The Origins & Evolution Of Human Language / Languages

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Anonymous

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First language gene discoverd,

Im not to sure how we post interesting news story's but here goes.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2192969.stm


Scientists think they have found the first of many genes that gave humans speech.
Without it, language and human culture may never have developed.

Key changes to a gene in the last 200,000 years of human evolution appear to be the driving force.



Language could have been the decisive event that made human culture possible

Wolfgang Enard, Max Planck Institute
The gene, FOXP2, was the first definitively linked with human language.

A "mistake" in the letters of the DNA code causes a rare disorder in humans marked by severe language and grammar difficulties.

The gene was discovered last year but now scientists have studied the DNA of apes to see what sets us apart from our closest animal cousins.

Mice to men

German and British researchers looked at the chimp, gorilla, orang-utan, rhesus macaque monkey and mouse.

They wanted to see how the gene differed in mice, monkeys and man.


Learning to speak: An instinct with genetic roots

They found slight but crucial changes to the chemical sequence of the gene that happened during the passage of time.

"This is hopefully the first of many language genes to be discovered," says Wolfgang Enard of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

"It happened in the same time frame when modern humans evolved," he told BBC News Online.

"It is compatible with the hypothesis that language could have been the decisive event that made human culture possible."

Genetic roots

Changes to two single letters of the DNA code arose in the last 200,000 years of human evolution.

They eventually spread throughout the human population along with our unique capacity for speech.

"The idea is that these changes gave some people an advantage because they were able to communicate more clearly," says co-author Simon Fisher of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, UK.

"This variation in the gene expanded in the population and became fixed so everybody had what is now the human version of the gene."

The possibility that language has genetic roots was first raised in the 1960s.

Scientists argue that there must be a genetic basis to speech and language.

It is universal, complex and acquired almost instinctively by children at a young age.

'Hard to digest'

The sequence change identified by the German and British team is thought to be linked to an ability to control facial movements - a faculty crucial to language.

John Haught, Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, Washington DC, is not surprised by the finding, reported in the online edition of the journal Nature.

"What may be harder to digest is that such a momentous outcome as language and culture seems to be so exquisitely dependent on a physically infinitesimal genetic difference that allowed for a certain kind of facial movement in our ancestors," he says.

The researchers stress that other speech and language genes are likely to be discovered.

According to Wolfgang Enard there could be anywhere between 10 and 1,000 such genes.

"We don't think this is THE speech gene," Dr Fisher told BBC News Online.

"It influences the ability to speak clearly. The mutation doesn't remove the capacity for speech completely."

I get these story's using the BBC news ticker, its a little bar that sits on your desktop, and that days headlines scroll across and if you click a headline it takes you right to that story, and its 56k friendly.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/services/ticker/html/default.stm
 
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Anonymous

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I've always wondered how languages were created.I know that most languages in Europe came from Latin and Greek,but how were those created.Did the early inhabitants just point at the ground and say "terra" and so on?:confused:
 
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Anonymous

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Take a look at the Tower of Babel thread, might answer some of your questions or maybe just make you think of a few new ones!
 

ruffready

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Language

I think as humans evolved that someone came along (like that monkey that first thought of washing her food and then every monkey picked it up)like an" Einstien " comes along every 100 years --anyway that creature ore human like ansestor picked up a stick and sais"oga boga luka lou!! and smacked the other on with it that took his banana!!!
 
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Anonymous

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Language is sound.

If our mega-ancient ancestors were capable of making sounds (no doubt whatsoever) and if they were capable of remembering those sounds for later on, then you have the birth of language.

You may utter gibberish when relating to the stick but when that gibberish is remembered for later, it becomes a word. If the people around you continue to use the word then it becomes a language.
 

JamesWhitehead

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Linguistics traces modern languages back to their groups such as
Indo-European, Finno-Ugaric, Altaic etc. seeing them as diverging
as the great Family of Man spread out to populate the globe.

By tracing certain words back to ancient roots, it suggests a
time-scale for the move from hunter-gatherering, nomadic and
pastoral societies.

There are a few languages which seem to be isolated but most
obey set rules of mutation so that tables of like words show
like transformations within their groups.

