Mystery script in a library book

« previous post | next post »

We received the following intriguing note at Language Log Plaza:

Hey there, my name's Dan and I work at the Calistoga library. I found this little note in a book that was returned and I'm curious what script it's in.
At first I thought it was in Cherokee, but then looked closely and saw it wasn't.
It was returned in a Spanish-language book, if that's any clue.

A cursory look through writing systems on Omniglot didn't turn up a match. Can Language Log readers identify the script (assuming it's a script)?

Update, 12/31: We have a solution! From Luigi in the comments:

It's written SOTERCED in Geronimo Stilton's language in "The kingdom of fantasy" – Fantasian alphabet. Stilton is an Italian cartoon character. Soterced is the reverse for 'decretos' [decrees] in Spanish.

The Kingdom of Fantasy is the English title of a children's book originally published in Italian by Elisabetta Dami (but credited to the protagonist, a mouse named Geronimo Stilton). In the book, coded messages are presented, and they rely on a simple substitution cipher with symbols for the ciphertext. Here is the key to the cipher:


  1. Arika Okrent said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Looks like a made-up conscript to me. The tell is the little curl on the top of the 6th character. It is added on in a non-fluent way that makes me think it stands for some defined detachable element (a sound? a meaning piece?) and it has the feel of a person puzzling out some kind of formula as they go along.

  2. Tanek said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    Reminds me of things like the "code" along the pages of books like Artemis Fowl. I'm very interested to see if it is an actual script.

  3. rapanui said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

    Some or the symbols vaguely remind me of handwritten Russian capitals. The fact that one symbol is displayed in identical shape suggests more than a joke.

  4. Brayden said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

    They look almost like alchemical symbols (the first one is similar to arsenic, the fifth is similar to filter, etc.)

  5. Mara K said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    It's not the Gnommish substitution cipher from the Artemis Fowl novels, which was my first thought, nor the Daedric substitution cipher from the Elder Scrolls games, which was my second.

    But I agree with Dr. Okrent that we're looking for a con-script (hyphen added to make this discussion less military), and our search will be easier and more fruitful if it comes from an existing work of fiction. Maybe it's a Spanish substitution cipher. Can Dan tell us what book the note was in?

  6. Michael said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    It looks familiar to me, particularly the first two characters. I have a feeling that it's origin is science-fictional. I can say for certain that it isn't Klingon, Vulcan, Romulan, Dalek, Elvish or Dwarvish (Tolkien's version, anyway). Beyond that, I'm afraid my memory fails.

  7. Robbie said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

    Although I don't recognise the precise characters, the style looks familiar. I'd say this is some sort of occult symbolism.

    The last five characters strongly resemble spirit seals and occult symbols used to construct talismans. The first three are vaguely similar to symbols used in alchemy or some types of witchcraft. They would also make sense if the writer was constructing a sigil, as described in the book Practical Sigil Magic (among others). The non-fluent writing style would be normal for someone copying unfamiliar talismanic characters and trying to get them exactly right.

    Some medieval and Renaissance talismans as an example:

  8. John Thayer Jensen said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 1:29 pm

    Comment to get on the comment e-mail list.

  9. Brooklyn Codger said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 1:39 pm

    Oh, you found my shopping list. I was wondering where I left that.

  10. Matt Keefe said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    This looks like the doodling of somebody with an interest in orthographies; I do it myself from time to time and repeating one of the characters later in the sequence is something I find myself naturally inclined to do. The characters appear to be partly made from manipulations of common elements which evolve along the sequence – the first three involve a triangle while the next four involve curling flourishes. That looks to me like someone playing around with shapes, experimenting with different elements and throwing in variations inspired by what they've already done. I always destroy my doodles to make sure I'm not responsible for precisely this kind of confusion.

  11. Deborah Lipp said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    It's not Theban or Angelica, although it bears similarities. This is interesting:

  12. Karen said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    The second one reminds me of the glyph for earth from Stargate

  13. Dan said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    Hey everyone! Thanks for looking into this.

    The book was "Metafisica 4 en 1" by Conny Mendez, which includes "Metafisica al Alcance de Todos," "Te Regalo lo que se te Antoje," "El Maravilloso Numero 7," and "Quien es y Quien fue el Conde de St. Germain." So it is a metaphysics book, but I've looked through it and don't see any symbols.

  14. Paul Wilkins said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    Erich von Daeniken may have an idea. The first is an alien lander, the second shows the crew disembarking. The third is either a weapon or a loudspeaker, maybe both.

  15. John from Cincinnati said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    I believe the eight symbols are intended to be read right to left.

