Many ancient languages long thought to be dead may actually be reborn thanks to new computer software.
The key is the software which can reconstruct something called “protolanguages” – the early sources of languages that are now being spoken. The discovery is very important on a variety of fronts.
“Identifying the forms of these ancient languages makes it possible to evaluate proposals about the nature of language change and to draw inferences about human history,” according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Using probability and algorithms, there is a rebuilding of protolanguages from the modern ones humans use daily. The researchers looked at 637 languages now in use in the Asia-Pacific region and rebuilt an original language from which they came, The BBC reported.
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“We apply this system to 637 Austronesian languages, providing an accurate, large-scale automatic reconstruction of a set of protolanguages,” the research team said. “Over 85 percent of the system’s reconstructions are within one character of the manual reconstruction provided by a linguist specializing in Austronesian languages. Being able to automatically reconstruct large numbers of languages provides a useful way to quantitatively explore hypotheses about the factors determining which sounds in a language are likely to change over time.”
The method used in this study has many benefits compared to options now used by linguists. "It's very time consuming for humans to look at all the data,” Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The BBC. That’s because of the thousands of languages, with each one having thousands of words, and the many original languages from which modern languages evolve.
"It would take hundreds of lifetimes to pore over all those languages, cross-referencing all the different changes that happened across such an expanse of space – and of time,” Klein added. “But this is where computers shine."
Little changes in sound have led to different modern languages.
"These sound changes are almost always regular, with similar words changing in similar ways, so patterns are left that a human or a computer can find,” Klein explained. "The trick is to identify these patterns of change and then to 'reverse' them, basically evolving words backwards in time."
Using 142,000 words, the software came up with the language spoken about 7,000 years ago. Some 85 percent of these earlier spoken words identified by the software are close to the words also identified by linguists.
Alex Bouchard-Côté, an assistant professor in the department of statistics at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the paper, said the research may also be able to identify historical trends.
"Say people are interested in finding out when Europe was settled. If you can figure out if the language of the settling population had a word for wheel, then you can get some idea of the order in which things occurred, because you would have some records that show you when the wheel was invented,” he explained in a report from TechNewsDaily.
One final question is whether the software will be able to identify the first protolanguage from which all others evolved, The BBC said.
The study is generating enthusiasm and interest. It also gives researchers a lot to talk about.
Edited by Brooke Neuman