Ancient Cybertronian text

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Tomorrow is the U.S. release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. (Warning: clicking on that link will cause Linkin Park to start playing the chorus of New Divide through your computer's sound system, which may not be what you want…)

Some parts of the movie were shot here at Penn — including one scene in the Quad, where I live:

In this screenshot from the trailer, the (added by me) red ellipse marks my dining room window, next to which I generally sit while blogging at breakfast. The trailer suggests that I can expect to get cinematically blown to CGI bits along with pretty much every everything else in the movie.

This geographical accident is not the only linguistic connection. According to the Wikipedia entry's plot description, "Sam Witwicky heads off to college in an attempt to live a normal life. Whilst packing, he finds another shard of the AllSpark which fills his mind with ancient Cybertronian text."

Sam in turn carves some of this text in the turf, as shown here:

It seems that this ancient Cybertronian text is the movie's MacGuffin — "the language Sam sees is of the Dynasty of Primes, the original seven Transformers, who powered the AllSpark like a battery by destroying suns", according to Wikipedia. And the text somehow encodes "information on the location of a new energon signal", which the evil transformers want to dissect Sam's brain to find. Or something like that.

Perhaps there's a well-defined made-up language behind this text, but if so, I haven't been able to learn anything about it. Maybe that's just as well.

[Update — Roger Ebert was not impressed:

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is a horrible experience of unbearable length […]  If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.

The plot is incomprehensible. The dialog of the Autobots, Deceptibots and Otherbots is meaningless word flap. Their accents are Brooklyese, British and hip-hop, as befits a race from the distant stars. Their appearance looks like junkyard throw-up. They are dumb as a rock.

I guess it follows from this, as Michael Cieply tells us in the NYT's Media Decoder column, that "company executives were privately speculating that the new “Transformers” film had a shot at becoming Paramount’s second-highest grossing film, behind 'Titanic'".  I can't wait to see it, myself. ]

[Update #2 — Cosma Shalizi, in a characteristically astute comment, points us to a review by Charlie Jane Anders, "Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie", which I can't resist quoting in part:

Critical consensus on Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is overwhelmingly negative. But the critics are wrong. Michael Bay used a squillion dollars and a hundred supercomputers' worth of CG for a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot. […]

Since the days of Un Chien Andalou and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmmakers have reached beyond meaning. But with this summer's biggest, loudest movie, Michael Bay takes us all the way inside Caligari's cabinet. And once you enter, you can never emerge again. I saw this movie two days ago, and I'm still living inside it. Things are exploding wherever I look, household appliances are trying to kill me, and bizarre racial stereotypes are shouting at me. Transformers: ROTF has mostly gotten pretty hideous reviews, but that's because people don't understand that this isn't a movie, in the conventional sense. It's an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery.



  1. Ransom said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

    Doesn't look particularly phonetic, does it. =)

    [(myl) Well, relative to what sounds?

    Some clues might be afforded by the Transformers Wiki page on Cybertronian languages, or by Lady Starscream's Cybertronian language theory page, which I've resisted the temptation to study. ]

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    I think the generalization at work in Ransom's comment is interesting: it is my intuition as well that character complexity increases with phonologico-semantic complexity, i.e., logographs will be more geometrically complex than syllabics, which will be more complex than alphabetic symbols. However, this could just be my assumption based on the Latin alphabet and Chinese. Any ideas if there's any truth to it?

  3. dr pepper said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:27 am

    Just watch, some students are going to take this as a challenge and sneak over one night to plaster the outside of your window with a decal of a giant robot looking in.

  4. Jonathon said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    Some clues might be afforded by the Transformers Wiki page on Cybertronian languages, or by Lady Starscream's Cybertronian language theory page, which I've resisted the temptation to study.

    I think I've just found a topic for my master's thesis!

  5. Aaron Davies said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    well, there's certainly some fairly simple information-theoretic things going on that make a logographic script expressing 20,000 words require more complexity in at least some of its glyphs than one expressing 200 syllables or 20 sounds.

    [(myl) All this assumes the smug species-ist prejudice that the digital elements of a phonological system should be few in number, say 20 or 40. But these are machines from outer space. Maybe their language is based on a VQ codebook with 64K entries? ]

  6. Mark P said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    I think you should have warned readers that a spoiler was coming up. Based on a review of the new Transformers movie, "blown to CGI bits" apparently sums up the movie pretty completely.

  7. Chris said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    I agree with Aaron: there's only so many simple symbols you can make and distinguish from one another, so if you need a large symbol set, at least some and probably the majority of the symbols are going to be complex.

    On the other hand, if you don't need the complexity of the symbols to distinguish them from one another, users of the language will probably simplify them over time.

  8. outeast said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Do let us have your thoughts on the movie when you've seen it, Professor!

    [(myl) On balance, I agree with the consensus of my 13-year-old acquaintances, one of whom called it "indescribably awesome". I also disagree strongly with Roger Ebert's claim that "the plot is incomprehensible", and less strongly with Charlie Jane Anders' analysis that this is "a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot". In my opinion, the plot is pretty simple and basic: kid goes to college, the world explodes, kid settles in to finish the term. A universal human experience since the first universities were founded a millennium ago.