Digging down through language is very like a sort of archaeology.
Words do get invented but the most basic human activities seem
to have common roots.

I wish I knew more about it but there don't seem to be many accessible
books on modern linguistics written for the general reader.

Recommendations anyone? :confused:
 
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Anonymous

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James Whitehead said:
Linguistics traces modern languages back to their groups such as
Indo-European, Finno-Ugaric, Altaic etc. seeing them as diverging
as the great Family of Man spread out to populate the globe.

By tracing certain words back to ancient roots, it suggests a
time-scale for the move from hunter-gatherering, nomadic and
pastoral societies.

There are a few languages which seem to be isolated but most
obey set rules of mutation so that tables of like words show
like transformations within their groups.

Digging down through language is very like a sort of archaeology.
Words do get invented but the most basic human activities seem
to have common roots.

I wish I knew more about it but there don't seem to be many accessible
books on modern linguistics written for the general reader.

Recommendations anyone? :confused:
Sweating with the effort of trying to recall the linguistics section of the Psych I took as part of Communication Studies at the turn of the 90s, but isn't there research (by Noam Chomsky IIRC) that shows that the 'baby' sounds that kids make before they learn grown-up talk is actually quite narrow in the range of sounds made, and that the same or similar sounds tend to mean the same thing regardles of where in the world the baby uttering the noise is, and regardless of what the parents'/environmental language is. eg. like 'da' tending to mean 'father' regardless of nationality etc. This being taken to be evidence that language might be 'hard-wired' into the human species.

(Damned nightshift: every time I can't get near me books the discussions get more interesting and I'm left banging my head on the desk trying to shake the memories of possibly pertinant data loose and never knowing if I'm making a complete arse of it...)
 

ruffready

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language difficulties

I'm just glad that the british invented english I sure do understand It much better than french !! I had a hard time with french," to much, tongue".:D
 

rynner2

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James Whitehead said:
I wish I knew more about it but there don't seem to be many accessible books on modern linguistics written for the general reader.

Recommendations anyone? :confused:
Robert Oppenheimer's "Eden in the East" covers language developement fairly well, and gives many references.

(This book has also been discussed in Flooded Kingdoms on this forum.)
 

stu neville

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James Whitehead said:
I wish I knew more about it but there don't seem to be many accessible
books on modern linguistics written for the general reader.

Recommendations anyone? :confused:

Chomsky is normally required reading as mentioned above: one of the best books I've read on the subject is "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker - it's both highly readable and informative.

David Crystal's "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" is pricey but well worth a read: most libraries should have a copy (check your school one, James: certainly Colleges usually hold one).

For English specifically, the best one is (and I recommend it to anyone) is Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue" (excerpt here), which is stunningly well written and researched. And as the excerpt shows quite funny, too. Available in
paperback.

Hope that helps.

Stu
 
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Anonymous

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A good, quite up-to-date book is 'Words in the mind' by Jean Aitchison. I've recommended this before I think, but 'The Book of Babel' by Nigel Lewis is good on how deep linguistic structures affect cognition of our environment. And a more general thing about the development of language and culture is 'Genes, People and Languages' by L Cavalli-Sforza.

I'm not sure about the idea that language arose from isolated speech-acts that gradually got formed into a proper vocabulary - ie that language originally got built up from a load of grunts representing 'stick', 'rock', 'deer' and what have you. It seems like a bit of a fiction of origins in the same way as does the idea that society emerged from a load of individuals coming together and agreeing to build a society where none existed before. Also I don't think it's advisable to try to treat language as if its basic building blocks are noun-things - I reckon treating verb-processes as the foundation gets you into fewer difficulties.

I reckon language probably arose very gradually out of our natural social and communicative qualities. Slowly, exclusively gesture-based communication would've been supplemented by noises, in the same ways as monkeys use different noises to mean danger, food, and what have you. I mean, if language just suddenly appeared then no-one apart from whoever invented it would be able to understand the basic concept behind it - they wouldn't know that a noise was supposed to represent something else.

