Friday, June 23, 2017

What is Debosnys' "Portuguese"?

I just bought Farnsworth's Adirondack Enigma, so I've had a chance to read a bit more about Debosnys.

One page in Adirondack Enigma shows samples of Debosnys' writing in Latin, Portuguese, French, English and Spanish. The Latin, French and English are good (though the Latin is just a quote from the Vulgate bible). I can't see enough of the Spanish to tell if it is good. The Portuguese is puzzling.

Here is that piece of text:

Comoderondas inacia bêco olondo inoto para
Imbiabo kotaronc molonk niarotan pérana

I've never studied Portuguese, but if I look at a page of Portuguese text I can usually make it out based on what I know of French and Spanish. Of this, however, I can make neither heads nor tails. Likewise, I have trouble with this text, which is not specifically identified as "Portuguese", but is not anything else that I would recognize:

inno calledaz

Ontro de palade mosa kaen faleï tonüe dhala pico indor kouniss plaira colrose, inbello monozy impiodo cara. ûntez noüméa, tintems oda formandore, artosa passat Otiva ...(remaining text not clear or cut off)

Some of the words can be found in a Portuguese dictionary, if it is big enough, but I can't find most of them, and many are phonologically and orthographically problematic. For example, the word-initial k- in kotaronc, kaen and kouniss would be unexpected in any Romance language, since that sound is normally represented by c before a and o. The cluster dh in dhala is odd as well. Likewise, not a single word is repeated, and there is only one monosyllabic word in the bunch.

It seems there are three possible interpretations here:

  1. This is Portuguese, but Debosnys learned it only as a spoken language and writes it phonetically in a way that is difficult to decipher
  2. This is another knowable language, such as a secret argot, a creole, or an obscure language
  3. This is not a knowable language--either it is nonsense, or a twin language, or an invented language
Time may tell. Or not.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A possible theme for the Cipher Poem

The Greek text on the opposite side of the page from the cipher poem (as I mentioned) is largely the first part of an ode written by Thomas Moore as a preface to his translations from Anacreon. This part of the poem sets the stage for Wisdom to ask the poet why he spends his life the way he does.

Debosnys has altered the wording of the original, so the goddess asks the following question:

"τι, γερων, τεον βιον μεν / ω δε βια του γαληνην"

Classical Greek isn't a language I know well, so I have to kind of wing it here. The German translation on Klaus Schmeh's blog is problematic because they misread the word "τεον" as "νεον". But I believe the question the goddess asks in Debosnys' version is:

"Why, old one, do you employ your life in the violence of tranquility?"

The word βια apparently has a range of meanings including: force; act of violence; rape. The word γαληνη means stillness.

In Thomas Moore's original, the subsequent lines are the poet's response to the goddess. I have a feeling the cipher poem is Debosnys' answer to this question.

What the Debosnys Cipher Poem isn't

I've been testing the hypothesis that the Debosnys cipher poem (DCP) is written in French, fits (roughly) an alexandrine meter, and each symbol represents a syllable.

My hypothesis is failing my tests.

I hunted through Beaudelaire's alexandrines and looked at the ones with AABB rhyme schemes, to use for comparison. I divided lines from these poems into syllables using five different approaches. In no case did the result resemble the pattern of symbol frequencies in the DCP, even accounting for the possibility that some of the DCP symbols might be nulls. The two main problems are these:

  1. High frequency symbols in the DCP occur more frequently than high-frequency syllables in French, even if the French text is spelled out phonetically.
  2. There are significantly more repeated pairs of symbols in the DCP text than there are repeated pairs of syllables in a Beaudelaire poem.

One possibility is that Debosnys is a boring poet who uses the same words over and over again, while Beaudelaire is an interesting poet who uses a broader vocabulary.

But another possibility is that the language of the poem isn't French, but Greek or Latin.

