Ancient Languages Reconstructed by Linguistic Computer Program

First Posted: Feb 12, 2013 09:06 AM EST

Thousands of years ago, the romance languages--Spanish, French, Italian and others--all descended from one common root language. Now researchers are able to reconstruct ancient, long-dead languages using a computer program. Scientists have created software that can rebuild protolanguages, the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.

Languages change gradually over time as various populations of people diverge. Tiny variations, such as accents, can slowly evolve until a new language is formed. These sound variations are almost always regular, though, and similar words change in similar ways. The main trick is to identify these patterns and then work backwards.

The researchers took 637 Austronesian languages currently spoken in Asia and the Pacific and input them into the software that they created. From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to create the early language that was the "mother" of the modern languages. This protolanguage probably would have been spoken around 7,000 years ago.

In order to check their findings, though, the researchers then compared their results with the findings of linguists. They found that 85 percent of the protolanguage's words that the software created were within one sound of the words that the language experts had identified.

These findings have huge implications for the study of languages. Before, linguists had to use time consuming methods in order to puzzle out ancient words-comparing several different languages and examining each sound. Now, this computer program can help linguists work a little faster.

While the software can handle vast amounts of data at once, though, it doesn't have the same degree of accuracy as linguists. According to Dan Klein, one of the researchers and an associate professor at the University of California, in an interview with BBC News, "Our system still has shortcomings. For example, it can't handle morphological changes or re-duplications-how a word like 'cat' becomes 'kitty-cat.'"

Nonetheless, this new software gives linguists another tool to construct languages that date back thousands of years. Now, researchers are struggling with the question whether or not they can recreate the first language--essentially, the mother of all languages from which all of them evolved.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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