Perhaps that's the real origin of language - our amazing and (apparently) largely unique ability to see one thing as standing in for another, to perceive the world in metaphorical terms.
 

tattooted

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IIRC, one theory was that language arose as a necessity for transmitting technology--i.e. having to find ways to explain varying hunting plans, flint shaping, basket weaving, potting, etc. The idea was that as early humans improved and streamlined best practices for doing things they had to differentiate between "old way of doing things" and "new, improved way of doing things" or "hunting scenario #1" and "hunting scenario #2" and with each modification, more words came into being.

It makes sense in a way if you think about where most of our current new words come from and what words in our language are most prone to become archaic and fall out of use after the technology that spawned them becomes obsolete.
 

rynner2

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A 2-page article here suggests that a a predecessor of African Click languages may have been the first human language.
 
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Anonymous

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Another good overview of modern thought on language and its origin is Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct".

Highly recommended!
 

carole

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Story from the Daily Telegraph:


Baby's first word filled Stone Age Papa with pride
By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent
(Filed: 22/07/2004)

One of the first words to be uttered by Stone Age babies was probably "papa", according to scientists trying to piece together the origins of human language.

Researchers believe the word may have been passed down through the generations from a "proto-language" spoken 50,000 years ago.

However, other linguists have argued that "papa", "dada" and "mama" are common in many languages simply because they are the first noises made by babbling babies.

A new French study has found that the word "papa" is used in almost 700 out of 1,000 languages - and in 71 per cent of cases it means father or a male relative on the father's side.

"There is only one explanation for the consistent meaning of the word 'papa': a common ancestry," said Dr Pierre Bancel, from the Association for the Study of Linguistics and Prehistoric Anthropology in Paris.

He presented the findings at the Origins of Language and Psychosis conference in Oxford this month, New Scientist reported yesterday.

Linguists are divided over the origins of languages and the roots of family words. Some claim they stem from a common language spoken 50,000 years ago or more. Others say the idea of a single "proto-language" is nonsense and that different languages have sprung up independently.

Across the 14 major language groups, the words for mother and father are similar. In Swahili and Mandarin they are mama and baba, in Malay they are emak and bapa, in Apalai - spoken in the Amazon - they are aya and papa, while in Bengali they are ma and baba.

Supporters of the common origins believe these words are proof of a common ancestry. But others say the first noises babbled by babies tend to be ma-ma-ma followed by da-da-da or pa-pa-pa, because of the way the human brain is programmed.

Dr Don Ringe, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said parents associate the first sound babies make with themselves. That could lead to a word like "papa" acquiring a similar meaning in many languages.

Some words of similar sound and meaning, such as the English "day" and the Spanish "dia" are known to have arisen independently.

Carole
 
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Anonymous

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"There is only one explanation for the consistent meaning of the word 'papa': a common ancestry," said Dr Pierre Bancel, from the Association for the Study of Linguistics and Prehistoric Anthropology in Paris.

Or it could be because that's typical of the sounds newborn babies say.

That's just what I've always heard, dunno if its true... but unless he's disproved that, he shouldn't speak so matter-of-factly.

I think tracing something as esoteric as ancient non-written language would be well near impossible...
 
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Anonymous

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Piscez said:
Or it could be because that's typical of the sounds newborn babies say.

But that wouldn't explain the consistency in it's meaning.
 

carole

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Most babies I've had contact with have said 'ba-ba' rather than 'pa-pa'.

Carole
 

Vitrius

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Historical linguistics is my thing.

"proto-world" and all the other pre-proto-language theories are highly contested. It's impossible to trace any given language feature back indefinitely, ESPECIALLY without writing. The closest we get is when we can reconstruct a proto-language based on ALOT of circumstantial evidence from MANY clearly linked languages (famous case: Proto-Indo-European). You can't always tell how words came into a given language either. Lots of borrowing has occured and one word from one language might well resemble one from another because language I adopted it from language II (Latin borrowed a few Etruscan words yet the languages are unrelated). Worse, a language can loan words from another provably related language (English takes many words from Latin, Greek, Scandinavian languages, Celtic languages, and notably, French - all related by means of Indo-European).

We still don't know if many modern day languages which bear resemblences are truly descended from one mothertongue (The Caucasian languages, the Afro-Asiatic languages, ancient Hittite in relation to Indo-European).

