Universal Understanding, Universal Machine

Roughly six weeks ago, I went to see The Imitation Game – I caught one of the last English-language screenings in my city. Opinions might vary about this movie, but Alan Turing’s attitude, as shown in the film, reflected the mindset of a true programmer. True programmers, when they face a specific problem, tend to go one abstraction level up, and create a solution not just for the problem at hand, but for an entire class of similar problems. In fact, this is the very attitude that gave us language technology.

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And they shall be at liberty to keep festivals and make rejoicings

… says the decree that Ptolemy V issued in 196 BC, at the time of his accession to the Egyptian throne. He – or the people who erected the stele with this text – probably didn’t know what joy they had actually given to later generations: first, to Jean-François Champollion; second, to historians who could finally understand ancient Egyptian scripts and unravel Egyptian history; third, to language technicians who found yet another historic item that they could use as legacy and name their products after.

Maybe the last part is a bit too sarcastic because the Rosetta stone and its likes hold real value for all these people – I mean, beyond the symbolic significance. In fact, the Rosetta stone is not the most important or the best-preserved specimen of its kind (see another example here) – but it had been discovered first, which made it the primary vehicle of deciphering the Egyptian scripts. Continue reading

Doing the Hard Work

The most straightforward and most laborious way to cross the language gap is to learn another language, and translate for others who don’t speak it. History says this work is so arduous that humankind doesn’t keep it up for long.

My help in this post is a book called Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World, written by British linguist Nicholas Ostler. In this book, he studies languages that prevailed over large areas for significant periods in human history. Ostler’s book is a quest to find out why and how those languages prevailed while others didn’t, and how they lost their significance over time (if that happened). Continue reading

Disruption and Progress

In this blog, I promised stories about the history of language technology, and the promise still stands: stories will come. But the things that happen in science and technology do not happen in themselves or by themselves, and when you tell stories about events in technology, it helps if you are conscious about how and why they happen.

Humankind created amazing things since the dawn of history, which brought about unprecedented wealth and an almost twofold increase in the life expectancy of those lucky enough to be born in the so-called “developed” world. This makes us talk about the development – or progress – of science and technology, and the improvement of the quality of life along with it. Continue reading

What makes languages different? Part Two: Signals and Understanding

When we speak, we emit signals1,2, mostly audible ones – although we shouldn’t ignore the accompanying body language that forms the visual part. These signals are formed – encoded – from the items in the mental lexicon. It’s quite astonishing, in fact: whatever form a lexicon item takes in our minds, it’s translated into a hugely complex choreography of many-many muscles in our body3. The conversion of an electric signal into sound – the job of a loudspeaker4 – is much more direct and much simpler.

When we hear speech, we receive the audible signal that is created through that immensely complex dance of muscles. Our brain needs to match this signal against the mental lexicon, finding a combination of items that are similar enough to what we just heard. So, on the receiving end the audio signal is translated into something conceptual, and on the transmitting end (the source), the conceptual items translate into body movements. No wonder we need two very different regions in our brains for that, one to understand, and another to form (produce) speech. This also partly explains why we understand things we don’t deliberately speak. Continue reading

What makes languages different? Part One: Language and languages

They say there were 6,909 different registered languages in the world as of 2009 (source: Ethnologue, SIL International, 2009). But there are many aspects that make us decide that two different individuals speak two different languages. One of these aspects is how well the two of them can understand each other (or if they can understand each other at all). Another aspect is when the two individuals declare that they speak two different tongues, even while they understand each other without a problem. The latter is the identity aspect, which quickly becomes a language policy dimension, escalating to all-round politics, sometimes with wars fought about it.

I will deliberately ignore this latter dimension, and focus on how well those two individuals understand each other. This is where technology can help us. As to technology helping politics, I would not go so far as to envisage some sort of a clever decision-planning computer, simply because I can’t imagine it. On the other hand, war is something that technology can assist pretty well.

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