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Computerized 'Rosetta Stone' reconstructs ancient languages

Date:
February 11, 2013
Source:
University of British Columbia
Summary:
Researchers have used a sophisticated new computer system to quickly reconstruct protolanguages -- the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved.

Examples of Protolanguage Words Reconstructed By UBC Tool.
Credit: Table courtesy of University of British Columbia

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 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're hopeful our tool will revolutionize historical linguistics 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.

Protolanguages

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.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, David Hall, Thomas L. Griffiths, and Dan Klein. Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change. PNAS, 2013 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1204678110

Cite This Page:

University of British Columbia. "Computerized 'Rosetta Stone' reconstructs ancient languages." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 February 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130211162234.htm>.
University of British Columbia. (2013, February 11). Computerized 'Rosetta Stone' reconstructs ancient languages. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130211162234.htm
University of British Columbia. "Computerized 'Rosetta Stone' reconstructs ancient languages." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130211162234.htm (accessed September 2, 2014).

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