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Computer used to bring back ancient languages from brink of extinction

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (

Many of the world's most ancient languages are in danger of dying off, closing a door on an irreplaceable place in human history and development. Languages die off after they have been processed by more modern interpretations of speech. Now, linguistic experts say that these languages can be retried with the aid of computers.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - In the past, researchers were able to create algorithms able to capture samples before individuals speaking the language died off. With advances in computer technology, living speakers of ancient languages may no longer be necessary.

Canadian scientist Alexandre Bouchard-Cote now suspects that advanced computer programs could be used to recreate dead languages. His research team at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver along with co-workers at the University of California Berkeley theorizes that the world's dead languages could be reconstructed by feeding modern successors into computer programs configured to build extinct languages, word-by-word.

According to Bouchard-Cote, a machine-learning algorithm could identify changes before they actually occur, a technological advancement that could be reversed-engineered to recreate dead languages.

For example, researchers speak of the well-known Canadian language shift, where many Canadians now say "aboot" instead of "about."

Researchers reconstructed a set of languages from a database of more than 142,000 words that form 637 Austronesian languages, many of which are spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and regions in Asia. The program was successful in being able to accurately suggest how certain languages sounded as well as identify which sounds were most likely to change.

The program could provide scientists around the world with potent tool for staving off the extinction of a number of languages, many of which are already on the decline. Scientists previously had to depend on deciphering lost languages by hand, relying on bits of parchment and other historical artifacts.

The new language program is widely seen as a major advancement for language technologies in general, compelling example of how big data and machine learning are beginning to make a significant impact on all facets of knowledge.

It must be noted that this is not the first time the idea of using computers to halt the decline of languages has come about. Google announced last year its intention to collaborate with scholars, researchers, and language communities through an initiative called the Endangered Languages Project. Through the project, people can learn about the Earth's endangered languages follow the documentation being created to preserve them.


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