Reviving Ancient Languages
Language is as old as humans. It is also very diverse, and carries in it cultural traditions and knowledge of indigenous people. Did you know that in the modern world there are over 6900 distinct languages?
From time to time languages disappear, because people speaking them die out, or assimilate with other cultures. Imagine how wonderful it would be if we could reconstruct the long-dead languages from which our modern day languages have evolved.
Recently, computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and University of British Columbia in Vancouver Canada have created an algorithm - a piece of software, that can analyze enormous groups of languages to reconstruct what the earlier human languages might have sounded like.
Why languages change...
Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you may have noticed that most languages have similar sounds for basic words. For instance, look at the way the word ‘Mother’ is uttered in various languages - Mutter (German), Mère (French), Majka (Serbian), Mat' (Russian), Madre (Spanish), Moder (Swedish), Máthair (Irish), Mataji (Hindi), Móðir (Icelandic), and Mama (Chinese, Swahili and English).
Languages change very gradually over time. Over thousands of years, tiny variations get introduced in the way we produce sounds, causing languages to morph ever so slightly. But, the language trail leaves behind distinct patterns. Computers make the job of searching through the patterns a lot easier. The program attempts to identify these patterns of change and then ‘reverse’ them, basically evolving words backwards in time.
What did scientists find?
To test their hypothesis, researchers tried the system on 637 languages spoken in Asia and the Pacific. From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language of nearly 7,000 years ago, from which these modern languages evolved. Comparing the results with the work of linguists they also found that the computer’s findings were only off by one character or sound in nearly 85% of the words!
While computers can quickly analyze patterns, we still need human expertise to analyze the structure and content of word forms, understanding duplications, figuring how words like 'cat' become 'kitty-cat', or even explaining the reasons why phonetic changes happen. Today computers can only tell us that changes did happen, not why.
Linguists are excited about the possibility of going back much further and maybe eventually to the very first protolanguage – the parent language of all languages. Analyzing the forgotten languages may anwer the basic question -- did such a protolanguage exist at all?
In part II, we will explore some fascinating theories of how words and languages actually evolved.