Machine Analysis of Sumerian.

Sophie Hardach writes for BBC Future on new technology helping to unlock old tablets:

[…] 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. […] 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. […]

“Sumerian is probably the last member of what must have been a large family of languages that goes back thousands and thousands of years,” says Irving Finkel, the curator in charge of the 130,000 cuneiform tablets stored at the British Museum. “Writing appeared in the world just in time to rescue Sumerian… We’re just lucky that we had some ‘microphone’ that picked it up before it went away with all the others.”

Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. I assume the tablet scanning machine has at least one powerful laser, many arms tipped with various sharp implements, and has been equipped with the latest AI? And that many of the tablets feature incantations to summon an ancient evil? I know a good supervillain origin story when I see one.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    what must have been a large family of languages that goes back thousands and thousands of years

    Unfair to nitpick a basically sound and interesting story, I suppose; but there’s no reason that Sumerian necessarily ever belonged to a large family that I can see, though of course that is perfectly possible. Five thousand years back, the linguistic situation worldwide will surely have featured many more small families and isolates than in our day.

    There is a pleasing symmetry in the ancient accountants’ invention of writing being interpreted by our own ultimate accountants’ tool, the computer. But AG’s scenario is much more interesting …

  3. Genesis of the Sumerian language family as described in ancient sources:

    In those days, the lands of Subur (and) Hamazi,
    Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the decrees of princeship,
    Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
    The land Martu, resting in security,
    The whole universe, the people in unison
    To Enlil in one tongue [spoke].

    (Then) Enki, the lord of abundance (whose) commands are trustworthy,
    The lord of wisdom, who understands the land,
    The leader of the gods,
    Endowed with wisdom, the lord of Eridu
    Changed the speech in their mouths, [brought] contention into it,
    Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.

  4. It’s interesting. The Sumerians just happened to develop a way of living that was new, and that later on a lot of other people copied. But were they a branch of a larger cultural family, the rest of which has disappeared without trace? Or were they a smallish group that was culturally distinct?

    I hope that this project can give us more answers.

  5. SFReader: I would not be at all surprised to discover that the project is being funded by L. Bob Rife.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Stephenson displays some fairly radical misunderstandings about language in Snow Crash, sadly. I much prefer Anathem, unfortunately for reasons impossible to explain without serious spoilers. I will say it contains a line about protractors which is possibly my favourite line in all SF.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    AG wins the thread.

  8. David Eddyshaw: unfortunately I can’t discuss Snow Crash here either, for the obvious spoilerific reasons. I think Anathem is “harder” SF in a way, as in Stephenson is closer to his comfort zone. He seems to have a Platonic view of language and consciousness (he’s really confused about it, none the less). And that paradoxically makes it “harder” SF, in the dudebro kind of way.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    The best of all SF novels based on wonky linguistics just has to be Babel-17. Delaney is good enough that I just didn’t care about the Sapir-Whorf-ish stuff being Wrong; it’s all worth suspending your disbelief for.

  10. Yes! Man, I really have to reread that — it’s one of the things that led to my majoring in linguistics.

  11. But what is the worst science fiction novel about language?

  12. John Cowan says:

    I think that sf writers don’t even try unless they already know a good deal about language.

  13. January First-of-May says:

    I think that sf writers don’t even try unless they already know a good deal about language.

    That and many of the ones that look worst (I think a few of Lem’s works are like that) are very clearly parodies (and/or very clearly postmodernist).

    Ironically enough, I’d probably include Arrival (aka the one where learning an alien language causes time travel) as one of the worst I’m aware of, personally, despite (perhaps because of?) its recent popularity.
    Granted, my impression of it mostly comes from online reports; I hadn’t actually read it (or watched the movie).

  14. I strongly suggest you read it. It seems very odd to me to judge a work (especially one so acclaimed) without having experienced it.

  15. I mean, “Story of Your Life” is a short story, not War and Peace.

  16. Brett: In answer to your question, I do not know what the worst science-fiction novel about language is, but the following book, which I very much enjoyed, both as a linguist and as a science-fiction reader (Meyers, Walter Earl. 1980. ALIENS AND LINGUISTS: LANGUAGE STUDY AND SCIENCE FICTION: University of Georgia Press) gives a number of truly impressive instances of atrocious linguistics in otherwise excellent science-fiction: it would probably be a good place to start.

    And I have to echo David Eddyshaw: to my knowledge, the evidence that Sumerian is the last survivor of a once-widespread language family is…wholly non-existent, actually.

