Researchers use computer program to reconstruct ancient languages

Craig Lloyd - Feb 12, 2013
Researchers use computer program to reconstruct ancient languages

Languages have evolved over the years, and some have ended up dying off completely. However, these extinct languages are still around today thanks to documentation, and researchers are now trying to reconstruct these ancient languages using a modified version Rosetta Stone, a computer program that teaches users how to speak a different language.

The team of researchers reconstructed a set of protolanguages from a database of more than 142,000 words from 637 Austronesian languages, which are spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and parts of continental Asia. Essentially, the computer program does the work that would normally take “hundreds of lifetimes” for people to do manually, according to Dan Klein, who is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Protolanguages are reconstructed by simply grouping words with common meanings from related languages of today. Then, researchers must analyze common features, and then apply any sound-change rules and other criteria to derive the common parent word. Researchers believe that these languages were spoken about 7,000 years ago.

Essentially, the program replicates what linguists do manually with 85% accuracy. Plus, it takes just hours instead of years. The program uses an algorithm known as the Markov chain Monte Carlo sampler, and it sorts through sets of words in different languages that share a common sound, history, and origin. While researchers are able analyze these older languages, it’s still up in the air whether or not they can go further back in time to reconstruct even the very first protolanguage from which all other languages derived from.

[via BBC News]

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