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?


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

    O.K. Thanks

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


    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.

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

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

  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!!!

  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 [...]

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


  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!

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

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

  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?.

  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!!!!!!

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

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

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

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

  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.

  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!

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

    @KOTABRAND twitter

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


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

    Secret Society= Illuminati

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

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

  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….


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

    VERY DIFFRENT. I cant belive this WOwy

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

    is anyone else on this because of school xD

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


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

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

  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.

  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 ????????????????????

  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. [...]

  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.

  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.

  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

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

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

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

    I think this is kool

  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

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

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

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

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

  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.

  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

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

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

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


  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. :)

  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.

  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

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

    Now I know how to better translate the movie Matrix!

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

    It’s an amazing work!

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

    It’s a amazing work!

  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?

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

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

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

    Error:please type a comment

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


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

    they are very grate

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


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

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

  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.

  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.

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

    Sorry wrong email^ i completely agree though.

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


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

    That is very cool good work to all the scienctist

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


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


  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.

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

    ahahahahahaha farts

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

    Awesome Article! :)

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

    Imma chode

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

    who knows eminem!?

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

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

  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!!

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

    secret societies ,hmmm

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


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

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

  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.

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



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