The Key to Cracking Ancient Languages?

December 10, 2018

Broken and scorched black by fire, the dense, wedge-shaped marks etched into the ancient clay tablets are only just visible under the soft light at the British Museum. These tiny signs are the remains of the world’s oldest writing system: cuneiform.

Developed more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where modern-day Iraq now lies, cuneiform captured life in a complex and fascinating civilisation for some three millennia. From furious letters between warring royal siblings to rituals for soothing a fractious baby, the tablets offer a unique insight into a society at the dawn of history.

They chronicle the rise of fall of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia, the world’s first empires. An estimated half a million of them have been excavated, and more are still buried in the ground.

However, since cuneiform was first deciphered by scholars around 150 years ago, the script has only yielded its secrets to a small group of people who can read it. Some 90% of cuneiform texts remain untranslated.

That could change thanks to a very modern helper: machine translation.

“The influence that Mesopotamia has on our own culture is something that people don’t know much about,” says Émilie Pagé-Perron, a researcher in Assyriology at the University of Toronto. Mesopotamia gave us the wheel, astronomy, the 60-minute hour, maps, the story of the flood and the ark, and the first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. But its texts are mainly written in Sumerian and Akkadian, languages that relatively few scholars can read.

Pagé-Perron is coordinating a project to machine translate 69,000 Mesopotamian administrative records from the 21st Century BC. One of the aims is to open up the past to new research.

“We have information about so many different aspects of the lives of Mesopotamian people, and we can’t really profit from the expertise of people in different fields like economics or politics, who if they had access to the sources, could help us tremendously to understand those societies better,” says Pagé-Perron.

Apart from the clay tablets, there are also more than 50,000 Mesopotamian engraved seals scattered in collections around the world. For millennia, the people of Mesopotamia used seals made of engraved stone that were pressed into wet clay to mark doors, jars, tablets and other objects. Only some 10% of these have even been catalogued, let alone translated.

“We have more sources from Mesopotamia than we have from Greece, Rome and ancient Egypt together,” says Jacob Dahl, a professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford. The challenge is finding enough people who can read them.

Pagé-Perron and her team are training algorithms on a sample of 4,000 ancient administrative texts from a digitised database. Each records transactions or deliveries of sheep, reed bundles or beer to a temple or an individual. Originally impressed into the clay with a reed stylus, the texts have already been transliterated into our alphabet by modern scholars. The Sumerian word for big, for example, can be written in cuneiform signs, or it can be written in our alphabet as “gal”.

The wording in these administrative texts is simple: “11 nanny goats for the kitchen on the 15th day”, for example. This makes them particularly suitable for automation. Once these algorithms have learned to translate the sample texts into English, they will then automatically translate the other transliterated tablets.

“The texts we’re working on are not very interesting individually, but they’re extremely interesting if you take them as groups of texts,” says Pagé-Perron, who expects the English versions to be online within the next year. The records give us a picture of day to day life in ancient Mesopotamia, of power structures and trading networks, but also of other aspects of its social history, such as the role of female workers. Searchable translations would enable researchers from other areas to explore these rich facets of life in the ancient world.

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