What do the following items have in common?
- Tsah wol-la-chee ah-keh-di- glini tsah-ah-dzoh
- And then he lost a testicle.
If you guessed that they are all codes, then you were correct! Huzzah!
The first code is binary, the numerical code that is driving everything that we are doing on our computers right now. This particular sequence means ‘code’. The second is Navajo, which was used in World War 2 for encrypted messages in the Navy. The sequence above represents the Navajo words for needle, ant, victor and yucca, the first letters of which spell out the word ‘Navy.’ This is one of several brilliant tactics using the real Navajo language that made this ‘code’ impossible for the Japanese to crack.
The third item is an example of the kinds of things that sleep-deprived graduate students come up with over an Indian buffet lunch after inadvertently embarrassing a waiter. That was when we started to use that phrase to alert each other to when the person we’d been complaining about was approaching the group. One of us would say loudly, “And then he lost a testicle!” and we would all pretend that we were simply telling dirty jokes.
I like codes, but here’s a strange contradiction about me. I am a self-professed lover of words so I should love any and all word games, right? I am actually good at crossword puzzles and do enjoy them, but I am useless at anagrams and word jumbles. Something about the way those puzzles are visually arranged just confuse me. I’ve had beginning ESL students who could find more words in antidisestablishmentarianism than I could. Whenever I see one of these puzzles, I seem to forget that I do poorly at them, so I attack them eagerly, get frustrated after about three minutes, and then walk away, muttering about stupid word choices – who ever heard of incunabula anyway?
How would I do at code-breaking, though? I do like cryptograms and could solve them without undue effort. But what about a real code? How far would I get before I admitted defeat? I’d been thinking about this for nearly two weeks, ever since I saw a National Geographic article describing the discovery of a tablet displaying the oldest readable writing in Europe. The tablet was the oldest example of Linear B, a form of ancient Greek. I understand the implications of finding this tablet, but my first reaction was to chuckle when I read this paragraph:
“The Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B to record only economic matters of interest to the ruling elite. Fittingly, the markings on the front of the Iklaina tablet appear to form a verb that relates to manufacturing, the researchers say. The back lists names alongside numbers—probably a property list.”
Maybe it was a time sheet or employee roster. Perhaps it was a checklist of who met their manufacturing quota. It could have been a weekly schedule. It’s unclear other than to say that this was writing that reflected the everyday material pursuits of the Mycenaeans, and not something of any literary merit. It tells us much about the society in general, of course, but I suddenly had an image: archeologists 3,500 years in the future come across a scrap of someone’s Wal-Mart receipt or shopping list, publish their finding in major scholarly journals, and then send it off to a museum where people will then marvel at the mysteries of Gatorade at $1.09 for a 12-oz bottle. And that is just funny to me.
Another reason I seem to have gotten hung up on this news article is because of my own history with Linear B, which sounds much more impressive than it is. I had been given Andrew Robinson’s biography of Michael Ventris, the man who first deciphered it. I had never thought much of ancient scripts before, but I love biographies and this was a fascinating one.
Ventris was a 30-year-old architect in 1952 when he first deciphered Linear B. He’d had no formal training in linguistics and yet he was able to do what had eluded experts for the 50 years since the tablets had been discovered. His obsession with deciphering took enough time from his career in archecture that he never achieved the degree of success that his less-talented peers enjoyed, and yet, he still contributed significantly to that field. Despite the ‘distraction’ of architecture, his accomplishment in deciphering Linear B was arguably the greatest contribution to classical scholarship of the time.
He was a brilliant yet troubled man, and embodied more than one paradox. According to Robinson, he was both outgoing and aloof; modern and classical; city slicker and athlete; logical and intuitive; modest and cocksure. Though an amateur, he showed no hesitation in presenting his findings to the top experts. Four years after deciphering Linear B, Ventris died in a late-night car crash when he was only 34 years old. It’s unclear if this was suicide or accident, and it isn’t even clear why or where he was driving at that time of night.
I found myself enchanted with Michael Ventris, more so than with the code he cracked. While reading the biography, I was interested in the explanations of the ancient script, but was anxious for the writing to return to the description of the man. Similarly, when looking for information on the Navajo code used during World War 2, I was constantly and willingly sidetracked by accounts of the code-talkers, the Navajo people who were employed by the Navy to implement the code.
As interesting as the codes are in and of themselves, I am drawn more to the code-makers and breakers. I want to know what goes on in their minds, what kind of knowledge or thinking is required to decipher complex written or mathematical codes, or how that Eureka! moment feels. Perhaps this suggests that I wouldn’t be so good at code-breaking after all. I would get distracted by the people behind the code or those who found it. Or I would make snarky remarks about doing all that work just to uncover what is probably just a dirty joke. I suppose for me, people are the real codes that need to be deciphered.