Surprising ways AI can help recover lost languages

When an apparently indecipherable manuscript from a lost language turns up, AI can help. But first, how is a language born and how does it die (or get lost)?

We really don’t know how human language was born. Theories abound but all we know for sure is that it is unique. In a 2017 paper at BMC Biology, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel states flatly, “Human language is unique among all forms of animal communication.” In his open-access paper, he cuts short the widely popularized claims for chimpanzee language:

Most ape sign language, for example, is concerned with requests for food. The trained chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky’s longest recorded ‘utterance’, when translated from sign language, was ‘give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you’ – Pagel, M. Q&A: What is human language, when did it evolve and why should we care?

Nim Chimpsky could have accomplished the same task much more simply by pointing to an orange or a picture of one. If humans had not taught him sign language, he would likely have done so and left it at that.

So apes don’t have language but humans always have it. That is, all human groups express themselves through language. And all languages can, in principle, handle a full load of complex concepts (with considerable borrowing of technical terms from each other, of course).

Languages die out when people stop speaking them. Today’s global communication threatens languages with very small numbers of speakers. For example, Papua New Guinea has 7 million people and 856 of the world’s roughly 6000 recognized languages. Most Papua New Guinean languages have fewer than 1000 speakers. With masses of educational materials available in English, English is, not surprisingly, the main language of its school system. Thus some other local languages may be found among the 43% said to be endangered, in the sense that they are likely to become extinct in the near future..

Can extinct languages be brought back? Yes, but it takes a lot of documentation, a powerful incentive, and a great deal of work. Classical Hebrew, for example, was brought back from millennia ago by Jewish people living in Europe who were anxious to carve out an identity of their own. It is now the national language of Israel, with eight million speakers. But the Jewish people had the Hebrew scriptures and plenty of other preserved written work to guide them in their effort.

Many other languages have flourished and then gone extinct without ever being recorded. Sometimes we know their names and a few surviving words. And now there’s a new wrinkle: Languages that were ever written down have begun to be rescued from near total oblivion by a computer algorithm.

Read more: Mind Matters

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