Bringing Back a Dead Written Language

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary A special MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) language program helped to recreate the written Ugaritic language from a few biblical texts, Ugaritic tablets, and from old Babylonian tablets that have survived. The program was developed to help recreate a written language long since lost to history, and use the computer language program to reconstruct what the written language would have looked like and what its correct sentence structure and translations into Hebrew and English would be. The Ugaritic language is closely related to both ancient Hebrew and ancient Babylonian—two languages we do know about. The Ugaritic language was discovered in 1928 during an archeological expedition when archeologists came across tablets and inscriptions in the town of Ugarit in Syria.

The alphabet and the way it was written was not like anything that had been seen before. The linguists of the time worked for decades to try and decipher this new language. Even after 50 years, many parts of Ugaritic remained undeciphered. MIT’s language program, which involves the use of a computer no bigger than a laptop, and a very sophisticated language program, helped to not only decipher Ugaritic more, but was able to make some corrections on some of the Ugaritic words that had been wrongly translated decades before. One of the advantages of the computer language program was that it was able to put together the Ugaritic written language from ancient Hebrew and old Babylonian because the Ugaritic language is closely related to them.

Probably the next stage for MIT’s computer language program will be to try and truly bring back to life such indecipherable written languages like Etruscan. Etruscan was one of the main languages used on the Italian peninsula before it was supplanted by Latin. Even though Etruscan had been used as far back as 4,000 years ago, the language—written or spoken—is totally dead today. The last known fluent speaker and writer of the Etruscan language was the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.). Unlike Ugaritic, Etruscan has no known equivalent to any language either today and in ancient times. To reconstruct and recreate a written Etruscan language that can be translated and understood in modern terms will be an immense challenge since only a few Etruscan words are available in Latin and ancient Greek. Additionally, we only have a few written Etruscan tablets and tomb writings. But if MIT’s computer language program can crack this language then who knows what it can do to unlock the information from so many languages long past!

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