Ancient Sounds tracks changes in languages as they spread across different countries

Cecil Lee (Flickr)

What did words used to sound like?

Matt Pickles

What did ancient words spoken in Europe and Asia over 6,000 years ago sound like?

A project at Oxford University is using scientific methods to answer this question.

'Since the 19th century, historical linguists have tackled this question by studying the forms of words in many languages at different points in history, using that knowledge to infer the forms of words from a time before writing,' says Professor John Coleman, Principal Investigator of the Ancient Sounds project, which is based in the Phonetics Laboratory, part of Oxford's Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics.

'We are taking a revolutionary new approach, which combines acoustic phonetics, statistics and comparative philology.

'Rather than reconstructing written forms of ancient words, we are developing methods to triangulate backwards from contemporary audio recordings of simple words in modern Indo-European languages to regenerate audible spoken forms from earlier points in the evolutionary tree.'

In 2013 the project reconstructed the pronunciation of spoken Latin words for numbers. This year Professor Coleman has a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to extend this work to Germanic languages like English, German dialects and Dutch, as well as Modern Greek.

For example, the English word 'three' comes from Proto-Indo-European word 'treyes', a word rather like the Spanish 'tres'. This sound file shows the possible linguistic development of the word.

The English 'two' comes from Proto-Indo-European 'dwoh', as illustrated in this sound file.

The project is also investigating questions like: How far back in time can extrapolation from contemporary recordings progress? How “wide” and diverse must a language family tree be in order to triangulate to sounds that are plausible i.e. reasonably consistent with written forms from antiquity? Do sound changes proceed at a uniform, gradual rate?

Professor Coleman spoke about his project yesterday (7 September) at the British Science Festival in Bradford and will present at the Oxford University Alumni Weekend later in the month.

Readers can follow the project’s updates on the Ancient Sounds website and Twitter feed.

Ancient Sounds is run in collaboration with the Statistical Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.