  17. The Story of Your Life is not that bad, again if you suspend your disbelief well enough. I haven’t seen the film though. I think the honor of worst Sapir-Worf-based SF work has to be The Languages of Pao, and still it’s not that bad, just pulpy.

    Babel-17 is great; I read the Bulgarian translation at a very early age and it lead to my life-long love of Delaney. It eventually lead to the monumental task of me reading Dhalgren. Took me a year but it was worth it.

    David Eddyshaw: have you read Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones? It was published in Bulgarian together with The Einstein Intersection, IIRC. Or maybe it was with Aye, and Gomorrah, I can’t recall right now.

    As of Lem, he was clearly pulling our collective leg with the linguistics in the Cyberiad.

    EDIT: Another author that comes to mind when talking about weird liguistics done sort-of-well in SF is C. J. Cherryh.

  18. It eventually lead to the monumental task of me reading Dhalgren. Took me a year but it was worth it.

    Ha — I was excited when it came out but gave up halfway through. It was not the Delaney I had come to know and love.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    have you read Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones?

    No. Sounds like I should …

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    Re Arrival, Ted Chiang’s original story does a much more plausible job with the language-and-time-travel thing than the movie, though I can see why the adaptors felt that most of Chiang’s superior-grade technobabble was a bit too cerebral to adopt. My physics-graduate son found the story much better than the film.

    China Miéville’s Embassytown deserves an honourable mention, though it requires rather more willing suspension of disbelief than Babel-17.

  21. Charles Perry says:

    Among the stellingen at the end of Jagersma’s A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian I once found the following (somehow I can’t find it there anymore): Het Soemerisch gesproken door Buffy the Vampire Slayer behoort tot een ander dialect dan die beschreven in deze grammatica.

  22. Re Arrival, Ted Chiang’s original story does a much more plausible job with the language-and-time-travel thing than the movie, though I can see why the adaptors felt that most of Chiang’s superior-grade technobabble was a bit too cerebral to adopt. My physics-graduate son found the story much better than the film.

    I agree that the story is better than the film in those respects, but stories and movies are very different things and I have different expectations of them; I loved the movie despite the various sillinesses (see my review).

  23. I really want to like China Miéville as an author, but I find his narratives hard to follow, even harder than Thomas Pynchon. And I like Charlie Stross a lot and Ken MacLeod. Ken is a bit weird but understandable. But China’s prose is really hard for me to grasp. Maybe there is a certain Scottish sensibility that I don’t grasp, having not lived there.

  24. David Eddyshaw says:

    Het Soemerisch gesproken door Buffy the Vampire Slayer behoort tot een ander dialect dan die beschreven in deze grammatica.

    Tee hee. Makes me think even better of Jagersma. One difficulty is that as Buffy is both female and a superhero/demigoddess she would presumably speak some sort of Emesal, too, in Real Life.

    I was impressed that BtVS even tried.

  25. Wait. China’s not Scottish? I assumed he was.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    Admittedly Miéville himself has a somewhat Glaswegian look.
    Charlie Stross was born in Leeds.
    Ken MacLeod, though … yup. Hardcore.
    (Personally I particularly like the fact that McLeod’s novels have actual politics in them.)

  27. David Eddyshaw: I have zero experience with Buffy the Vampire Slayer lore. It is not a television show that was broadcast here. Seems interesting, though. What is “Emesal”?I

    I know Charlie’s from Leeds and Ken is weird about leftist politics. But have you read Ken’s novels? I used to think he was over the top about British politics — now it seems like he was too timid. When I read The Execution Channel a few years ago it seemed absurd — now it seems normal.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Have you read Ken’s novels?

    With enjoyment; it probably helps that his politics are not all that remote from mine, though I’m pretty sure I’d appreciate his work anyway.

    I feel somewhat inhibited in pontificating about Emesal when ə can do it much better, but it’s basically a dialect of Sumerian different from the main “Emegir” dialect. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what it was exactly, but it seems to be a sociolect not a regional dialect; texts put it in the mouth of women and goddesses, and of a particular class of priests who may have been eunuchs.

    I am unworthy to describe Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You must experience it for yourself.

  29. willing suspension of disbelief

    Tolkien from his lecture/essay “On Fairy-Stories, where he explains that in his opinion dramatized fantasy is not very successful, as the dramatic presentation of the fantastic is likely to seem merely silly to the audience:

    I once saw a so-called “children’s pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring. As it was, though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.

    Tolkien did not, of course, foresee the immense development of special effects in film.

