Thursday, July 01, 2010

Using a Computer to Help Decipher Ancient Texts

By way of a misleadingly titled and not always entirely accurate article on the science fiction website,, Computer program deciphers a dead language that mystified linguists, I ran across a fascinating paper: A Statistical Model for Lost Language Decipherment by Benjamin Snyder and Regina Barzilay of CSAIL at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kevin Knight of ISI at the University of Southern California:

Dozens of lost languages have been deciphered
by humans in the last two centuries. In each
case, the decipherment has been considered a ma-
jor intellectual breakthrough, often the culmina-
tion of decades of scholarly efforts. Computers
have played no role in the decipherment any of
these languages.[sic] In fact, skeptics argue that com-
puters do not possess the “logic and intuition” re-
quired to unravel the mysteries of ancient scripts.
In this paper, we demonstrate that at least some of
this logic and intuition can be successfully mod-
eled, allowing computational tools to be used in
the decipherment process.

If you're interested in Ugaritic and in computer translation and decipherment, check it out.

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