Reconstructing the Earliest Languages

prometheus_engineer1Remember that scene in Prometheus when David, the ship’s AI, was studying ancient languages in the hopes of being able to speak to the Engineers? The logic here was that since the Engineers were believed to have visited Earth many millennia ago to tamper with human evolution, that they were also responsible for our earliest known languages. In David’s case, this meant reconstructing the ancient tongue known as Proto-Indo-European.

Given the fact that my wife is linguistics major, and that I love all things ancient and historical, I found the concept pretty intriguing – even if it was a little Ancient Astronauts-y. To think that we could trace words and meaning back through endless iterations to determine what the earliest language recognized by linguists sounded like. Given how many tongues it has “parented”, it would be cool to meet the common ancestor.

prometheus-lingua2And now there is a piece of software that can do just that. Thanks to a group of linguists and computer scientists in the US and Canada, this program has shown the ability to analyze enormous groups of languages to reconstruct the earliest human languages, long before there was writing. By using this program and others like it, linguists may one day know how people sounded when they talked 20,000 years ago.

Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, a University of British Columbia statistician, began working on the program when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. By using algorithms to compare sounds and cognates across hundreds of different modern languages, he found he could predict which language groups were most related to each other. Basically, a sound that remained the same across distantly-related languages most likely existed early in our linguistic evolutionary tree.

Primary_Human_Language_Families_MapModern linguists speculate that the earliest languages that led to today’s tongues include Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Afroasiatic and Proto-Austronesian. These are the ancestral language families that gave rise to languages like Celtic, Germanic, Italic and Slavic; Arabic, Hebrew, Cushite and Somali; and Samoan, Tahitian, and Maori. Though by no means the only language family trees (they do not account of Sub-Saharan Africa or the pre-Columbian Americas, for example), they do encompass the majority of spoken languages today.

For their purposes, Bouchard-Côté and his colleagues focused on Proto-Austronesia, the family which led to today’s Polynesian languages as well as languages in Southeast Asia and parts of continental Asia. Using the software they developed, they were able to reconstruct over 600 ancient Proto-Austronesian languages and published their findings in the December issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

proto=austronesianIn their paper, Bouchard-Côté and his researchers said this of their new program:

“The analysis of the properties of hundreds of ancient languages performed by this system goes far beyond the capabilities of any previous automated system and would require significant amounts of manual effort by linguists.”

Ultimately, this program could allow linguists to hear languages that haven’t been spoken in millennia, reconstructing a lost world where those languages spread across the world, evolving as they went. In addition, it could be used for linguistic futurism, anticipating how languages may evolve over time and surmising what people will speak and sound like hundreds or even thousands of years from now.

Personally, I think the ability to look back and know what our ancestors sounded like is the real prize, but I’d be a poor sci-fi nerd if I didn’t at least fantasize about what our language patterns will sound like down the road. Lord knows its been speculated about plenty of times thus far, with thoughts ranging from Galego (a Slavic-English hybrid from Dune), the Chinese-English smattering used in Firefly, and City Speak from Blade Runner.

Hey, remember this little gem? Bonus points to anyone who can translate it for me (without consulting Google Translate!):

Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem, bitte! Lófaszt! Nehogy már! Te vagy a Blade, Blade Runner! Captain Bryant toka. Meni-o mae-yo.

Sources: IO9,

The New Robot FACE

You ever hear that saying about how it takes 17 muscles to smile, 43 to frown? Aside from encouraging people to smile more, this should tell you something about the human face. Namely, that it’s got a very complex makeup, with many, many moving parts. So it goes without saying that creating an artificial face that could mimic human expressions would be one huge undertaking.

As it turns out, a recent story from Io9 reveals that researchers working for the University of Pisa have created a robot face that can actually pull most, if not all of them, off. Known as a “Hybrid Engine for Facial Expressions Synthesis” (HEFES) this robot has demonstrated the ability to portray a full range of emotions, though they admit that the grimace is still a bit off.

Designed using one of the team member’s wives as the model, the robot  is aptly named “FACE”. According to lead researcher, Nicole Lazzeri, the end result is “really realistic,” and also represents a major step forward in both robotics and AI research. Hmm, that make’s two steps forward, by my reckoning. To quote Ghost in the Shell: “It has a voice, now it just needs a body”!

The countdown to David 8 is on!

Check out the video of FACE making… ahem… faces!

Expressive Robot Face

Prometheus Landing, New Trailer!

Yes, you read that right. Ridley Scott and his production team have released yet another preview for their upcoming summer blockbuster hit, Prometheus. Now how many does that make now? Three video clips of the actual movie, plus those two viral videos they released as promotional side-shows? That would make five clips in total now, yes?

All I can say is, this movie better be epic! After this kind of build-up, nothing less will do!

‘Prometheus’ writer Jon Spaihts on science fiction worldbuilding

Recently, iO9 – the online technology magazine – caught up with Jon Spaihts, one of the writers for the upcoming Prometheus movie. In the course of their interview, they discussed what it takes to build sci-fi worlds and the challenges facing sci-fi writers. Of particular interest was Spaihts inclusion of hard science in his sci-fi scripts, the nature of the movie, the Alien universe, and what it was like to work with Ridley Scott. Interesting reading, follow the link below to read about the whole interview:

Prometheus Writer Jon Spaihts Interview

New Prometheus Clip

I came across this clip this morning and was absolutely wowed. Not only is this yet another awesome preview of the upcoming Prometheus movie, it manages to establish the movie’s deep background even further and does so in a way that’s both plausible and relevant to today. Exploring the upcoming technological singularity, the birth of nanotech, biomedical and AI, and previewing the birth of the Weyland Corp – which as we all know went on to become Weyland-Yutani, the biggest monopoly in the history of the human race.

But don’t take my word, check it out for yourself. I feel like writing now, which is how I feel whenever I see something really inspiring! And God damn if this wasn’t a far better use of Guy Pierce’s talents than that cheesy movie Lockout!

Weyland Industries “David 8”: a Prometheus preview

Just caught this, thanks to a scholar I follow (thanks Owl!). It certainly is an interesting way to go about previewing his new movie, but then again, Ridley Scott has always been known for being a creative bastard! In addition to revisiting the universe of aliens, he seems to be doing everything in his power to give it some genuine subtext and backstory.

As I’m sure we all remember, in the universe of Alien and Aliens, Weyland-Yutani was responsible for running… well, everything. In addition, “artificial lifeforms” or “synthetics” like Ash and Bishop were considered commonplace on board company ships, it seemed only natural that we that this movie give us a preview of their predecessors.

Good watching. Click on the video below and you’ll see…