A group has created a new computer system that can quickly reconstruct protolanguages, the rudimentary ancient tongues from which modern languages evolved. And their tool is already 85 percent as accurate as the manual reconstructions performed by expert linguists, they write in PNAS.

Protolanguages are reconstructed by grouping words with common meanings from related modern languages, analyzing common features, and then applying sound-change rules and other criteria to derive the common parent.

The new tool designed by Bouchard-Côté and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley analyzes sound changes at the level of basic phonetic units, and can operate at much greater scale than previous computerized tools.

The researchers reconstructed a set of protolanguages from a database of more than 142,000 word forms from 637 Austronesian languages--spoken in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and parts of continental Asia.

"We're hopeful our tool will revolutionize historical linguistics much the same way that statistical analysis and computer power revolutionized the study of evolutionary biology," says University of British Columbia Assistant Prof. of Statistics Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, lead author of the study. "And while our system won't replace the nuanced work of skilled linguists, it could prove valuable by enabling them to increase the number of modern languages they use as the basis for their reconstructions."