Carole: Kids say "ba ba" instead of "papa" because the sounds haven't differentiated yet, either physically or elsewise. You'd have to ask a childhood language specialist for the details, but that's the general idea. And even then, the sound-form the word will take depends on the language/dialect. Arabic speakers keep it as "baba" because the /p/ sound isn't native to Arabic. In English, we actually don't pronounce "papa" with hard p's, but with p's accompanied by little breaths. This is due to a typical rule of English involving /p,t,k/ and the beginning of a syllable. So how kids say it doesn't really say anything special about proto-languages for at least two reasons.

Why the article says English "day" and Spanish "dias" developed independantly, I have no idea. They both descend from an ultimate Indo-European root for day/DIvinity/light/shining/sky, the Spanish word having come through the Italic branch via Latin(dies) and the English word through the Germanic branch via Anglo-Saxon(daeg). The root, a neat one to be sure, shows up all over the place in European languages, from Teusday(twice!) to Zeus.

Edit for link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostratic
 
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Anonymous

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surely it would be along the lines of 'mama' as oppose to 'papa'?

what with it being the mother who in most primitive societies was almost soley responcible for child care?

also how do we know that the family unit which is the percieved norm of today appled in proto-societies? was there an actually 'father' role?

it's all guess work i suppose.
 
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Anonymous

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It's evolutionary common sense for a baby to say "Papa" or "Dada" before "Mama". It's mother loves it anyway, she knows it's hers. The Father is going to need a bit of working on, and a baby that can charm it's Father has a better chance of being provided for, and surviving.
 

Vitrius

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You know, I decided to look at the Lord's Prayer in a bunch of languages to see how the "Father" part worked out, and the words aren't nearly as similar as you'd expect given the mama/papa debate above. Even among related languages/words, there's disparity e.g. Athair in Gaelic and Pater in Latin. I can see the relation, but only because I know the Italic to Celtic conversion rules. Less can be said of something like the Japanese "chichi," and I can even tell which word is supposed to mean father in alot of the texts.

It'd be neat to see if one can find any "phono-semantic" correlates in mystery languages like Voynich and Enochian. Then we'd have something.
 

lemonpie3

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In Japanese 'chichi' is a kind of formal word, more like 'father' than 'daddy'

In fact thinking about it, in Japanese:

Father - ChiChi
Dad - O-Tou-San
Also Papa

Mother - HaHa
Mum - O-Kaa-San
Also Mama

I'll see if i can find out whether Papa and Mama are a recently-acquired western thing. If it is, then that's a weird exception to the general rule.
 

Vitrius

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Which is just more evidence that the papa/mama thing says nothing about protolanguages. If the languages were really descendants from a common (traceable)source, then the formal words would be expected to line up sometimes too. That mama/papa occur again and again only seems to suggest that that's what human babies say first, regardless of language.

A better place to look for protolanguage lexicon is in body parts, numbers, landscape/animal terms that would be common to a originating area, and primitive tools. And there might be some minor evidence here on a lower level: Arabic/Hebrew sitta'/sesh "six", Latin/English sex/six; works for "seven" too. These word categories aren't likely to change as rapidly as others. That's why numbers can be recognized across related languages by most speakers of a given Indo-European language.
 

Melf

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i would thought the pronoucition of mama came first, cos its easier to say
 

Vitrius

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Mama seems to appear less altered across languages than papa/baba which alternates with "dah dah/daddy" type terms. Some languages even use a mama-like word for father!

But it's still coincident on human vocal development and not genetic relations between world language families. The article that started all this uses really old, outdated material as a basis for the theory.
 

SoundDust

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Language & the Human Brain

Link from New Scientist

New language circuit discovered in humans

13:59 13 December 04

NewScientist.com news service


Two pathways, not one, connect the main language areas of the human brain, according to a new study, which also confirms the involvement of an additional brain area involved in the process. The discoveries could force a shift in a long-standing model of human language, and may shed light on the origins of speech in humans.

“Broca’s” area, in the left hemisphere’s frontal region, has long been associated with language production and “Wernicke’s” area, in the left temporal lobe, with comprehension. The two are directly connected by a cable of nerve fibres.