The other side of the page containing the DCP has a poem in Greek, which Klaus Schmeh mentions in his blog post. A reader of his blog transcribed the Greek poem and translated it into German. I searched for the Greek text and found that it is taken largely from a poem written by Thomas Moore as a preface to his Odes of Anacreon, though Debosnys drops a few lines.


Thomas Moore

Maybe there is some significance to the dropped lines, maybe not. In any case, Debosnys' Greek poem leaves off part-way through the text of Thomas Moore's original ode, with 20-21 lines remaining.

This raises the possibility that the cipher poem encodes the last 20 lines of the ode by Thomas Moore. If it does, it doesn't look like a straightforward cipher. More generally, this raises the possibility that the cipher poem encodes something in Greek, or perhaps in Latin.

End-rhyme is not a common feature of classical Greek or Latin poetry, so if there really is end-rhyme then this is more likely a composition by Debosnys.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

19th Century Sténographie Française

One of the things that is impressive about the Debosnys cipher, if it encodes syllables, is the efficiency with which it does so. Most of the rhyming syllables require only three pen strokes to write the syllable.

Thinking about this has led me to read a bunch of 19th century French manuals on stenography, to get an idea of how a 19th-century francophone might have thought about efficiently encoding language.

A wide variety of stenographic systems seems to have blossomed in 19th-century France. The goal of stenography (as reiterated in many of the manuals) was to enable the user to write at the speed of speech. To this end, a number of compression strategies are used, among which the following three are quite common:

  1. Compression by writing phonetically. For example, instead of writing ph, write f.
  2. Compression by removing vowels. For example, remove all vowels except the initial and final ones, and remove the final vowel if it is e muet. So instead of writing sténographie française, write stngrfi frnçs.
  3. Compression through the use of efficient alphabets. In addition to the use of curves and straight lines, these systems use spatial strategies such as direction and size to load each stroke with additional information.

Strategy #3 above seems to lead to a similar appearance in all of the scripts--an appearance reminiscent of Tironian notes--that is not present in the Debosnys cipher. While Debosnys might have used some spatial strategies (such as orientation) to encode information, he appears to have been more concerned with obfuscation than with efficiency.

The Stolze system of stenography originated in Prussia, but was adapted to French. It is interesting because it uses a phonetic approach, breaks down words syllabically, and encodes each syllable as a separate symbol. Of particular interest is the way in which it divides syllables:

In this system, the "primary syllable" of a word is identified, and one graph represents everything from the onset to the coda of that syllable. Subsequent "secondary" syllables are broken at the nucleus of the syllable, and so they represent only the rhyme. (Prefixes are handled in an analogous way).

So, instead of me-tal, we have met-al. In poem written using the Stolze system, all of the rhymes could be written with the same symbol, just as in the Debosnys poem.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Feminine and Masculine Rhymes in Debosnys' Poem

I've been reading a lot of Beaudelaire's poetry over the last couple of days, in order to better understand the structure of French poetry. (I picked Beaudelaire because I think there is a fair chance that Debosnys might have been influenced by him.)

One of the fairly consistent features of French rhyme in Beaudelaire, as well as in Debosnys' plaintext poem, is the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. A feminine rhyme is a rhyme ending in the silent e. In Debosnys' plaintext poem, the feminine rhymes are: grâce / passe, blessure / dure, brave / nuage (!).

I think there is a high likelihood, if the cipher poem is in French, that it alternates masculine and feminine rhymes. Weak supporting evidence for this is the fact that the only repeating rhyme occurs on the odd-numbered couplets 1 and 9. Since that rhyme would either be masculine or feminine, it should occur only on either odd or even lines.

There is nothing obvious that indicates which lines are masculine and which are feminine. There are two odd rhymes that use symbols that are variations on ♀, and one even rhyme that uses a symbol that is a variation on♂, but that is far from conclusive.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Minor update on the Debosnys poem

I've done some reading on French poetry and some work on transcribing the Debosnys cipher texts, and found three things that are interesting.

