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Communications of the ACM


Software Helps Linguists Reconstruct, Decipher Ancient Languages

Software Helps Linguists Reconstruct, Decipher Ancient Languages, illustration

Credit: Remy Musser

Linguists who reconstruct ancient languages—and who previously did the arduous work solely by hand—now have another tool in their arsenal to speed up their laborious efforts. Computer scientists have proven they can use software to recreate the early languages from which modern tongues have derived.

While previously it might have taken a linguist their entire career to reconstruct a major language family, now software running computations on, say, a large experiment that may involve a sixth of the world's languages can be completed in just a few hours.


Luigi Logrippo

Thank you for your interesting article.
Still, some explanations and caution are needed on the claim that 'software can be used to recreate the early languages from which modern languages are derived'.
You provide the example: I give you Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian ... and you recreate Latin.
This test can be done ... and I bet that it wouldn't work well, not even for vocabulary.
Well, I can accept that if Latin wasn't known, then linguists would attempt to reconstruct it and then the computer could also make a good attempt.
But your phrase is much too optimistic.
The 'Latin test' I have mentioned shows that in the evolution of languages there are very complex factors beyond what computers, humans etc. can imagine.
Note that I am not a linguist and mine is a superficial observation.
Your point of view on this would be appreciated.
Luigi Logrippo
Ottawa, Canada

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