February 11th, 2015
What did our ancestors sound like, and how will our great-grandchildren talk to each other? Linguists used to spend a lifetime working on answering these questions, but now a computer can do it for them in just a few days.
The new computer program can trace back ancient languages, or proto-languages, from 7.000 years ago. Because there are no records of these tongues, the computer spots trends in changing words and then reverses them to go back in time.
Linguists have been doing this for ages, but the logics and statistics they use, are actually perfect working material for computers. That’s why scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, now created this ‘time machine’. They tested it on Austronesian languages, spoken in South-East Asia, and found an 85 percent match with what linguists thought to be the Proto-Austronesian language.
And that’s not all the new tool can do. By figuring out the rules to which languages have been evolving until now, it could also be possible to construct languages of the future, the scientists say. But the help of real linguists is still required, to reach maximum accuracy.
Bouchard-Côté A, Hall D, Griffiths TL, & Klein D (2013). Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23401532
language reconstruction, proto languages