Researchers in Canada and California have created a software that can rebuild protolanguages – the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Over thousands of years, tiny variations in the way that we produce sounds have meant that early languages have morphed into many different descendents.
Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley explains: “These sound changes are almost always regular, with similar words changing in similar ways, so patterns are left that a human or a computer can find.
“The trick is to identify these patterns of change and then to ‘reverse’ them, basically evolving words backwards in time.”
The scientists demonstrated their system by looking at a group of Austronesian languages that are currently spoken in southeast Asia, parts of continental Asia and the Pacific.
From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language from which these modern tongues derived. The scientists believe it would have been spoken about 7,000 years ago.
They then compared the computer’s findings to those of linguists, finding that 85% of the early words that the software presented were within one “character” – or sound – of the words that the language experts had identified.
A new tool has been developed that can reconstruct long-dead languages.