For over one hundred years, neurologists have used patients with brain lesions anywhere in the two hubs or along the route between them to illustrate how important these areas are to language. But there were always lingering questions about whether this was the whole story.

Now Marco Catani at Kings College London, UK, and colleagues have discovered that in addition to the known connection, there appears to be an indirect but parallel neural connection between Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.


Geschwind’s territory

They found the pathway by scanning 11 right-handed male subjects using a technique known as diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging, which can detect nerve fibre connections in the brain.
The new pathway also connects Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas via a third area in the temporal lobe, which has now been named Geschwind’s territory, after the American neurologist who argued for its role in human language back in the 1960s. In the absence of today’s sophisticated brain imaging, he was unable to clinch the case.

Geschwind’s territory is particularly interesting because it matures relatively late, between the ages of five and seven, around the time people develop reading and writing skills, says Catani.

The finding underscores how important it is to understand how brain areas communicate with each other, not just which areas process what, says Catani. In fact, the general wiring of these pathways also exists in monkeys, he says: “The difference lies in the way we strengthened and rearranged these connections.”

Journal reference: Annals of Neurology (DOI: 10.1002/ana.20368)
 

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Published online: 22 September 2005; | doi:10.1038/news050919-10
Grammar analysis reveals ancient language tree

It's not the words, it's how you use them that counts.
Jennifer Wild


When it comes to working out the relationships between ancient languages, grammar is more enlightening than vocabulary, scientists say.

There are some 300 language families in the world today. Researchers have long studied similarities between the words in different languages to try to work out how they are related. But the rate of change in languages means that this method really only works back to 10,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago and by 10,000 years ago had already settled around the globe. So researchers are keen to peer further back in time to see how language evolved and spread.

To do this, Michael Dunn and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Germany decided to look at grammar.

They took Papuan languages of people in the South Pacific as their challenge. Radiocarbon dating shows humans lived more than 35,000 years ago in Melanesia, a group of islands including Papua New Guinea. But the 23 languages that have evolved in this area share few, if any, common words. So the standard techniques cannot reveal much about the languages' histories.

The researchers made a database of 125 grammatical features in 15 Papuan languages. This included how word types, such as nouns and verbs, are ordered in a sentence, and whether nouns have a gender, as they do in languages such as German and French.

As a test case, the team did the same for 16 Austronesian languages - the languages of the Philippines, Indonesia and Southeast Asia - for which vocabulary analysis has already revealed evolutionary roots.

A computer program then analysed the data to determine ancestral language links. This produced up to 10,000 possible family trees and a 'consensus tree' that best fitted the data, the team reports in Science1.

The consensus tree for the Austronesian languages closely fitted the accepted lineage from previous study of vocabulary, which demonstrated the validity of the method. The consensus tree for the Papuan languages then revealed previously unknown relationships between those languages. The people of the Solomon Islands and Bougainville Island, for example, seem to be related in language. Perhaps these people were living in one community on a common land mass more than 10,000 years ago, the researchers suggest.

The tree will need further work before it can be validated, the researchers say. The team's next step is to apply this method to old languages in the Amazon.


References
Dunn AM, Terrill A., Reesink G., Foley R& Levinson S.C. Science, 309. 2072 - 2075 (2005). |


Story from [email protected]:
http://news.nature.com//news/2005/050919/050919-10.html
 

ramonmercado

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Evolutionary Tools Help Unlock Origins of Ancient Languages

Evolutionary Tools Help Unlock Origins of Ancient Languages

The key to understanding how languages evolved may lie in their structure, not their vocabularies, a new report suggests. Findings published today in the journal Science indicate that a linguistic technique that borrows some features from evolutionary biology tools can unlock secrets of languages more than 10,000 years old.
Because vocabularies change so quickly, using them to trace how languages evolve over time can only reach back about 8,000 to 10,000 years. To study tongues from the Pleistocene, the period between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, Michael Dunn and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics developed a computer program that analyzes language based on how words relate to one another. They developed a database containing 125 "structural language features," which include traits such as verb placement within clauses, for two sets of languages. Sixteen Austronesian languages made up the first set; the second was composed of 15 Papuan languages. (The image above shows an outrigger sailing canoe in a region where languages from the two sets are spoken. Called Island Melanesia, it is east of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia.) When the researchers used the new approach to reveal historical connections between languages, the results for the Austronesian languages closely resembled previous results that were based on vocabulary.

