No matter whether you speak English or Urdu, Waloon or Waziri, Portuguese or Persian, the roots of your language are the same. Proto-Indo-European is the mother tongue – shared by several hundred contemporary languages, as well as many now extinct, and spoken by people who lived from about 6,000 to 3,500 BC on the steppes to the north of the Caspian Sea.

They left no written texts and although historical linguists have, since the 19th century, painstakingly reconstructed the language from daughter languages, the question of how it actually sounded was assumed to be permanently out of reach.

Now, researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have developed a sound-based method to move back through the family tree of languages that stem from Proto-Indo-European. They can simulate how certain words would have sounded when they were spoken 8,000 years ago.

The shape of sounds

Remarkably, at the heart of the technology is the statistics of shape.

“Sounds have shape,” explained Professor John Aston, from Cambridge’s Statistical Laboratory. “As a word is uttered it vibrates air, and the shape of this soundwave can be measured and turned into a series of numbers. Once we have these stats, and the stats of another spoken word, we can start asking how similar they are and what it would take to shift from one to another.”

A word said in a certain language will have a different shape to the same word in another language, or an earlier language. The researchers can shift from one shape to another through a series of small changes in the statistics. “It’s more than an averaging process, it’s a continuum from one sound to the other,” added Aston, who is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. “At each stage, we can turn the shape back into sound to hear how the word has changed.”

Rather than reconstructing written forms of ancient words, the researchers triangulate backwards from contemporary and archival audio recordings to regenerate audible spoken forms from earlier points in the evolutionary tree. Using a relatively new field of shape-based mathematics, the researchers take the soundwave and visualise it as a spectrogram – basically an undulating three-dimensional surface that represents the shape of that sound – and then reshape the spectrogram along a trajectory signposted by known sounds.

While Aston leads the team of statistician shape-shifters in Cambridge, the acoustic-phonetic and linguistic expertise is provided by Professor John Coleman’s group in Oxford.

Number game

The researchers are working on the words for numbers as these have the same meaning in any language. The longest path of development simulated so far goes backwards 8,000 years from English one to its Proto-Indo-European ancestor oinos, and likewise for other numerals. They have also gone forwards from the Proto-Indo-European penkwe to the modern Greek pente, modern Welsh pimp and modern English 
five, as well as simulating change from Modern English to Anglo-Saxon (or vice versa), and from Modern Romance languages back to Latin.

Other audio demonstrations are available here.

“We’ve explicitly focused on reproducing sound changes and etymologies that the established analyses already suggest, rather than seeking to overturn them,” said Coleman, whose research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

They have discovered words that appear to correctly fall out of the continuum. “It’s pleasing, not because it overturns the received wisdom, but because it encourages us that we are getting something right, some of the time at least. And along the way, there have also been a few surprises!” The method sometimes follows paths that do not seem to be etymologically correct, demonstrating that the method is scientifically testable and pointing to areas in which refinements are needed.

Remarkably, because the statistics describe the sound of an individual saying the word, the researchers are able to keep the characteristics of pitch and delivery the same. They can effectively turn the word spoken by someone in one language into what it would sound like if they were speaking fluently in another.

Evolution of language

They can also extrapolate into the future, although with caveats, as Coleman described. “If you just extrapolate linearly, you’ll reach a point at which the sound change hits the limit of what is a humanly reasonable sound," he said. "This has happened in some languages in the past with certain vowel sounds. But if you asked me what English will sound like in 300 years, my educated guess is that it will be hardly any different from today!”

For the team, the excitement of the research includes unearthing some gems of archival recordings of various languages that had been given up for dead, including an Old Prussian word last spoken by people in the early 1700s but borrowed into Low Prussian and discovered in a German audio archive.

Their work has applications in automatic translation and film dubbing, as well as medical imaging (see panel), but the principal aim is for the technology to be used alongside traditional methods used by historical linguists to understand the process of language change over thousands of years.

“From my point of view, it’s amazing that we can turn exciting yet highly abstract statistical theory into something that really helps explain the roots of modern language,” said Aston.

“Now that we’ve developed many of the necessary technical methods for realising the extraordinary ambition of hearing ancient sounds once more,” added Coleman, “these early successes are opening up a wide range of new questions, one of the central being how far back in time can we really go?”

Audio demonstrations are available here:

This article first appeared on the University of Cambridge website.