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Graphemes or 'signs' of the script and ligatures of graphemes

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Parpola (1994) identifies 386 (+12?) signs (or graphemes) and their variant forms. Mahadevan (1977) identifies 419 graphemes; out of these 179 graphemes have variants totalling 641 forms. Parpola observes: "…the grapheme count might be as low as 350…The total range of signs once present in the Indus script is certain to have been greater than is observable now, for new signs have kept turning up in new inscriptions. The rate of discovery has been fairly low, though, and the new signs have more often been ligatures of two or more signs already known as separate graphemes than entirely new signs." (Parpola, 1994, p. 79).

Properties of Graphemes

Many short and long linear strokes on the texts (when read in combination with the external archaeological evidence of the finds of binary chert weights) indicate the underlying practice of some form of ‘accounting or measurement’ or just ‘counting’ (?of property items) conveyed through the objects inscribed with messages (messages composed of pictorials and/or clusters of signs constituting texts of inscriptions).
Tablet in bas-relief

In this tablet the repetition of the 'svastika' sign

sequence five times points the possibility of
the'svastika' sign denoting an 'object'

Each of the signs (162, 325 and 59) seems to denote an ‘object’, and is frequently preceded by ‘numerical strokes’.

Sign 372 (‘oval’ grapheme) ligatures with sign 162, yielding sign 387 

It is merely a conjecture that these signs 162, 325, 59 ane 387 denote landing-points in numeration, say, eight, twelve, twenty.  These signs may, in combination with numerical strokes,  connote a counted number of  'objects' and combinations of 'objects'.

Mirror-reflected pairs of graphemes

Mahadevan notes, "Compounds of mirror-reflected pairs. A rather curious feature of the script is the occurrence of mirror-reflected pairs as bound signs." (Mahadevan, 1977, p. 16) He adds that the mirror-reflected pairs may have the sign doubled on the horizontal or vertical axis.


There are also paired or re-duplicated occurrences of signs.

  • There are some stable sequences of signs in inscriptions, stability being measured by the frequency of occurrence of two signs within each inscription.

    The following seven pairs have between 93 and 291 occurrences in the inscriptions.



    There are five pairs with between 65 and 87 occurrences in the inscriptions.


    Ligatures of graphemes

    Two or more signs can be combined into one sign motif. For example, the ‘jar’ sign is ligatured in four instances:


    There are many other ligatured Signs:

    An inverted ‘v’ is ligatured on Signs 65, 66, 75 (fishes), Sign 163 (corn sheaf), Sign 138 (cross-road), Sign 334 (pot). This inverted ‘v’ is also ligatured on a jar pictorial(Fig. 111 field symbol, Mahadevan corpus).

    The 'jar' sign is also ligatured with short linear strokes.

    Ligatured signs appear together with pictorials in inscriptions.
    Thus, Fig. 97 Mahadevan.
    This composition is a combination of three pictorials and the sign: 

    The person standing in the middle seems to point with one hand at this sign and at the 'trough' with the other sign, seemingly conveying both 'trough' and the ligarured sign 15
    which is a composition of the 'jar' and 'the water-carrier' representions.

    A characteristic feature of the use of graphemes in the inscriptions is ‘ligaturing’.

    The ligaturing pattern is extended further   
    in Sign 418: Sign 15 is further ligatured   
    with a harrow (Sign 171) and oval (Sign 374).   
    Sign 352, jar + corn sheaf
    Sign 394, jar and oval
    Sign 353, jar and pot
    Sign 15 itself seems to be a ligature of   
    signs 12 and 342
    Signs 45/46 (seated person) seem to ligature  
    the pictorial of a kneeling-adorant with sign 328
    Sign 355 seems to ligature   
    sign 347 and sign 391
    Sign 232 seems to be a liagure of   
    sign 230 and sign 326

    Sign 243 seems to ligature   
    sign 242 and sign 328
    Sign 286 seems to ligature   
    sign 267 and sign 391
    Sign 19 seems to ligature   
    sign 1 and sign 171
    Sign 218 seems to ligature   
    sign 217 and sign 328
    Sign 32 seems to ligature   
    sign 1 and sign 328
    Sign 372 is a three-fold ligature   
    with signs 397 and 162  
    Sign 387, corn sheaf within an oval  
    Ligature of sign 162 and sign 373 yields sign 387.  
    Signs 63 and 64, bird and fish  
    Sign 36, man and pincers  
    Sign 90, three linear strokes   
    and corn sheaf  
    Sign 362, oval and comb  
    Sign 383 ligatures   
    signs 374, 373 and 176
    Sign 19, man and harrow  
    Sign 21, man and corn sheaf  
    Sign 348 ligatures with   
    sign 162 and a pair of 172   
    (See paring in Sign 173)
    Sign 173 is a ligatured   
    representation of a pair of the sign 172.

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