Tower of Babel no more. Science develops method to reconstruct ancient protolanguages
On February 12, 2013 At 8:44 am
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Science has made another step toward understanding our origins, this time in the field of language. Traditional Abrahamic religious beliefs credit their God for the development of world languages. According to the myth, humanity was united after the great flood and spoke a single language. The tale goes on to state that the people conspired to build a great tower to reach the heavens, which apparently didn't sit well with God. Fearing a rebellion, God scattered the population about the globe and assigned each one their own language so they couldn't communicate, thereby thwarting any attempt at a power-grab.
Back in reality, scientists have developed what The Register calls a 'Rosetta Stone-like system' that will be able to reconstruct the protolanguages that were the common ancestors, so to speak, of today's world languages. It will be able to do this with an accuracy rate of about 85%, which will well out-pace human efforts.
Written records of these ancient protolanguages are exceedingly rare, with exception to Latin, which is where Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian, Neapolitan, Ladino and several others have derived.
Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, Statistics Professor at the University of British Columbia, the lead author of the study, stated,
“We’re hopeful our tool will revolutionise historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionised the study of evolutionary biology. 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.”
The system is a collaborative effort, including researchers from Berkeley and uses sophisticated computer algorythms and data input from more than 142,000 word forms that have been garnered from almost seven hundred Austronesian languages.
The study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week.