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How do computers help decode inscrutable ciphers?

Back in the 1940s, mathematician Warren Weaver made an audacious suggestion: what if translation was not a feat of literary theory and linguistics, but one of cryptography? Weaver suggested treating a foreign text as if it were a code to be broken. (This theory was the early basis of machine translation, a subfield of computational linguistics.) This metaphor of foreign language as code means that statistics and other tools of cryptography can be used to translate texts from one language to another. Today, it is the basis for programs like Google Translate.

This theory was also recently used to decode the Copiale Cipher, a manuscript from the 1800s. By making a machine-readable version of the text, a team of computational linguistics were able to run the characters through a software program that found patterns in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable. It turns out the manuscript was made by a secret society to explain their initiation rites. There are also portions that include political treatises on the natural rights of man. During the 1800s, secret societies of this sort flourished, and historians still speculate about their role in the French Revolution and the formation of the modern democratic state. The decoding of these documents could be very helpful to historians, as well as to linguists and cryptographers. For an academic explanation of the cryptographers work, see their paper here.

There are many types of ciphers, but the most simple cipher replaces letters of the alphabet with other letters in order. If A is replaced with C, B is replaced with D, and so on. The Copiale Cipher relied on a technique called homophonic substitution, that uses more than the number of characters in the original alphabet to represent the sounds of text.

Of course, another manuscript still defies any code-breaking and translation attempts: the Voynich Manuscript from the early 1400s. Read more about it here.

What do you think of these code-breaking technologies?

73 Comments

  1. QWERTYUIOPASDFGHJKLZXCVBNM -  November 3, 2011 - 8:10 am

    O.K. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Vikhaari -  November 1, 2011 - 12:42 pm

    FANTASTIC!!!

    However, who’s in the brain of “pal”, computer, or machine original source to decode? It’s creator. The real “pal’s” PAL and perhaps without relizing it’ll be that HAL….
    Thank you as usual great article.

    Reply
  3. Nari -  October 31, 2011 - 9:56 am

    … Sumun try to make a entire book wit these binary chodes.

    Reply
  4. Lyric is the name they gave me -  October 31, 2011 - 9:55 am

    This is a very interesting article, people are always tryna decipher what a person is saying jus out of misunderstanding, and as a metaphorist I always feel misunderstood so I speak in explanatory terms all day(metaphorically speaking) but for the people who don’t fully know why I speak or act the way I do they either take everything I say the wrong way or say they understand when they really don’t fully understand what I’m saying!!! I am deeper than words so I cannot be deciphered because English is my primary language but english is nothing but lamens terms for many put together foreign languages, i.e USA is nothing but a melting pot!!!

    Reply
  5. Computer as translator « Perennial Student -  October 29, 2011 - 3:34 pm

    [...] a lover of language and languages, I was intrigued but bothered by the opening lines of an article I read this week at The Hot Word (dictionary.com’s blog). “Back in the [...]

    Reply
  6. kadafi -  October 27, 2011 - 9:45 pm

    wakokok!!

    Reply
  7. Tori A. -  October 27, 2011 - 5:10 pm

    ok……..im glad computers can do that stuff for us cuz other wise i would go crazy. i barely understand wht i just read!

    Reply
  8. TheDumbo -  October 27, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    Wow…..That scares me a whole lot…….

    Reply
  9. Xavier -  October 27, 2011 - 3:18 pm

    Nice article.Does anyone know if there’s anyway you can save Dictionary.com’s articles like this on to your own profile or soemthing like that?.

    Reply
  10. Michael Panamero -  October 27, 2011 - 2:52 pm

    Awesomeness!!!! This article is almost as good as my fixies!! My favorite is purple and red and orange and white and blue and green and yellow and aqua and gold and pink and black! YEA!!!!!!

    Reply
  11. sherryyu -  October 27, 2011 - 2:37 pm

    kool i think im begining to fell in love with dictionary.comy LOL!!:)

    Reply
  12. xMarinex666 -  October 27, 2011 - 2:08 pm

    im here cuz of work.. theres nothing else to do here.. lol

    Reply
  13. Tim -  October 27, 2011 - 1:13 pm

    I find this article to be quite fascinating. However, people should always keep in mind, logic can only be used so long as there are facts to be based off of. If something is abstract, such as an idea, it can not be argued about logically because there is no fact basis for it. Everyone will have different ideas. That’s all.

    Reply
  14. Sadie -  October 27, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    Would everyone who is just typing nonsense please find a chat room away from here to type and submit your punctuation-less, misspelled material? You should spell everything correctly when submitting comments to a page on a DICTIONARY’S WEBSITE, for goodness’s sake!

