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Computer program deciphers a dead language that mystified linguists -
Category: News
Computer program deciphers a dead language that mystified linguists

The lost language of Ugaritic was last spoken 3,500 years ago. It survives on just a few tablets, and linguists could only translate it with years of hard work and plenty of luck. A computer deciphered it in hours.

The computer program relies on a few basic assumptions in order to make intuitive guesses about the language's structure. Most importantly, the lost language has to be closely related to a known, deciphered language, which in the case of Ugaritic is Hebrew. Second, the alphabets of the two languages need to share some consistent correlations between the individual letters or symbols. There should also be recognizable cognates of words between the two languages, and words that have prefixes or suffixes in one language (like verbs that end in "-ing" or "-ed" in English) should show the same features in the other language.

That might seem like a lot of information for the program to require, but even all that is no guarantee of decipherment. After Ugaritic was first discovered in 1929, it remained untranslatable for years. It finally revealed some of its secrets to German cryptographer Hans Bauer, who was only able to make substantial headway when he guessed the drawing of an ax was next to the Ugaritic word for "ax." Even this breakthrough wasn't a complete success, because although Bauer's guess was correct he matched the wrong sounds and letters together, resulting in a mistranslation.

So, the question for the computer program wasn't just how quickly it could translate Ugaritic compared to its human counterparts; there's also whether it could avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that had slowed down the initial decipherment. The program worked by looking for correlations and correspondences at the various levels of languages described above - individual sounds and letters, different segments of the word, and cognates between languages. It then mapped the similarities between Hebrew and Ugaritic, starting with the sounds and then bringing in the other aspects to figure out the most probable matches. By cross-referencing these different parts of language and repeating the process hundreds of thousands of times, the program arrives at a fully deciphered Ugaritic.


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