In contrast, the vocabulary-based method could not yield results for the Papuan languages but the novel technique did. It suggests that the languages are related in ways that are consistent with geographic relationships between them. In an accompanying commentary, Russell Gray of the University of Auckland in New Zealand cautions that the new technique still has uncertainty. But he contends that the approach "is likely to be widely emulated by researchers working on languages in other regions. In the future we may see the development of Web-based databases for the languages of the world. "

http://sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa0 ... 414B7F0000
 

ramonmercado

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Looks interesting. Much of the technology software used to date on ancient "documents" is labour intensive if you want top class results. The Mormons were useful for providing the bodies for this. I saw them at work in the National Archives of Scotland a few years ago, imaging the old Kirk records.

Could this make the Mormons redundant? At last our ancestors are safe from posthumous conversion!

Technology brings new insights to ancient language
http://www.physorg.com/print174760375.html
October 14th, 2009 in Technology / Engineering


Tablets uncovered at Persepolis in Iran are covered with writing in Aramaic. The archive, being studied at the University of Chicago, provides new insights on the language, which has been written and spoken in the Middle East continuously since ancient times. (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)


(PhysOrg.com) -- New technologies and academic collaborations are helping scholars at the University of Chicago analyze hundreds of ancient documents in Aramaic, one of the Middle East's oldest continuously spoken and written languages.

Members of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California are helping the University’s Oriental Institute make very high-quality electronic images of nearly 700 Aramaic administrative documents. The Aramaic texts were incised in the surfaces of clay tablets with styluses or inked on the tablets with brushes or pens. Some tablets have both incised and inked texts.

Discovered in Iran, these tablets form one of the largest groups of ancient Aramaic records ever found. They are part of the Persepolis Fortification Archive, an immense group of administrative documents written and compiled about 500 B.C. at Persepolis, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Archaeologists from the Oriental Institute discovered the archive in 1933, and the Iranian government has loaned it to the Oriental Institute since 1936 for preservation, study, analysis and publication.

The Persepolis texts have started to provide scholars with new knowledge about Imperial Aramaic, the dialect used for international communication and record-keeping in many parts of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires, including parts of the administration at the imperial court of Persepolis. These texts have even greater value because they are so closely connected with documents written in other ancient languages by the same administration at Persepolis.

“We don’t have many archives of this size. A lot of what’s in these texts is entirely fresh, but this also changes what we already knew,” said Annalisa Azzoni, an assistant professor at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University. Azzoni is a specialist on ancient Aramaic and is now working with the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project at the Oriental Institute. “There are words I know were used in later dialects, for example, but I didn’t know they were used at this time or this place, Persia in 500 B.C. For an Aramaicist, this is quite an important discovery.”

Clearer images delivered more quickly

Scholars from the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California helped the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project build and install an advanced electronic imaging laboratory at the Oriental Institute. Together, the two projects are making high-quality images of the Aramaic texts and the seal impressions associated with those texts. They are distributing the new images to the international research community through the Internet.

Inked and incised texts pose different problems that call for different imaging solutions. Making high-resolution scans under polarized and filtered light reveals the ink without interference from stains and glare, and sometimes shows faded characters that cannot be seen in ordinary daylight. Using another advanced imaging technique, called Polynomial Texture Mapping, researchers are able to see surface variations under variable lighting, revealing the marks of styluses and even the traces of pens in places where the ink itself has disappeared.

Distributing the results online will give worldwide communities of philologists and epigraphers images that are almost as good as the original objects?and in some cases actually clearer than the originals?to study everything from vocabulary and grammar to the handwriting habits of individual ancient scribes.

Researcher Marilyn Lundberg and her colleagues from the West Semitic Research Project built two Polynomial Texture Mapping devices from scratch at the Oriental Institute. They trained Persepolis Fortification Archive Project workers in using them, and also in using filtered light with a camera equipped with a high-resolution scanning device. Now a stream of raw images is uploaded every day to a dedicated server maintained by Humanities Research Computing at Chicago, then uploaded for post-processing at the University of Southern California. Fully processed imagery is available on InscriptiFact, the online application of the West Semitic Research Project, and in the Online Cultural Heritage Research Environment, the online application of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project.