1. Identical rhyme

Conventional French rhyme apparently often includes the onset of the syllable in the rhyme, so cœur rhymes with vainqueur, and sonores rhymes with Maures.

If the rhyme includes the onset of the syllable, then the rhyming symbols of the text could quite easily correspond to full syllables, rather than needing to be broken at the nucleus of the syllable.

Debosnys did not use this type of rhyme in his plaintext poem, but that is no guarantee that the cipher poem does not use it. It is also possible that the text of the cipher poem was not authored by him. For all we know, he may have enciphered a poem by some other author.

2. Irregular Meter

I initially thought Debosnys' plaintext French poem was in iambic pentameter, but that was only on the basis of the first four lines. When I counted syllables for the rest of the lines, I found a fair amount of variation. Some of the other lines have the 12 syllables of an alexandrine, but there is no strict rule, and the longest line has 14-15 syllables.

If the cipher poem was authored by him, then the variation in the number of symbols per line could correspond to a variation in the number of syllables.

3. At least two languages

I have transcribed the cipher poem and one block of text (appearing above a plaintext poem in French), and I think they use the same cipher to write two different languages. The symbol frequency and inventory are quite different. Apparently Debosnys was a bit of a polyglot, so I don't know which two languages these are.

Friday, June 9, 2017

First hypothesis for the Debosnys cipher

In my last post I noted that the last symbol on each line of the Debosnys poem seems to represent the whole rhyme and nothing but the rhyme. To me, this says three things:

  1. The cipher is phonetic
  2. Some symbols represent rhymes.
  3. The onsets of syllables are either left out or encoded in some other way

The first thing I thought of when I saw this was a type of pseudo-language used in the English version of Hergé's book Tintin and the Picaros. (I wish I had a copy of the French original to compare, but alas, I don't).

The Picaros use a language with phrases like the following:

Goh'blimeh! wa'samma ta, li li li va? Lem eshohya!
Sum in'ksup wivit!

The words are accented English, spelled phonetically, and broken in unnatural places. The process of obfuscation could be described in three steps:

Plain Text: "Something's up with it"
Accented Phonetic: sumink's up wiv it
Broken: sum in' ks up wiv it
Re-merged: sum in'ksup wivit

One of the Debosnys pages shows a poem in French that is roughly in iambic pentameter, with an ABAB rhyme scheme. (This strikes me as the product of an English speaker who learned French as a second language, since iambic pentameter isn't common in modern French verse...though of course it was common on Old French.)

Suppose we take the first two lines of Debosnys' plaintext French poem, represent them phonetically, and break them up into groups representing the rhymes of each syllable combined with the onset of the next:

oh! mes amis je vous supplie en grâce
de bien vouloir un instant m'écouté

Step 1: Represent it phonetically. I'll do that using an 1880 phonetic dictionary:

ō mé-z-ămī jĕ vǒû süplī ĕñ grâs
dě bĭĕñ vǒûlwâr üǹ ăñstăñ m-ékŏûté

Step 2: Break at the onset of rhyme

|ō m|é-z-|ăm|ī j|ĕ v|ǒû s|üpl|ī |ĕñ gr|âs
d|ě b|ĭĕñ v|ǒûlw|âr |üǹ |ăñst|ăñ m-|ék|ŏût|é

Step 3: Merge

ōm éz ăm īj ĕv ǒûs üpl ī ĕñgr âs
d ěb ĭĕñv ǒûlw âr üǹ ăñst ăñm ék ŏût é

Suppose Debosnys encoded each group of this text as a separate symbol. For a line of iambic pentameter, the product of this type of process would normally have 10-11 symbols. The lines of the cipher poem have, on average, 15 symbols per line. If the cipher poem is in iambic pentameter, then presumably complex or uncommon groups (like ĕñgrǒûlw) could be represented as two symbols, for example:

ōm éz ăm īj ĕv ǒûs üp l ī ĕñ g r âs
d ěb ĭĕñ v ǒûl w âr üǹ ăñ s t ăñ m ék ŏût é