Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Writing is a wonderful thing. It allows us to get things off of our minds, to remind ourselves of something, or even to communicate across long distances without the benefit of voice. The beauty of an established writing system is that, if you write something down and leave it out in the open, any literate person that walks by will be able to understand it.

However, there are times when you’d rather your writings not necessarily be understandable to others. Sometimes, like if you’re keeping a journal and detailing the various angsts and dramas of your life, you’d rather that the relevant parties not be able to read the entries. Similarly, if you’re keeping a grimoire (book of recipes and incantations), a book of shadows (for spells or other magical writings), or even just the list of top secret spices in your world famous marinara sauce, you’ll have a strong motivation to make sure that nobody else gets to to the information. In this sort of a situation, there’s a variety of different ways of going about hiding or obscuring your writing, even though you’re using the same language that everybody around you speaks.

Writing without being read

Now, assuming that you’re writing a physical document, the first, and most simple, is by hiding it. You could write your marinara sauce recipe out in perfectly understandable english, but if it’s locked in a safe at the bottom of the Atlantic, nobody will be able to read it. Similarly, if you keep your diary in a locked box, or even just have a lock on the cover, it’ll be safe from prying eyes.

However, hiding the document can fail. It’s really easy to go and answer the door, leaving your journal in plain sight for any offendable parties to find. Not to mention the fact that all locks are breakable, and if the only thing between your neighbor and your marinara sauce recipe is a cloth and cardboard locking journal, your recipe is practically already stolen.

So, the next step is to somehow hide the writing itself. Things like disappearing invisible ink or ink that’s only exposed with certain light sources are wonderful at this sort of thing. Similarly, you could use some sort of steganography (hiding information within other information), maybe putting a microdot on the page, or making the first letter of every word spell out your real meaning.

These methods have their downfalls too, though. Invisible ink and microdots require specialized methods or technologies, and aren’t really practical to everyday use. Besides, sooner or later, people will notice the UV lamp on your desk and start to wonder why you keep so many blank journals. If you do a “the first letter of every word” sort of thing, then you’ll end up having to write whole paragraphs of gibberish to communicate even the smallest of concepts, and even then, it’ll betray that there’s something else going on.

You could certainly go all out and start using some sort of cipher. Switch z for a, y for b, and so on, until eventually you’ve replaced the whole alphabet with an alternative one. Perhaps you could even go deeper, using some of the more innovative sorts of cryptography out there. (For a great, understandable book on cryptography, check out Simon Singh’s The Code Book). But, encrypting your writing takes forever to encode and decode, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever be able to read and write in a cipher fluidly. Besides, those, too, are crackable.

Perhaps the most complex sort of cipher would be to just use the writing system (and even some vocabulary) from another language. If you’re, for instance, writing English using the Cyrillic alphabet from Russian, it’ll be pretty incomprehensible to your neighbor. However, if you come across somebody who speaks English and reads Russian, your system falls apart.

So, what option does this leave you?

Enter Cryptorthography

‘Cryptorthography’ is a word I’ve made up to describe the creation of secret writing systems. It’s a combination of cryptos (Greek for ‘hidden’), and then the linguistics term ‘orthography’, referring to the writing system and writing rules of a language. ‘orthography’ also comes from Greek, being a combination of orthos (‘correct’) and graphein (‘to write’)

So, how does one practice cryptorthography? It’s actually fairly simple. You just take a given language (or languages), and create a new writing system for it which only you (or a few select people) can understand. This way, you could leave even your most secret writings out on the kitchen table, but nobody would be able to understand them without a fair amount of contemplation or analysis.

By creating your own system, you’ll be able to write and read it without too much trouble, but it’ll be completely opaque to everybody else, no matter which language they speak. It’ll be far faster than coding or ciphers, and doesn’t need to be hidden or obscured to be secret, and since it’s all hand-written, it’ll be far less vulnerable to computer-based assaults because of the trouble of transcribing it into a computer.

Before you start writing all your personal secrets on your front door, it’s important to remember that, just like with the above systems of hiding your meaning, there are weaknesses and places where people could easily figure out what you mean. I’d like to discuss a few of these weaknesses that I’ve come up with, and offer some advice for how to harden your writing system against analysis.

Obscuring the obscure

The most simple way to do this would be just creating new letter forms for your language. If you just use a new symbol in the place of ‘a’, a new one in place of ‘b’, and so on, you’ll quickly have a text that’s unable to be read at first glance. The system would be easy to create, but I’d recommend against it. As soon as somebody started looking, they might well start noticing patterns. If they know (or suspect) that it’s English, they’ll start looking for certain patterns. If they see a single symbol alone, they’ll know, for instance, that it’s either ‘a’ or ‘I’. Similarly, two symbol words are far less common, and give them an inroads to further analysis.

