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Now, a computer programme to decode world`s lost languages

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - 19:10

London: Scientists have developed a new
computer programme that can automatically translate an ancient
language into a known language, a discovery they hope could
help them decipher some of the scripts that are yet to be

Developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, the programme has successfully decoded the over
three-thousand-year-old Ugaritic language.
Ugaritic was last used around 1200 BC in western Syria
and it consists of dots on clay tablets. It was first
discovered in 1920 but was not deciphered until 1932.

To evaluate the efficiency of their programme, the
researchers gave reference of the Hebrew language which is
similar to Ugaritic.

The system is then able to make assumptions about the
way different words are formed and whether they consist of a
prefix and a suffix, for example.

Through repeated analysis, the program linked letters
and words to map nearly all Ugaritic symbols to their Hebrew
equivalents in a matter of hours, the Daily Mail reported.
Professor Regina Barzilay, who was leading the research,
said: "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."

According to the scientists, the programme looks for
commonly used symbols in the two languages and gradually
refines its mapping of the alphabet until it can go no

The Ugaritic alphabet has 30 letters, and the system
correctly mapped 29 of them to their Hebrew counterparts.

Of the words that the two languages shared the
programme was able to correctly identify 60 per cent of them.

However, experts have expressed scepticism about the
programme and said that it is of little use because many of
the undeciphered texts have no known ancestor to map against.

The programme also assumes that the computer knows
where one word begins and another ends, something which is not
always the case.

But Professor Barzilay thinks the system can overcome
this hurdle by scanning multiple languages at once and taking
contextual information into account

"Each language has its own challenges. Most likely, a
successful decipherment would require one to adjust the method
for the peculiarities of a language," she said.
She, however, pointed out the decipherment of Ugaritic
took years and relied on some happy coincidences -- such as
the discovery of an axe that had the word "axe" written on it
in Ugaritic.

"The output of our system would have made the process
orders of magnitude shorter," she said.

The scientists also expressed hope that the system
could also improve the reliability of translation software
like Google Translate.


First Published: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - 19:10

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