    “Donna the Vampire Slayer” is a fine crossover fanfic between BtVS and The West Wing. I saw all of the latter (and loved it) and none of the former, but enough tropes have filtered into my consciousness, and the story makes enough clear, to make it easy to follow. (Unfortunately I cannot recommend the two sequels.)

  30. Probably OT– I’ve just finished ‘Senlin Ascends’, which is a SFF novel about someone who goes up the Tower of Babel. Oddly, actually very oddly, it has nothing whatever to do with language. Interesting story, though.

  31. That is odd, but bear in mind that OT is not a thing here at the Hattery. I post about whatever catches my fancy, and let the conversation wander where it will. I refer you to this 2004 post as a random example that comes to mind: Germans in Siebenbürgen, the armistice of Padua, Dacia Porolissensis, a manaical and corrupt barf-bag named Gheorghe Funar, the Klausenburger Hasidim of Brooklyn, putative Illyro-Thracian substrates, Sesut, Crimean Goths, Zipsers, Flemings, Armenians (complete with jokes), and Székelys, Székelys, Székelys!

  32. I once saw a so-called “children’s pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring.

    Echoed in “The Prestige”:

    The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled…if people actually believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn’t clap, they’d scream. Think of sawing a woman in half.

  33. David Eddyshaw: Big Buffy the Vampire slayer fan here, and it should not be too surprising that they tried to use Sumerian: in the season 4 finale “Restless” a key detail involves a (very pertinent) poem in…Ancient Aeolic Greek (something I doubt any similarly popular TV Show ever made use of).

    John Cowan, V: Oh, don’t I envy you both. If either or both of you so choose(s), you will get to experience Buffy the series for the first time. Like David Eddyshaw I do not think I can do it justice: I will say that in my experience it is quite simply the best television series ever made. Two students (themselves fans) at my first real teaching job drew my attention to it, and I found it to be an excellent show, which I am not ashamed to say was very cathartic as well, something I needed at the time (I’ll spare you the details, but the last year of my doctorate was exceptionally unpleasant emotionally). And whatever one’s evaluation of the series as a whole, it is undeniable to my mind that several episodes (“The body”, “The gift”, “Once more with feeling”, “Fool for love”, “Hush”, “Restless”, “Seeing red”, “Passions” come to mind) are genuine works of art.

  34. Probably OT– I’ve just finished ‘Senlin Ascends’, which is a SFF novel about someone who goes up the Tower of Babel.

    Not OT, because Ted Chiang’s first published story was “Tower of Babylon”, which is about someone who goes up the Tower of Babel! (It also has nothing to do with language.)

    Did you know that, or is this just one beezer of a coincidence?

  35. My wife watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was first on, but it was very much seen as a guilty pleasure among the women in our (early twenties) circle of friends. It was so manifestly a show intended for teenagers, and the later seasons seemed to rely strongly on the proposition that its fans had largely not been watching since the outset.

    When it was possible to binge watch it, first on DVD, then online, I was surprised that the huge and frequent retcons did not bother people. However, I am apparently just much more sensitive to that than most television viewers. The later years of LOST were cringe inducing, and I eventually gave up watching the new Doctor Who as it spent more and more time pretending that it had a coherent myth arc. At least I could pretend that Heroes only had one season.

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    Apart from the truly enormous retcon in Season 5, which is also an enormous plot point, (and is trailed at the end of Season 4!) I don’t think BtVS is particularly egregious in that regard. (But then I was surprised by the plot twist in the movie Arrival even though I had actually read the short story first, so I may not be the best person to pronounce on such issues.)

    I went from BtVS-as-guilty-pleasure to out-and-proud Buffy fan years back. But then I am a teenager. Spiritually. Forever panting and forever young …

  37. @ajay
    Complete coincidence.

  38. John Cowan says:

    People did scream and flee the theater (and the show had to be closed for the night) on one memorable occasion when a member of the audience volunteered to be sawn in half. He went up the aisle, climbed onto the stage, was duly divided and reunited, and walked back down the aisle — until his upper half fell off, his lower half collapsed to the floor, and both halves began to crawl along the floor in opposite directions!

    (The top half was a person born without legs balanced on the shoulders of the lower half, a person of short stature. The original “volunteer” was the legless man’s otherwise identical twin brother!)

  39. Anaximander says:

    Player of Games by Iain M. Banks rather heavily relies on what I’m sure is a rather simplistic take on Sapir-Whorf, but is wonderful nonetheless. All of the Culture novels are great.

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