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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have produced a powerful new software program that has the potential of helping scholars resurrect ancient languages that so far have proven impenetrable.

Using Ugaritic as a test case, researchers fed the computer samples of Ugaritic’s cuneiform script, along with additional information about Hebrew, a closely related language. After a few hours, the program had correctly linked letters and words to map nearly all of the Ugaritic symbols to their Hebrew equivalents.

The program also correctly identified Ugaritic and Hebrew words with shared roots 60 percent of the time, according to an article on National Geographic‘s website.

Ugaritic didn’t need translating — that feat was accomplished by dedicated linguists in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The computer’s ability to make so much progress, however, suggests that it might be further improved and put to work translating other ancient languages, such as Etruscan, that have few extant texts and continue to stump scholars.

Texts from ancient Ugarit, a Canaanite city that came to be known as Ras Shamra, have shed important light on our understanding of the Bible by informing our understanding of Canaanite gods like Baal and Astarte, often criticized in the Old Testament.

If computers can help us gain greater understanding of other ancient languages, perhaps we’ll learn other important lessons about life in antiquity, and such knowledge is always welcome.

[The image, or a juridical text in Ugaritic cuneiform, is from Wikipedia Commons.]

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