Archive for Decipherment

Codes, ciphers, and cryptography à la chinoise et à la japonaise

This is a passage from chapter 3 of Dan Brown's Digital Fortress (1998)

Eventually one of them [VHM:  NSA cryptographers] explained what Becker had already surmised. The scrambled text was a code‑a “cipher text”‑groups of numbers and letters representing encrypted words. The cryptographers’ job was to study the code and extract from it the original message, or “cleartext.” The NSA had called Becker because they suspected the original message was written in Mandarin Chinese; he was to translate the symbols as the cryptographers decrypted them.

For two hours, Becker interpreted an endless stream of Mandarin symbols. But each time he gave them a translation, the cryptographers shook their heads in despair. Apparently the code was not making sense. Eager to help, Becker pointed out that all the characters they’d shown him had a common trait‑they were also part of the Kanji language. Instantly the bustle in the room fell silent. The man in charge, a lanky chain‑smoker named Morante, turned to Becker in disbelief.

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Proto-Indo-European laks- > Modern English "lox"

From the time I began the systematic study of the language family in the summer of 1990, I have known that the word "laks-" ("salmon") is important for the early history of Indo-European, yet I felt that something was not quite right about the claims put forward in this article:

"The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years:  The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived."

Sevindj Nurkiyazova, Nautilus, May 13, 2019

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Inscription decipherment with digital image enhancement

John Bellezza, an archeologist and cultural historian whose work focuses on the pre-Buddhist heritage of Tibet and the Western Himalaya, and who has lived in high Asia for three decades, sent me the following two photographs of inscriptions that he took at Lake Gnam-mtsho, Tibet (TAR):


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Flag codes: another type of Hong Kong resistance writing

This photograph is from a little over a year ago, when the former Hong Kong UK consulate worker Simon Cheng was kidnapped by the CCP government and taken to China where he was tortured and forced to make a "confession":

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Google, the wannabe Egyptologist

Sensational article by Hagar Hosny in Al-Monitor (7/23/20):

"Google presents new tool to decode hieroglyphics:  Google has created a new tool to translate hieroglyphics into English and Arabic at the stroke of a key."

It starts like this:

In a July 15 press release, Google announced the launch of a new tool that uses artificial intelligence to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and translate them into Arabic and English.

Google said that the tool, dubbed Fabricius, provides an interactive experience for people from all over the world to learn about hieroglyphics, in addition to supporting and facilitating the efforts of Egyptologists and raising awareness about the history and heritage of ancient Egyptian civilization.

“We are very excited to be launching this new tool that can make it easier to access and learn about the rich culture of ancient Egypt. For over a decade, Google has been capturing imagery of cultural and historical landmarks across the region,” Chance Coughenour, program manager at Google Arts and Culture, said in the statement.

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Unknown Language #12

From Aman ur Rahman:


(Face)

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The sound and sense of Tocharian

Readers of Language Log will certainly be aware of Tocharian, but when I began my international research project on the Tarim Basin mummies in 1991, very few people — only a tiny handful of esoteric researchers — had ever heard of the Tocharians and their language since they went extinct more than a millennium ago, until fragmentary manuscripts were discovered in the early part of the 20th century and were deciphered by Sieg und Siegling (I always love the sound of their surnames linked together by "und"), two German Indologists / philologists — Emil Sieg (1866-1951) and Wilhelm Siegling (1880-1946), in the first decade of the last century.

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Scripts at risk

Andrea Valentino has an intriguing article in BBC Future (1/21/20):  "The alphabets at risk of extinction:   It isn’t just languages that are endangered: dozens of alphabets around the world are at risk. And they could have even more to tell us."

Usually, when we worry about languages going extinct, we are thinking about their spoken forms, but we are less often concerned about their written manifestations.  As Valentino puts it,

This might have something to do with the artificiality of alphabets. Language is innate to all humans, but scripts have to be invented and actively learned. This has happened rarely. Even by the middle of the 19th Century, only 10% of adults knew how to write, and there are only about 140 scripts in use today.

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The Voynich Manuscript in the undergraduate curriculum

[This is a guest post by J.W. Brewer]

Among the courses available to Yale undergraduates this fall semester is the one whose description I've cut and pasted below.  It's taught by Prof. Claire Bowern.  I can't recall anything quite like this offered in the department when I was an undergraduate major way back in the 1980's, but a) using an interesting-sounding controversy that outsiders may have heard of to draw them into the discipline is maybe a good outreach strategy; and b) at least some of the then-current Chomskyan doctrine covered in a syntax class I took with Larry Horn is apparently no longer believed by anyone (Chomskyans included) and is perhaps in hindsight now in the same class of theory as some of the more fanciful interpretations of the Voynich MS.

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The indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript

Less than half a year ago, we were treated to yet another among countless claims for the decipherment of the mysterious Voynich manuscript (henceforth "Vm"):  "Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19).  I was skeptical then and am even more skeptical now after having read this article:

Peter Bakker, "The Voynich manuscript: the decipherment of ms. 408", Lingoblog (9/10/19)

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Cryptic, allusive messages from Hong Kong's wealthiest tycoon

People have been wondering when Hong Kong's magnates would speak out on the prolonged protests in their city.  Finally one has.  That's Li Ka-shing, the richest of them all:  "HK Billionaire Li Ka-Shing Breaks Silence Over Protests" (8/15/19 newscast on YouTube).  He took out full page advertisements (both seem to be on the front page) in two of Hong Kong's most influential financial newspapers:  Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Here's the first:

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Voynich code cracked?

Since high school, the Voynich manuscript is something that I have puzzled over from time to time.  What language and script is it written in?  What's it about?  Although no one has been able to read the manuscript since Wilfrid Voynich, the PolishSamogitian bibliophile and book dealer first brought it to light more than a century ago, the evocative illustrations and mysteries swirling around it have led to many fruitless attempts at decipherment.

Now a British academic (in Journal of Romance Studies) declares that it was a manual for nuns written in unencrypted proto-Romance:

"Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text", University of Bristol (May 15, 2019).

A University of Bristol academic has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed—by cracking the code of the 'world's most mysterious text', the Voynich manuscript.

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

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