    Symbol 1 is a minimalist rendering of the face of a cat. Picture the symbol with a circle around it, if you will. For convenience call the cat Mehitabel.

    Symbol 2 is exactly what it appears to be, a scroll. The tack stuck in it is actually a typewriter key. Mehitabel is creating a document.

    Symbol 3 shows the scroll falling off a shelf where it had been archived.

    Symbols 4 and 5 show an entity with a curly tail reading the discovered scroll. The entity is a "square", i.e. clueless, so perhaps it represents a young dog. For convenience call it Pete the Pup.

    Symbol 6 is an arrow, obviously to be read as "with the result that …".

    Symbol 7 is a gimbal mounted webcam. The dog has initiated a Skype session with …

    Symbol 8 a cockroach. How can you not see this? It's archy.

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    Matt Keefe: Finding such symbols in a library book is curious; finding them in a shredder bin verges on sinister.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

    I agree with the expert: it's very recently made up and hasn't been practiced.

    The third is either a weapon or a loudspeaker, maybe both.

    "Broken… broken… broken… hairdryer… broken… lock and load!"
    – The Doctor

  18. Oop said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    Looks a bit like Tifinagh (which is another one of those real scripts everybody thinks were made up for an Ed Wood scifi flick) but isn't.

  19. Rohan Dharwadkar said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    To me, that third glyph from the right sort of looks like the Bengali এ. And could that line at the bottom be inspired by the horizontal line ("shirorekha") that often graces the top of words written using Indic abugidas? Seen from this angle, the second and fifth glyphs from the right do kind of resemble the vowel marks for [i] in several Indic scripts…

  20. Thomas P said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 8:01 pm

    Why doesn't Dan of the Calistoga Library give the borrower of the book a call?
    I suspect it is some variation of "Happy New Year!'.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 8:28 pm

    (which is another one of those real scripts everybody thinks were made up for an Ed Wood scifi flick)

    How many of these are there?

  22. Deborah Lipp said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 9:26 pm

    I just showed it to 6 occultists and we've all agreed it's made up. A new creation.

  23. AG said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 9:56 pm

    I used to draw letters like these in high school when I was into ambigrams. Looks like a "J" but upside-down it's an "h" sort of thing.

    So to me this looks a bit like somebody wrote most of the strokes in "Theology" or something similar upside down and then added flourishes to disguise it. That's probably just coincidence, but that's what sprang to mind.

  24. David said,

    December 30, 2016 @ 11:26 pm

    My strongest guess is SALVADOR if the cipher is simply a substitution code designed to be read right-to-left. I looked up eight-letter names and scrolled through a list to find names with only one letter repeated within them (the 4th and 7th characters for left-to-right, the 2nd and 5th characters for right-to-left). There are a few names which meet this criteria (e.g. "Columbus" or "Claudius"). However, "Salvador" satisfies both the Spanish and religious criteria. Just a guess.

  25. David Morris said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 12:13 am

    If it is a simple letter substitution code, and the source language is English (I don't know about Spanish letter distribution), then the 4th/7th letter is most likely to be 'e', and the last letter could be 's', 'd' or 'r'. But there's nothing else to indicate which other letters are vowels or consonants. The first three letters could easily be CCC (screamed, streamer etc) or CVC (can't think of an example).

  26. Luigi said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 5:21 am

    It's written SOTERCED in Geronimo Stilton's language in "The kingdom of fantasy" – Fantasian alphabet. Stilton is an Italian cartoon character. Soterced is the reverse for 'decretos' in Spanish.

  27. decrptos said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:50 am

  28. JB said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    The reference to St Germain ought to be enough to shift the discussion from metaphysics to "metaphysics".

    Try Trithemius instead.

  29. Glenn Branch said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

    I think that Luigi is right; I will add that SOTERCED is DECRETOS (decrees; orders) spelled backward.

  30. Glenn Branch said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:03 pm

    Whoops, Luigi spotted that already.

  31. Gwen Katz said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    What strikes me is how familiar everyone has found it, even people who didn't know what it was. I found it very evocative of this con script I made up in middle school for passing notes and such. Their G and S symbols, in particular, are very similar to symbols from my script.

    Has anyone studied con scripts and how they tend to differ from regular alphabets? Curlicues and closed polygons seem particularly common.

  32. Mark S said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    When I was 10, I was involved in some sort of fund-raiser. I offered to sell con-scripts (though I called them "codes") to my fellow students. I was actually surprised that there was a market for such a thing, because I had thought anyone could do it.

RSS feed for comments on this post