Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Lost" Languages to Be Resurrected by Computers?

"Lost" Languages to Be Resurrected by Computers?

New program can translate ancient Biblical script.

An Ugaritic artifact.
A gift-shop replica of a clay tablet with Akkadian writing from the city of Ugarit, Photograph courtesy S.R.K. Branavan

Tim Hornyak for National Geographic News

A new computer program has quickly deciphered a written language last used in Biblical times—possibly opening the door to "resurrecting" ancient texts that are no longer understood, scientists announced last week.

Created by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the program automatically translates written Ugaritic, which consists of dots and wedge-shaped stylus marks on clay tablets. The script was last used around 1200 B.C. in western Syria.

Written examples of this "lost language" were discovered by archaeologists excavating the port city of Ugarit in the late 1920s. It took until 1932 for language specialists to decode the writing. Since then, the script has helped shed light on ancient Israelite culture and Biblical texts.

Using no more computing power than that of a high-end laptop, the new program compared symbol and word frequencies and patterns in Ugaritic with those of a known language, in this case, the closely related Hebrew.

Through repeated analysis, the program linked letters and words to map nearly all Ugaritic symbols to their Hebrew

equivalents in a matter of hours.

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