Whenever we boot up our time machines
, cruise back to 1200 B.C., and try to pick up chicks at our favorite wine bar in Western Syria, our rudimentary knowledge of Ugaritic is usually more embarrassing than helpful. The good folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
have us stoked on some new software we hope to have in pocket form soon. It analyzes an unknown language by comparing letter and word patterns to another known language (in Ugaritic's case, its close cousin is Hebrew) and spits out a translation quickly, using precious little computing power. To give some perspective, it took archaeologists four years to do the same thing back in 1928. It's not quite Berlitz yet, but this proof of concept is kind of like the Michael Jordan of computational linguists -- it's probably the first time that machine translations of dead scripts has been proven effective. If we plug some hopeful numbers into our TI-83, we calculate that we'll be inserting our own genes into the ancient Syrian pool in a matter of months. Thanks, MIT!
[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons