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
We know that German and English have a common “Germanic” linguistic root. Spanish and French evolved from a so-called “Romantic” root. All four have a common “European” linguistic ancestor, and along with many Asian and Middle Eastern languages, have a more ancient “Indo-European” stem.
The most primitive language we know of is PIE, one that was spoken around 6,000 years ago by people living just north of the Caspian Sea. There are no written texts of this language, but researchers know it exists due to the similarities hidden in its several hundreds of “daughter” languages, many of which exist today.
Already, this ambitious project has managed to replicate what was likely the “original” word for one, which in PIE sounds a bit like “oinos.” To prove the viability of the team’s software, it has also been used to evolve the PIE word “penkwe,” as ascertained by back-evolving modern languages, to what that word is now in many separate living languages – the Greek “pente,” or the English “five.”
“From my point of view, it’s amazing that we can turn exciting yet highly abstract statistical theory into something that really helps explain the roots of modern language,” Aston added.
Remarkably, that’s not all the project may be capable of achieving. The team even hope to evolve languages past their current point and into the future, to hear what they may one day sound like, although extrapolating the evolution of languages is far more difficult than interpolating between known languages.
Only time will tell how correct their mathematical sooth-saying may be.
Image in text: Spectrograms showing how the “shape” of the French word “un” can be literally transformed into the Italian word “uno.” Credit: University of Cambridge