What secrets do ancient languages reveal about our past?

January 17, 2024

Every word, every sentence you speak could not have been possible without the ancient languages that were spoken thousands of years ago. Much like a seed that grows into a tree, our modern languages have their roots in these ancient tongues. From the dramatic narratives of Greek mythology to the practical manuals of Roman engineers, these languages have shaped the way we think, perceive, and interact with the world. The study of these scripts not only provides an insight into the evolution of language but also helps us decode the mysteries of our past.

Deciphering Ancient Texts: A Journey Back in Time

When it comes to understanding our past, ancient texts are an invaluable resource. The words etched in stone or inscribed on papyrus provide a snapshot into the lives of individuals, societies, and civilizations from bygone eras. However, deciphering these texts is not an easy task.

Imagine standing in front of the Rosetta Stone, a slab of granodiorite inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC. This famous stone bears the same text in three different scripts: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although the stone itself might seem mundane, it played a crucial role in understanding the Egyptian hieroglyphs, a script that had been lost to time.

By comparing the three scripts, linguists could decode the Egyptian text, opening the door to a wealth of knowledge about this ancient civilization. However, language translation is not always this straightforward. Many ancient scripts remain undeciphered, locking away secrets of our past.

The Role of Machine Learning in Language Decipherment

In recent years, machine learning has emerged as a powerful tool for deciphering ancient languages. Traditionally, the work of translation has been painstaking, requiring extensive knowledge of language structure and history. However, machine learning models can simplify this process by recognizing patterns in the data and making educated guesses about meaning.

For instance, a machine learning model might be fed a database of Latin texts. By analyzing this data, the model learns the rules and structures of the Latin language. It can then apply these rules to decipher other similar scripts, like Etruscan or Oscan, both pre-Roman languages with limited surviving texts.

Machine learning is particularly useful for languages where we have only fragmentary evidence. In these cases, human translators may struggle to make sense of the text. But a machine can process vast amounts of data quickly, identifying patterns and connections that might be missed by the human eye.

How Ancient Languages Shape Our Understanding of History

The study of ancient languages does more than just satisfy our curiosity about the past. It informs our understanding of historical events, cultures, and societies. For example, the translation of the Rosetta Stone not only provided scholars with an understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs but also shed light on the political and social context of the time the decree was issued.

Similarly, the study of ancient Greek texts has broadened our knowledge of Greek philosophy, politics, and society. Greek dramas, written in verse, were not just means of entertainment but also offered insights into Greek values, beliefs, and the societal norms of the time.

Ancient languages also provide a unique perspective on the evolution of human thought and culture. The shift from pictographic scripts, like hieroglyphs, to alphabetic scripts, like Greek and Latin, represents a significant step in human cognitive development. This change enabled more precise expression of abstract ideas and complex concepts, paving the way for advances in philosophy, science, and arts.

The Contemporary Relevance of Ancient Languages

While ancient languages may seem a thing of the past, they continue to influence us in ways often overlooked. For instance, many English words have their origins in Greek and Latin. The Greek word ‘demokratia’, meaning rule by the people, gives us ‘democracy’, a concept central to many modern political systems. Similarly, the Latin word ‘scriptura’, meaning a thing written, gives us ‘script’, a term widely used in the fields of writing and computing.

Ancient languages also play a vital role in education. Learning an ancient language like Latin or Greek can provide a deeper understanding of modern languages. It can also enhance analytical thinking skills, as it requires understanding complex grammatical structures and a nuanced vocabulary.

Moreover, there is a growing interest in digitizing and preserving ancient texts. These digital archives not only make historical texts more accessible to researchers and the public but also provide a resource for machine learning models. The data from these texts can be used to train models, enhancing their ability to decipher and translate ancient scripts.

In conclusion, ancient languages are not a relic of the past but a living part of our present. They are keys that unlock knowledge and understanding of our history, culture, and human cognition. Whether it’s through the work of linguists, the power of machine learning, or the curiosity of ordinary individuals, the exploration of these languages continues to reveal secrets about our shared past and shape our future.

The Power of Artificial Intelligence in Deciphering Lost Languages

Artificial intelligence, particularly its subset "deep learning", has proven to be a game-changer in the field of decoding ancient languages. Deep learning essentially teaches machines how to learn by example, much like how humans do. It has been transforming several industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation, but its application in the field of linguistics and historical research is arguably one of the most exciting.

For instance, a team of researchers recently used machine learning to make significant progress in deciphering the Indus script. The Indus script, used in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, has remained a mystery for over a century. With limited reference texts and no Rosetta Stone-like artifact, human efforts have yet to crack this script. However, artificial intelligence, with its capability to process vast amounts of data swiftly, offers a new hope.

The team fed thousands of images of Indus symbols into a deep learning model. The model analyzed these symbols, identified patterns, and provided predictions about how the symbols connect to form phrases and sentences. While it did not fully decode the Indus script, it highlighted connections and patterns that were previously unnoticed, providing a fresh perspective to linguists and historians.

Such breakthroughs highlight how artificial intelligence can supplement human efforts, accelerating the decipherment of lost languages and unveiling the secrets of ancient civilizations.

The Role of Ancient Languages in Contemporary Cultural Identity and Heritage

Understanding ancient languages goes beyond academic curiosity or the thrill of discovering our shared human history. It plays an integral role in shaping our cultural identity and heritage. These languages serve as a testament to the resilience of human civilizations, providing glimpses into our ancestors’ lives, their struggles, triumphs, and wisdom passed down through generations.

In a world that is rapidly evolving, ancient languages provide a sense of continuity and connection. They remind us of our roots, influencing our art, literature, science, philosophy, and even our legal systems. Years ago, these languages were the medium through which our forebears communicated, documented their knowledge, and expressed their creativity.

Today, these languages are preserved in various forms, from the inscriptions in historical monuments to the manuscripts in the British Museum. They are not only studied for their historical significance but are also celebrated as a symbol of cultural heritage. Efforts are underway globally to teach ancient languages to the younger generation, to keep that connection to our shared past alive.

Moreover, with the advent of artificial intelligence, the study of ancient languages has entered a new era. It is no longer confined to linguists or historians. Today, anyone with curiosity and the right tools can explore these languages, contributing to the collective knowledge of humanity.


It’s fascinating to see how ancient languages, from Ancient Greek to the undeciphered Indus script, continue to impact our lives today. Whether it’s studying ancient texts to understand our past, analyzing patterns through machine learning to decipher lost languages, or embracing these languages as part of our cultural identity, our relationship with ancient languages is ever-evolving.

While some may view ancient languages as archaic or irrelevant, they hold the keys to unlocking our past and understanding our shared human journey. As we continue to explore these languages, we are not just deciphering texts but also unraveling the complexities of human civilization and our collective identity. It’s a journey that not only reveals where we’ve been but also guides us towards where we are headed.

In essence, ancient languages are not just about words etched in stone or scripted on papyrus, they are timeless bridges connecting us to our past, anchoring our present, and guiding our future.