    Reply
  15. GirlKota -  October 27, 2011 - 11:59 am

    @KOTABRAND twitter

    Reply
  16. mad hater -  October 27, 2011 - 11:44 am

    lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllloooooooooooooooooooooooooovvvvvvvvvvvvvvvveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

    Reply
  17. Michael -  October 27, 2011 - 11:29 am

    Secret Society= Illuminati

    Reply
  18. Malik -  October 27, 2011 - 10:49 am

    ok… so what? This isn’t very informative…

    Reply
  19. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 27, 2011 - 10:29 am

    But, How deep does this–rabbit hole–go…?

    I read the article, and followed the link to KRYPTOS,
    (The game of operating card-numbers to equal one),
    and noted one of two misspellings is possibly a clue:
    whereby Q transliterates, via Biblical Hebrew, to NC;

    So, What should we do with the other, misspellings–

    Thus far we have Q for missing NC and missing E….

    Ray.

    Reply
  20. Jean'cyer Mcully -  October 27, 2011 - 9:53 am

    VERY DIFFRENT. I cant belive this WOwy

    Reply
  21. CRaZy -  October 27, 2011 - 9:49 am

    is anyone else on this because of school xD

    Reply
  22. Bob wall -  October 27, 2011 - 9:26 am

    cool

    Reply
  23. Lizzy marie -  October 27, 2011 - 9:25 am

    wow!!! Very cool article!!! Thanks guys!!! ;)

    Reply
  24. Trizzle -  October 27, 2011 - 8:53 am

    That’s actually pretty cool. Me and my brother use binary digits so that our parents can’t figure out what we are saying in the note.

    Reply
  25. nny -  October 27, 2011 - 8:19 am

    thats a very interesting note but i dont think that its a message that were tryin to look for i think that its a symbolic picture that is tryin to be shown but humans just tey to flip the unknown around to what they want it to be but who knows ????????????????????

    Reply
  26. CIPHER#MORE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 27, 2011 - 8:07 am

    [...] ‘Cipher’ pounds more or less the dollar value of the Yuan against the Euro. — It always adds up to interpretation of another Voyniche musical Zoro. — The gibberish we think we say is oft missed interpretative — to cipher one plus one is two is quite remarkably Demonstrative. — If there is no code to break nor reason to be hiding, — it’s only Somewhere or someplace else that the answers are residing. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DEMOCRAZY, DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged Democracy, LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD by admin. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

    Reply
  27. Greg -  October 27, 2011 - 8:00 am

    Some of you people are missing the point. A computer doesn’t have to figure out the connotations or the figurative meanings to translate the words and grammar.

    That’s what the human reader is for.

    A computer isn’t gonna translate Homer’s Iliad the same way Chapman did. But if Chapman had a computer handy, he could maybe have finished his version in a fraction of the time.

    Reply
  28. Evan -  October 27, 2011 - 7:27 am

    The article today looks like it was taken from a New York Times article about the same subject that was online Wednesday.

    Reply
  29. Abberube -  October 27, 2011 - 7:11 am

    A language cannot be understood without a context. Take this simple English sentence: “I can fish”. It can be understood in many ways, from “I put fish in cans” to “I know how to catch fish”. How can you know without context? Now challenge Google Translate to translate it. It returns something like “I am able the fish” (“Je peux le poisson.” in French; “Posso pesce.” in Italian; “我可以鱼” in Chinese). Read some funny translation errors at http://www.ojohaven.com/fun/translation.funnies.html

    Reply
  30. Aaliyah -  October 27, 2011 - 7:02 am

    i dnt really get it. . well mainly because i didnt bother to read it all . . ahaa

    Reply
  31. Rico KG -  October 27, 2011 - 7:02 am

    I think this is kool

    Reply
  32. AL-ANON -  October 27, 2011 - 6:52 am

    The Voynich is my friend! Oh well. Man, you can;t take 2 steps on the internets these days without someone crying about “tolerance” ROFL

    Reply
  33. Amiel -  October 27, 2011 - 4:47 am

    I’m feeling it sometimes,making computer games,Yes we are using 0s and 1s.

    Reply
  34. dbatrivka -  October 27, 2011 - 4:00 am

    In paragraph 2, line 2, shouldn’t that be “a team of computational linguists”?

    Reply
  35. pedanticprickurgoin2lern2like -  October 27, 2011 - 1:50 am

    Wow. Look at all these people who know how to spell. It’s a miracle. I’m home now. I don’t even care about the cipher article. ah.

    Reply
  36. Hayley -  October 27, 2011 - 12:24 am

    Wow~ That’s amazing! Thanks for the facts! I finally found a way to pass the O.C test!! :D

    Reply
  37. Clear -  October 26, 2011 - 11:40 pm

    cool I am trying to create my own code that possibly no machine can read: nonsense!!

