Translation and cryptography: linguistic cousins

Translation techniques like word frequency were used to crack a 17th Century code:

…a team of Swedish and American linguists has applied statistics-based translation techniques to crack one of the most stubborn of codes: the Copiale Cipher, a hand-lettered 105-page manuscript that appears to date from the late 18th century. They described their work at a meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Portland, Ore.

Discovered in an academic archive in the former East Germany, the elaborately bound volume of gold and green brocade paper holds 75,000 characters, a perplexing mix of mysterious symbols and Roman letters. The name comes from one of only two non-coded inscriptions in the document.

Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, collaborated with Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden to decipher the first 16 pages. They turn out to be a detailed description of a ritual from a secret society that apparently had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology.

Without a doubt the greatest part of being interested in language and science involves watching two of things you love – cryptography and translation in this case – come together in a way that gives you a “why didn’t I think of that” moment. Eureka!

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