In the late 1920’s, archaeologists discovered clay tablets with unknown writing on them, in the city of Ugarit. Linguist spent decades trying to decode the writing, said to be from Biblical times, but were unable to completely do so. However, a new computer program developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has now translated about 60% of the text.
Scientists at MIT used the program to compare the Ugaritic text to Hebrew text, and were thrilled with how quickly it took. The Ugaritic language is considered a lost language and is made up of dots and wedge-shaped stylus signs. It hasn’t been used since 1200 BC, where it was used in western Syria. The program was able to translate most of the symbols to letters and words.
According to Regina Barzilay, a computer science professor at MIT, this may be the first time anyone has ever effectively demonstrated a computer analysis of any of the lost languages. 60% of the language was correctly identified. Said Barzilay in an interview, “traditionally, decipherment has been viewed as a sort of scholarly detective game, and computers weren’t thought to be of much use. Our aim is to bring to bear the full power of modern machine learning and statistics to this problem.”
The team is hoping to decipher other old languages in the future and the computer program will be the key to help us learn more about our history. For example, they are hoping to look at Etruscan next, a script that was used in 700 BC in Italy. By 100 AD, the Etruscan had been replaced by Latin and because of this, very few traces of the language remain. And of the ones that do remain, none of it seems to match up to any other more current language, like Ugaritic does with Hebrew.
According to Barzilay, the computer program has the ability to scan several languages at once to see if anything between the ancient language and a number of modern languages matches up.
The program was made public last week at the 48th annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Sweden.
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