Seeing the whole picture

The Polynomial Texture Mapping apparatus looks a bit like a small astronomical observatory, with a cylindrical based topped by a hemispherical dome. The camera takes a set of 32 pictures of each side of the tablet, with each shot lit with a different combination of 32 lights set in the dome. After post-processing, the PTM software application knits these images to allow a viewer sitting at a computer to manipulate the apparent direction, angle and intensity of the light on the object, and to introduce various effects to help with visualization of the surface.

“This means that the scholar isn’t completely dependent on the photographer for what he sees anymore,” said Bruce Zuckerman, Director of the West Semitic Research Project and its online presence, InscriptiFact. “The scholar can pull up an image on the screen and relight an object exactly as he wants to see it. He can look at different parts of the image with different lighting, to cast light and shadow across even the faintest, shallowest marks of a stylus or pen on the surface, and across every detail of a seal impression.”

“This is a wonderful way to look at seal impressions,” said Elspeth Dusinberre, another Persepolis Fortification Project collaborator. Dusinberre, an associate professor of classics at the University of Colorado, is studying the imagery and the use of seals impressed on the Aramaic tablets. “Some of the impressions are faint, or incomplete, on curved surfaces or damaged surfaces. Sometimes Aramaic text is written across them. You need to be able to move the light around to highlight every detail, to see the whole picture.”

The Persepolis Fortification Archive also includes about 10,000 to 12,000 other tablets and fragments with cuneiform texts in Elamite?a few hundred of them with short secondary texts in Aramaic. There are also about 4,000 to 5,000 others with impressions of seals, but no texts, and there are a few unique documents in other languages and scripts, including Greek, Old Persian and Phrygian.

“That’s what makes this group of Aramaic texts so extraordinary,” Stolper said. “From one segment of the Persepolis Fortification Archive, the Elamite texts, we know a lot about conditions around Persepolis at about 500 B.C. When we can add a second stream of information, the Aramaic texts, we’ll be able to see things in a whole new light. They add a new dimension of the ancient reality.”

Impacts are far-reaching

The collaboration between the Oriental Institute at Chicago and the West Semitic Research Project at Southern California began with support from a substantial grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2007. To date, the teams have made high-quality images of almost all the monolingual Aramaic Fortification tablets. The next phase of the work, supported by a second Mellon grant that runs through 2010, will make images of the short Aramaic notes written on cuneiform tablets, seal impressions on uninscribed tablets and previously unrecorded Elamite cuneiform texts.

The tablets have been studied since they came to Chicago in 1936, and many of them have been sent back to Iran. Oriental Institute scholar Richard T. Hallock published about 2,100 of the Elamite texts in 1969, and Margaret Cool Root and Persepolis Fortification Archive Project collaborator Mark Garrison are completing a three-volume publication of the impressions made on those documents by about 1,500 distinct seals.

These publications have had far-reaching results. “They have transformed every aspect of modern study of the languages, history, society, institutions, art and religion of the Achaemenid Persian Empire,” Stolper said. “No serious treatment of the empire that Cyrus and Darius built and that Alexander destroyed can ignore the perspectives of the Fortification Archive.”

“If that is the effect of a sample of one component of the archive,” added Garrison, “imagine what will happen when we can have larger samples and other components, and not just the written record, but the imagery, the impressions made by thousands of different seals that administrators and travelers?the men and women who figure in the texts?employed.”

By 2010, the collaborating teams expect to have high-quality images of 5,000 to 6,000 Persepolis tablets and fragments, and to supplement these with conventional digital images of another 7,000 to 8,000 tablets and fragments. The images will be distributed online as they are processed, along with cataloging and editorial information.

“Thanks to electronic media, we don’t have to cut the parts of the archive up and distribute the pieces among academic specialties,” said Stolper. “We can combine the work of specialists in a way that lets us see the archive as it really was, in its original complexity, as one big thing with many distinct parts.”

Provided by University of Chicago
 
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