If, on the other hand, you mix it up a bit, you’ll make their lives infinitely more difficult. For instance, if you were to use only the sounds of words and disregard how they’re written, it would instantly complicate analysis. So, instead of “rough”, you’d have ‘ruf’. “You” would become a two symbol sound (‘yu’), and ‘I’ would become two symbols (‘ay’). If you’d like to play it even safer, start marking all the different English vowels. With that step, you’ll confuse anybody who thinks that English only has a, e, i, o and u, and likely stop most casual inquiries.

Another good strategy is to include a few filler characters. If you include in your writing system a symbol or two that you know has no meaning, you can use it with single sound words (‘a’) to throw off analysis. Similarly, just dropping a few of those into random words will force people to try and find a correspondence for something that, well, just doesn’t exist.

While we’re being evil to any potential analysis, one of the advantages to creating a phonetic symbol set is that you can use it to write in other languages as well. If you start including random words in other languages, or substituting say, some Hindi word for their English equivalents, it’ll throw off any attempts to figure out what is what based on the phonology (sound rules) of a language.

For instance, somebody analyzing your system might know that if there are three consonants together in English at the start of a word, the first consonant is always an /s/ sound. Always. So, if they’ve decided what constitute vowels, and then find three consonants before one, they’ll know what your /s/ symbol is. That is, unless you use the Russian word “vsyo” (all) someplace in your text. Then, they’ll have at least two three-consonant clusters, and can’t use the phonology to work their way through it.

Using similar symbols to the existing system can be a double-edged sword: it can both help and hurt you. If your symbols are too similar, your system is far too easy to crack. However, I highly recommend using one or two symbols that are at least close to an existing symbol, however, I’d recommend assigning them a different sound. For instance, one might use a ‘v’ to represent the /k/ sound.

This has the wonderful effect of creating a cognitive mismatch between the system they’re trying to analyze and the system they’re using. As any English-literate learner of Russian will tell you, at first, it’s very tough to see a ‘p’ and hear an ‘r’ sound, even though that’s what Cyrillic does. It won’t stop them, but it’ll certainly make analysis that much more of a pain.

There are other ways to make life difficult for anybody analyzing your writing. If you write from right to left, you’ll create a great many problems for them, just as if you were to write vertically. Along those lines, if you remove spaces and familiar punctuation, it’s even more difficult, both for you and for them.

Also, remember that you don’t need to create an alphabet per se. You might create a syllabary like in Japanese, where the symbols each represent a different syllable (‘ra’ might have one symbol, whereas ‘re’ would have a completely different one). Also, if you’re feeling ambitious, you could make a character set, where each word has a symbol. It’d be a great many symbols, but it’d be very difficult to crack.

Finally, as common sense dictates, throw away the key. Once you’ve created your system and learned it well, hide or destroy your handy reference guide, or else understanding your writing is as easy as looking up the symbols.

It has to make sense to somebody

However, if you spend all your time trying to make reading your system tough on other people, it’s easy to make it tough on you too. There are a few easy ways to avoid this.

Perhaps one of the toughest parts of the process is actually designing the symbols. For that, I highly recommend that you make a trip over to Omniglot, a wonderful website which discusses writing systems around the world and has lots of examples. It’s a great place to blow a few hours, and will show you all the variety of systems out there.

Once you’ve got symbols, make sure you’re combining them in a way that makes sense to you. For instance, I might use a system based on phonetics, where high vowels (like in b_ee_t and b_oo_t) are marked above the baseline, and low vowels (b_a_t and b_o_t) are the same symbol, but marked below the baseline. However, you can go much more personalized. If a symbol reminds you of the shape of Cape Cod, you might use it for a ‘kay’ sound. Basically, if it makes sense to you, go for it.

Finally, keep in mind the difficulty of writing the symbols you pick. Don’t use anything more complex than necessary, because it’ll only slow you down. Similarly, if you often write with a fountain pen, try to avoid symbols with right to left strokes (assuming you’re writing left-to-right). If you’re going to use this a lot, any corners you can cut now (without making it more difficult to read) will save you a massive amount of time in the future.

Your thirteen spices are safe

If you take the time to create your own writing system and take a few easy steps to harden it, you can sure that nobody will be able to casually peruse your secret recipes and writings.

However, as with all security measures, your secrets are never completely safe. All that locks, encryption, ciphers and even cryptorthography can buy you is time. If somebody has a sample of your writing system, it’s very likely that, given enough time, they’d be able to figure it out.

So, if the CIA wants to find out the secret thirteen spices, chances are, they’ll be able to. However, a little bit of cryptorthography will go a long way towards keeping your recipes mysteriously delicious.

(PS: If this sounds interesting, stay tuned. I might well be holding some sort of a contest where people create secret writing systems and then have other people try and crack them. I’ll announce more details later, but if you’re interested, leave a comment and we’ll be in touch!)

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