Thanks to modern technology a new tool has been developed that can reconstruct long-dead languages. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on Feb. 12 that a team of researchers have developed software that can rebuild “protolanguages” - the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.
The new computerized system has produced a list of what the ancestor words of 637 Austronesian languages (spoken in Indonesia, Madagascar, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and elsewhere) would have sounded like. In more than 85 percent of cases, the automated reconstruction came within one “character” or sound of the ancestor word commonly accepted as true by linguists.
This type of labor-intensive work is generally carried out by linguists. According to the BBC, Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said: "It's very time consuming for humans to look at all the data. There are thousands of languages in the world, with thousands of words each, not to mention all of those languages' ancestors.
"It would take hundreds of lifetimes to pore over all those languages, cross-referencing all the different changes that happened across such an expanse of space - and of time. But this is where computers shine."
Over thousands of years, tiny variations in the way that we produce sounds have meant that early languages have morphed into many different descendents.
"The trick is to identify these patterns of change and then to 'reverse' them, basically evolving words backwards in time."
The Huffington Post reports that in the past, linguists used the “comparative method,” examining by hand, the same word in two or more languages, while attempting to reconstruct the parent language from which the languages may have descended.
From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language from which these modern tongues derived. The scientists believe it would have been spoken about 7,000 years ago.
Although researchers are able to reconstruct languages that date back thousands of years, a question remains as to the possibility of going even further back to recreate the very first protolanguage from which all others evolved.
Languages of the Bible
The recent language research brings to mind the possibility of getting back to original languages of the Bible. In the ChristianCourier.com Wayne Jackson discusses the three original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, recognizing that words serve as the medium of God’s special revelation to humanity.
Jackson notes that the Hebrew of the Old Testament is a Semitic language that is closely related Aramaic. Both are a part of ancient tongues employed mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It is believed that Hebrew came from the Canaanite language, sometimes called the “language of Canaan” and the “Jews’ language” in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, it is called “Hebrew.”
Aramaic is a close cognate language or a dialect of Hebrew. Though Hebrew remained the “sacred” tongue of the Jews, they, like others in the Middle East, began using vernacular Aramaic for everyday conversation and writing sometime after the sixth century
B.C. In the first century
A.D., Aramaic, in one dialect or another, was the common daily tongue of the Palestinian Jews. It is believed that Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic, in light of a number of Aramaic expressions that are transliterated into Greek in the Gospels. In the New Testament epistles, several Aramaic words can also be found.
The Greek language has passed through several major periods of change, as the New Testament was composed in Koine, that is, universal or “common Greek.” Koine was the normal street language in Rome, Alexandria, Athens, and Jerusalem. When the Romans finally conquered the Greeks, it was the Greek influence that flowed throughout the empire.
Those who study the Scriptures are particularly intrigued by the recent developments in linguistic research. The closing stanza of a poem written about Aramaic, “The Holy Language”—speaks to those who recognize the significance of the research regarding protolanguages and the attempts to get back to the original language:
As students of the Holy Language,
We place our ears near to the lips of God
And set our eyes to read and see more clearly
His Will and Word revealed.
Take a look at this related article on the Dead Sea Scrolls and modern technology