Using computers to translate ancient texts

Published on July 20th, 2010 | by Admin

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language

A computer program has been been developed with can quickly decipher an ancient written language used in Biblical times, opening up the possibility to translate other ancient texts which humans have been unable to translate.

Created by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the program automatically translates written Ugaritic, which consists of dots and wedge-shaped stylus marks on clay tablets. The script was last used around 1200 B.C. in western Syria.

Written examples of this “lost language” were discovered by archaeologists excavating the port city of Ugarit in the late 1920s. It took until 1932 for language specialists to decode the writing. Since then, the script has helped shed light on ancient Israelite culture and Biblical texts.

Using no more computing power than that of a high-end laptop, the new program compared symbol and word frequencies and patterns in Ugaritic with those of a known language, in this case, the closely related Hebrew.

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 program also correctly identified Ugaritic and Hebrew words with shared roots 60 percent of the time. Shared roots are when words in different languages spring from the same source, such as the French homme and Spanish hombre, which share the Latin root for “man.”

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