Computerized 'Rosetta Stone' reconstructs ancient languages

Feb 11, 2013

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, will be published next week in the .

"We're hopeful our tool will revolutionize much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionized the study of evolutionary biology," says UBC Assistant Prof. 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, analyzing 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 analyzes sound changes at the level of basic phonetic units, and can operate at much greater scale than previous computerized 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.

Explore further: Awarded a Pell Grant? Better double-check

More information: Most protolanguages do not leave written records—but in some instances reconstructions can be partially verified against ancient texts or literary histories. A notable exception is well-documented Latin, the protolanguage of the Romance languages, which include modern French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Spanish.

Related Stories

All languages may originate from Africa: study

Apr 15, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Published in Science, a new report from biologist Quentin D. Atkinson from the University of Auckland is sparking controversy among linguists. Atkinson has been analyzing the sounds of the many languages around ...

Dating the world's language families

Dec 05, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A computerized method for determining when prehistoric languages were spoken has been developed by an international group of scholars known as the ASJP (Automated Similarity Judgment Program) ...

Historical context guides language development

Apr 14, 2011

Not only do we humans enjoy talking -- and talking a lot -- we also do so in very different ways: about 6,000 languages are spoken today worldwide. How this wealth of expression developed, however, largely remains a mystery. ...

The 'bumpy ride' of linguistic change

Jun 21, 2010

A recent study of an ancient language provides new insights into the nature of linguistic evolution, with potential applications for today's world. The study, "Dvandvas, Blocking, and the Associative: The Bumpy Ride from ...

Recommended for you

Election surprises tend to erode trust in government

13 minutes ago

When asked who is going to win an election, people tend to predict their own candidate will come out on top. When that doesn't happen, according to a new study from the University of Georgia, these "surprised losers" often ...

Awarded a Pell Grant? Better double-check

21 hours ago

(AP)—Potentially tens of thousands of students awarded a Pell Grant or other need-based federal aid for the coming school year could find it taken away because of a mistake in filling out the form.

Perthites wanted for study on the Aussie lingo

Jul 23, 2014

We all know that Australians speak English differently from the way it's spoken in the UK or the US, and many of us are aware that Perth people have a slightly different version of the language from, say, Melbournians - but ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) Feb 11, 2013
But can it figure out Minoan Linear A/B ... that is the question
AndyH
5 / 5 (3) Feb 11, 2013
The author of the headline seems to know neither what the Rosetta stone is nor the consequence of discovering it.
frajo
5 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2013
But can it figure out Minoan Linear A/B ... that is the question

Linear B has been deciphered in 1952.