    My 13-year-old consultant also suggested that older people have problems with the movie because (a) they don't recognize the different transformers as individuals, and (b) they're not used to recent cartoons and video games. So what seems to them like "a male choir singing the music of hell, and … a kid … banging pots and pans together" seems to the younger generation like an ordinary sort of interesting narrative experience. ]

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    I am struck by the anarthrous "Quad." A peculiarity of Penn's local dialect when compared to the dialects of other U.S. universities? (Also thought it mildly noteworthy that the wikipedia article for a lowbrow U.S. movie was written in a non-U.S. dialect, as witness "whilst.")

    [(myl) Alas, I think that the anarthrous Quad was a typo.]

  10. Sili said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    I'm continually amazed by what parts of my online existence that seem to come together at times.

    Transformers was certainly not among the things I'd expected to see here. (No, I'm not a fan, myself – have the age to recall the toys, but they never caught on with me. But I am a fan of the webcomic Shortpacked that makes a living from mocking toy collectors and the TF franchise specifically.)

    Now I know which door to knock, if I'm ever lucky enough to visit Penn. Nice digs.

  11. grackle said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    "which one of the evil transformers want to dissect Sam's brain to find"

    Interesting choice of antecedent for 'want" in that phrase. My impulse wants it to be 'wants' as in, 'one wants to dissect', or am I misreading?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Several months ago, a researcher from M. Night Shyamalan's production team called me and asked me to invent a script for their next film. They said that it should "look like Chinese but isn't really." They showed me a sample that someone else had created for them, and it strongly resembled the Cybertronian text depicted in the photograph above. I don't know why, but they said they weren't satisfied with the sample they sent to me.

    I told M. Night's people that it would be easy for me to make up such a script that looked like Chinese but wasn't really. After all, the artist XU Bing did that with his TIAN1SHU1 天書 ("A Book from the Sky"), and I could have fiddled with an imaginary script along those lines, or could even have come up with something more outlandish depending upon the theme of the film.

    When I hesitated (do I have time for this sort of thing?), they offered me a lot of money, and I said I'd think about it. After thinking about it, I decided that I'd rather spend my spare (heh!) time blogging for Language Log. They were quite disappointed, but somewhat mollified when I gave them some other names of people who like to design real fake writing.

    Incidentally, the Cybertronian script shown above is not the same script as that scrawled on the greenboard in the trailer, so Sam Witwicky is going to have a very difficult time deciphering it/them. I guess I'd better watch the darn film to see how it turns out, but I don't think I could stand to sit through it. Would someone else please kindly tell me what happens?

  13. rpsms said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    I think r2d2 said it best:

    "Beep boop whistle squee"

  14. y said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    I'm not sure why they would need to invent a script, when there are already a number of existing scripts that could fit into the category of "look like Chinese but isn't really". The Yi script in Unicode is readily available, and there are others like Nüshu, Jurchen, Khitan, and Tangut for which one could probably find fonts. A trip to Omniglot would have given them plenty to work with.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    Y: I suggested that to them, but they didn't go for it. They wanted something completely made up. They didn't want a script that exists now or that has ever existed in this world.

  16. Lance said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

    The new M. Night movie is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which takes place in a fantasy, non-Earth setting, but with cultures that resemble several Earth cultures, including China. That would be why they want something that resembles Chinese, but want to stay away from any existing Earth script. (The early stages of production received criticism when the director cast Caucasian teenagers in the fantasy-but-clearly-Asian roles.)

  17. Karen said,

    June 24, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    As always, Ebert manages to miss a plot point (which is not to say he may not be totally correct on the larger picture). Since the Autobots learned English from radio & television, it makes sense their accents would be terrestrial. (NB: I am not going to comment upon the feasibility of learning a language that way… )

  18. Aaron Davies said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    @Chris: indeed. compare the original chinese characters, practically hieroglyphic in their detail, with what they've worn down to after a few thousand years of use. (the same thing happened another few millennia earlier with cuneiform, of course.)

  19. dr pepper said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:21 am

    Easy. Define a 16 by 16 matrix. Define basic segment shapes. Some occupy a single cell, some span 2 or 3 cells. Define thickness changes between cells. Then for as many characters as you want, create a random number of segments. You can even skew the proportions to favor certain shapes or positions, or use successive segments to limit the possibilites for the remaining ones. A little tweaking and you should be able to create any number of character sets each with a sort of internal consistancy.

  20. Cosma said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    Sure, Ebert hates it, but io9 thinks it's the culmination of cinema's century-long quest for the total derangement of the senses.

    [(myl) Makes sense to me — I can't wait! ]

    (Is Penn insured against giant robot attacks? If not, why not?)

    [(myl) I hope so. But at the moment, there's more evidence of concern about H1N1 pandemic possibilities, among other less spectacularly explosive dangers.]

  21. Greg said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    @ dr pepper & mair

    Another possibility would be to create a set of character components that have a 1:1 correspondence with actual Chinese character components. There might have to be a little bit of fudging, but it would be preferable (quicker, easier) if you were actually required to produce coherent and consistent words/phrases/sentences with the script. Less original, but hey, they want it to "look like" Chinese.

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