    Reply
  38. asdf -  October 26, 2011 - 10:28 pm

    asdf

    Reply
  39. GetSome -  October 26, 2011 - 10:27 pm

    Interested in creating a NEW LANGUAGE? All ideas are welcome! Just call 1-800-_ _ _-_ _ _ _ for more information. All new ideas about words related to sex will be rejected: I will be making those personally. :)

    Reply
  40. Myschtifiet_unt_Konfuscht -  October 26, 2011 - 10:12 pm

    Vhat du I zink oaf zese kode brrreakink-unt/oarh enterrrink- teknologeeze?
    Yuh zay yuh vant du gnow vhat I zink oaf …nine, yuh doughn’t. Belief yuh me, zhem.

    Ust reat mine mindt. Der code is alrrrreaty brrrokunt verr yuh. Brrroker zen der 10 Kommanmenze.

    Reply
  41. Joe -  October 26, 2011 - 9:36 pm

    its binary code, a code that bases of the number 2

    000000000010 is 2
    000000000101 is 5
    try to figure out how i did that

    Reply
  42. Danny -  October 26, 2011 - 8:20 pm

    Now I know how to better translate the movie Matrix!

    Reply
  43. lxz1883 -  October 26, 2011 - 7:42 pm

    It’s an amazing work!

    Reply
  44. lxz1883 -  October 26, 2011 - 7:41 pm

    It’s a amazing work!

    Reply
  45. Mehrdad Vahdati Daneshmand -  October 26, 2011 - 7:32 pm

    Just Great. Yet a long way ahead. How could feelings and senses, let alone several symbolic connotations of artistic creations be deciphered?

    Reply
  46. Tobias Mook -  October 26, 2011 - 7:11 pm

    How did language form? That would be an awesome blog :3!!!!!

    Reply
  47. Clare -  October 26, 2011 - 7:01 pm

    Error:please type a comment

    Reply
  48. rob -  October 26, 2011 - 6:47 pm

    food

    Reply
  49. bagel -  October 26, 2011 - 6:40 pm

    they are very grate

    Reply
  50. Kuro -  October 26, 2011 - 6:34 pm

    interesting

    Reply
  51. DictionFan -  October 26, 2011 - 6:02 pm

    That’s interesting! I always had trouble making codes and ciphers myself.

    Reply
  52. Mark -  October 26, 2011 - 5:50 pm

    Actually, judging that i made a website in 5.5 minutes and was slightly intoxicated really gives you guys the benefit of the doubt.

    Reply
  53. Mark -  October 26, 2011 - 5:49 pm

    Understandable, actually not really, judging that i made a sight in 5.5 minutes and was slightly intoxicated.

    Reply
  54. Mark -  October 26, 2011 - 5:48 pm

    Sorry wrong email^ i completely agree though.

    Reply
  55. Mike -  October 26, 2011 - 5:46 pm

    Understandable

    Reply
  56. Hylton -  October 26, 2011 - 5:21 pm

    That is very cool good work to all the scienctist

    Reply
  57. J-Wu -  October 26, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    Wow.

    Reply
  58. Tedi -  October 26, 2011 - 4:01 pm

    I LOVE THIS WEBSITE!!!!

    Reply
  59. Jay -  October 26, 2011 - 3:11 pm

    An aside from the subject; the christian mythos was thrown out of France during and after the revolution. Ancient knowledge? Conspiracy? The Masons? If you research it look to a “Supreme Being” and TOLERANCE of other religions!
    Interesting perspective to apply code breaking applications to codes. I like it.

    Reply
  60. nigga niggaa niggaa -  October 26, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    ahahahahahaha farts

    Reply
  61. Doug Argabright -  October 26, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    Awesome Article! :)

    Reply
  62. Alvin Perez -  October 26, 2011 - 2:35 pm

    Imma chode

    Reply
  63. sally -  October 26, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    who knows eminem!?

    Reply
  64. sally -  October 26, 2011 - 2:09 pm

    isnt that the binary number thing?
    u know,where u use only 0s and 1s

    Reply
  65. Martin C. -  October 26, 2011 - 1:25 pm

    whoa!! this is very impressive, this makes me understand the cryptographer from the recent batman games better!!

    Reply
  66. de z a z -  October 26, 2011 - 1:24 pm

    secret societies ,hmmm

    Reply
  67. Eric -  October 26, 2011 - 12:53 pm

    DAAAANNG!!!

    Reply
  68. Arinda -  October 26, 2011 - 12:52 pm

    It seems complicated, but extremely interesting. I need to stop taking Google Translate for granted.

    Reply
  69. Alvin Gongora -  October 26, 2011 - 11:52 am

    Grammar lives on the fuzzy edges of the logic/poetic divide. If a text is produced with a structure in mind it lends itself to be readable following a mathematical sequence. However, I still wonder if non human decoding could be successfully applied to the translation of creative writing, or to translating those spontaneous human situations and interactions.

    Reply
  70. pancho -  October 26, 2011 - 11:48 am

    ok!!!!!

    Reply

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