“Bituqen” is Proto-Polynesian for “star.” A computer figured that out.

Nature reports on the algorithm researchers have devised to find (or recreate) the ancestors of modern languages:

Statistician Alexandre Bouchard-Côté of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and his co-workers say that by making the reconstruction of ancestral languages much simpler, their method should facilitate the testing of hypotheses about how languages evolve.

Bouchard-Côté and colleagues’ method can factor in a large number of languages to improve the quality of reconstruction, and it uses rules that handle possible sound changes in flexible, probabilistic ways.

The program requires researchers to input a list of words in each language, together with their meanings, and a phylogenetic ‘language tree’ showing how each language is related to the others. Linguists routinely construct such trees using techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology.

The algorithm can automatically identify cognate words (ones with the same root) in the languages. It then applies rules known to govern sound changes to deduce the probable root of each set of cognates.

It’s like the linguistic equivalent of Jurassic Park – splicing semantic DNA to rebirth extinct languages.

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