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Reading aloud How did you talk before time immemorial? Linguists have been trying for a long time to trace the roots of today's languages. However, the search for the archetypes of modern languages ​​has so far been very laborious: the linguists had to puzzle together these so-called proto-languages ​​in painstaking detail word for word on the comparison of today's words and tribes. This could now be much easier: Researchers from Canada and the United States have developed an automated system for the reconstruction of languages, which uses computer algorithms to compare words from related languages ​​and derive the common archetype from them. Knowledge of proto-languages ​​allows us to review theories about the course of language change and derive conclusions about human history, say Alexandre Bouchard-Côté of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues. This, for example, provides information about migration and the technological level of prehistoric peoples. However, information about historical languages ​​can also provide insights into the future. If you know how languages ​​have changed in the past, you can also see how they will evolve in the future, the researchers say.

Linguists call the original language a form from which all individual languages ​​of a language family have arisen. The most well-known example of such a proto-language is the Latin: From it, all Romance languages ​​have developed, such as Italian, Spanish or French. In the case of Latin, however, there are written traditions, but there is no such comfort with other prototypes. In order to reconstruct them, scientists have to compare today's subsidiary languages ​​of these original languages.

Primeval vocabulary in the mirror of computer algorithms

Bouchard-Côté and his colleagues have now developed a computer program that uses statistical methods and algorithms to break down sound shifts in modern languages ​​to the lowest common denominator. This allows researchers to quickly and efficiently compare different phrases and derive the common roots. display

Bouchard-Côté and its colleagues have already successfully used their system to trace the origins of the so-called Austronesian languages. They are spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and parts of continental Asia and comprise about 1, 150 individual languages. The researchers used their system to study more than 142, 000 words from 637 modern Austronesian languages. A manual comparison would have been an extremely lengthy undertaking in this case. But with the computer-based method, a whole sentence of the protophone could be reconstructed within a short time. Scientists are now working on an online version of the program to be made available to linguists around the world.

Alexandre Bouchard-Côté (University of British Columbia) et al .: PNAS, doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1204678110 © science.de - Martin Vieweg

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