Linguistic Change and Politics

The Power of Coded Communication

Cipher Machine / Photo 1926 <br> Copyright: picture-alliance/akg-images“Sostotrorenongog gogehoheimom!” Kalle Blomquist, Astrid Lindgren’s master detective, would say in Rors language when a message was not intended for other ears: “Top Secret!”. Nearly all children know and love secret languages and coded messages. Whether Pig Latin, crooks’ code or b-language, by means of a constructed language things can be exchanged which no one else should hear.

Man has been occupied with coding techniques for language and writing for thousands of years. The oldest, and also the simplest, technique is Atbash, a Hebraic cipher (600 BC) which operates with a reversed alphabet. Julius Caesar also invented his own coding technique, the Caesar Code, so that messages and reports could not be read by the enemy. In all ages, secret languages and ciphers have been an important means of communication: as an enciphered code for significant communications and political goals, as a means of social exclusion and inclusion.

Secret languages establish protection and membership

Secret languages serve the purpose of secure communication as a protection against enemies, persecutors or third parties that represent a danger in respect to an exchange. By means of an artificially constructed linguistic barrier, only selected recipients can decode the communicated content correctly. Probably the best-known secret language is Rotwelsch, a German thieve’s Latin that developed in the 13th century. The vocabulary of this artificial language is derived mainly from Hebraic roots and loans from the language of the Sinti, and in part from everyday words that were given a new meaning. Thieve’s Latin protected the communication of criminal plans and was at the same time also a clear means of identification that established membership in a certain group. With the acquisition of this language, a socialisation in the lower classes took place: the secret language became a mirror of social origin and membership. Similarly with “Masematte”, the Münster workers’ and thieves’ language that is a mixture of Rotwelsch and Yiddish. Out of fear of their husbands, oppressed women in the Chinese province of Hunan developed, about 500 years ago, a secret language and writing called “Nushu”, which was handed down through a sworn sisterhood. In this way, they could pour out their hearts, talk over problems and console each other without danger. Today, too, in social subcultures (for example, adolescent groups or users of internet forums and chats), one finds artificial forms of expression that generate a sense of membership and help the users of these languages to achieve swift recognition within their groups.

Attention: Top Secret!
All you need for making your own codes and invisible writing:
Disketten-SymbolMaking your own Codes and invisible Writing (PDF, 200 KB)

The art of coding as a weapon

The art of coding has been an important weapon of war and politics since the time of the ancient Greeks. From this arose the science of cryptology, a word deriving from the Greek “kryptos” (secret) and “logos” (word, language, meaning). Many reports of past wars demonstrate the deployment of coding techniques. With the use of encoded messages began also the time of the “code-breaker”. Radio transmitters and telephones were tapped and bugged, telegrams intercepted; scientists and even cross-word puzzle wizards were employed to decode the enemy’s strategies. Competency in encoding or decoding could easily decide victory or defeat. A well-known example of encoded war messages is “Enigma”, a 20 kg electro-mechanical rotor code machine that the German military used in World War II to encode radio messages. Today, too, cryptology remains for the military and secret services a basic condition for protected communication: thanks to highly complicated mathematical formulas, coding techniques and forms can now hardly be broken.

Coding holds the world together

Encoding is today a firmly fixed element of our everyday life: without encrypting, modern data communication would be unthinkable. Whether EC or credit cards, digital signatures or e-mails and the internet traffic of online shopping and banking, the secure transfer of data has taken hold everywhere. In contemporary society, cryptology means power: without good encoding techniques, prospects would look bleak for governments, world-wide businesses, banks and all the big and small firms that are connected via internet, telephone and satellite. And so the fear of hackers, who break codes, explode whole systems, or pass on and apply secret information, is great. The coding techniques of terrorist groups also worry the secret services, for their systems are becoming ever more elaborate. Mathematicians and cryptologists all round the globe are therefore working continually on the improvement of the encryption and decryption of data. An end to secret languages and writing is not in sight.

Bettina Levecke
is a freelance journalist.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write!
March 2006

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