Have you ever looked at Egyptian hieroglyphs and wondered what reading that out loud in its native language may sound like?
Short of inventing time travel, it has long seemed unlikely that we’d ever get to hear what some of the truly dead languages of the world sounded like, those that were smothered by younger dialects and consigned to the realms of history.
However, thanks to a collaborative effort between mathematicians at the University of Cambridge and linguistic experts at the University of Oxford, we may one day be able to hear precisely what many ancient languages sounded like – including the very first, the language that spawned all others. Already, some of the most ancient languages are being resurrected, and you can click here to hear a few examples.
“Sounds have shape,” Professor John Aston, one of the key researchers on the project and part of Cambridge’s Statistical Laboratory, said in a statement. “As a word is uttered it vibrates air, and the shape of this soundwave can be measured and turned into a series of numbers.”
The linguistic path to the Proto-Indo-European word for "one," as conjured up by the software. Credit: University of Cambridge/University of Oxford
A word said in one language will, of course, have a different shape to the same word as spoken in another language. This sound change can be tracked and modeled in 3D, and common features of both sounds can be described mathematically. Similarly, features lost between languages can also be visually mapped out.
This way, the researchers can determine how two languages changed over time as they split off from a common root – and every language has a common root. Ultimately, the team can reverse the evolution of languages spoken today to find out what dead languages may have sounded like, including Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the very oldest known language.
The linguistic path to the Proto-Indo-European word for "two," as conjured up by the software. Credit: University of Cambridge/University of Oxford