Languages unlocked: articulating ancient cultures

  • Many of the wonderful and varied languages spoken globally can trace their history back to just a few sources.
  • Now Oxford researchers have recreated what they claim is the mother tongue of one of the largest group of languages spoken around the world - the Indo-European languages.
  • Professor John Coleman (Phonetics) and colleagues have developed a way to simulate extinct sounds from this Proto-Indo-European language that was spoken around 6,000 to 3,500 BC.
  • This 'mother tongue' evolved over time to spawn more than 440 modern languages. Most of the European languages including English, French, Spanish and German descended from this ancient way of speaking along with many on the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, including Punjabi, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto, Russian and Ukrainian.
  • As no texts exist, linguists have struggled to reconstruct the original language and the way it sounds.
  • Researchers have now recreated it, by analysing the languages descended from it and manipulating the shape of the soundwaves to reveal how words would have sounded.
  • They triangulate backwards from contemporary audio recordings of simple words in modern languages to regenerate audible spoken words from the past. To achieve this the researchers apply speech signal processing techniques borrowed from speech synthesis to analyse the modern recordings, represent them using mathematical functions, infer possible and probably ancestral forms, and finally convert the inferred ancestral forms back into audible speech.