Computer used to decipher ‘lost’ languages
In 2010 a type of software was created that shows just how useful a tool computers can be when used with languages.
Machine translation is a constant source of debate in the translation industry as it is widely felt that translation should be left up to the professionals.
This causes a certain amount of distrust when it comes to technology and translation.
Despite this debate it is clear to see the benefits of this computer programme developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It automatically translates Ugaritic; an ancient Northwest Semitic Language, discovered by archaeologists in 1928. This is done by comparing the patterns and frequency of symbols and words with other languages.
Hebrew is the language most closely related to these ancient writings so the computer used it for comparison. As well as deciphering the language, it also identified roots that are shared between Ugaritic and Hebrew; making it still clearer just how closely related the two are.
Although many argue that machines are unable to accurately translate because they lack the ability to understand particular nuances within languages, it is clear that technology does have its uses.
Ugaritic is one of many languages that may have been thought of as ‘lost’ before this software was created. Many are still sceptical however. Scripts such as Etruscan have no identifiable relation to known languages that could be used to decipher it with this computer programme. In this case, perhaps the software is not so useful? Without closely related languages to compare to the scripts of other ‘lost’ languages, how can we hope for the software to be beneficial?
According to researchers, this problem could be overcome by using multiple languages at once in the comparison, perhaps uncovering links between them that had not previously been noticed.
Whether the software is really as exciting as it first seems, or if there is in fact still a long way to go before languages such as Etruscan and Harappan can be properly dealt with, it is clear that technology is still a useful tool.
Machine translation is definitely not able to replace human translators without sacrificing quality and well-written texts, but perhaps it can continue to be incorporated into the work done by linguists and other professions fascinated by the ancient languages of the world.
What do you think of this computer programme? Are there other languages you think it might be useful for?
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