Computer program reconstructs ancient languages

12 February 2013
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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Researchers have used a computer program to reconstruct ancient languages

Researchers have used a computer program to reconstruct ancient languages

University of British Columbia and Berkeley researchers have used a sophisticated new computer system to quickly reconstruct protolanguages – the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved.

The results, which are 85 per cent accurate when compared to the painstaking manual reconstructions performed by linguists, have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re hopeful our tool will revolutionise historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionised the study of evolutionary biology,” said UBC Assistant Professor of Statistics Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, lead author of the study.

“And while our system won’t replace the nuanced work of skilled linguists, it could prove valuable by enabling them to increase the number of modern languages they use as the basis for their reconstructions.”

Protolanguages are reconstructed by grouping words with common meanings from related modern languages, analysing common features, and then applying sound-change rules and other criteria to derive the common parent.

The new tool designed by Bouchard-Côté and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley analyses sound changes at the level of basic phonetic units, and can operate at much greater scale than previous computerised tools.

The researchers reconstructed a set of protolanguages from a database of more than 142,000 word forms from 637 Austronesian languages spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and parts of continental Asia.

Further information:

See the full paper

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