; Spriggs, Matthew (eds.). Archaeology and Language. Vol. III: Artefacts, languages and texts. London, UK and New York, NY: Routledge.
- Shendge, M. (1997). The Language of the Harappans. Abhinav Publications. ISBN 978-81-7017-325-0.
- McIntosh 2008, p. 355-356.
- Witzel, M. (2000-02-17). "The Languages of Harappa" (PDF). In Kenoyer, J. (ed.). Proceedings of the conference on the Indus civilization. Madison, WI. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
- Witzel, M. (August 1999). "Substrate languages in old Indo-Aryan". EJVS. 5 (1): 1–67. cf. reprint in: "[no title cited]". International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics (IJDL) (1). sqq. 2001.
- Mukhopadhyay, Bahata Ansumali (December 2021). "Ancestral Dravidian languages in Indus Civilization: Ultraconserved Dravidian tooth-word reveals deep linguistic ancestry and supports genetics". Humanities and Social Sciences Communications. 8 (1): 193. doi:10.1057/s41599-021-00868-w. S2CID 236901972.
- Austin Patrick Olivelle (13 July 2006). Between the Empires : Society in India 300 BC to AD 400. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199775071.
- McIntosh, Jane R. (2008). The Ancient Indus Valley : New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576079072.
- KOHARI, ALIZEH (8 February 2022). "An ancient language has defied translation for 100 years. Can AI crack the code?".