12 February 2013

Computer System Developed To Reconstruct Proto-languages

Rosetta Stone
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of California Berkeley, have developed a computer system that can reconstruct protolanguages at an accuracy of 85%.

The computer system developed by the researchers is being compared to the Rosetta stone since it can help in deciphering and understanding protolanguages. Most protolanguages have no written records. They are usually gathered from ancient texts or literary histories. These are extinct languages from which a number of attested, or documented, known languages are believed to have descended through evolution or slow modification. Latin, although well documented, is an example of a protolanguage. It was the protolanguage for others such as French, Italian, and Spanish.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt in 1799. The stone was inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. King Ptolemy V was the fifth ruler of the of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, an ancient Greek kingdom in Egypt. The decree was written on the stone in three scripts; ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic (a precursor to coptic script), and Ancient Greek. All three versions of the script represents essentially the same text.

It was because of the Rosetta Stone that Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was understood. It took 23 years after the discovery of the stone to unlock the mystery of the hieroglyphs. Before that, hieroglyphs were undecipherable for fifteen centuries. Up to now, the term "Rosetta Stone" is applied to devices that assist in breaking codes, translating languages or even in understanding how something works.

Deciphering Protolanguages Through A Computer System

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."

Video: Rosetta Stone: Replicating a Mystery

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.


University of British Columbia
University of California, Berkeley
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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