if I wanted to spend several hundred dollars, I’d
be able to purchase my very own reprint from a specialty
bookseller, but that seemed a little severe for the purpose
of cracking a message that, for all I knew, contained
the publishing equivalent of "Drink more Ovaltine."
I looked into borrowing one from a nearby university’s
rare books collection, but one phone call made it quite
clear that no self-respecting librarian was going to let
my grubby hands anywhere near a 335 year-old
book. Desperate, I scoured the Internet looking for online
versions of Real Character. It turned up in bits
and pieces, but those were invariably converted into plain
text—useless if you want to view the original symbols
and even worse if you wanted to decode anything.
then, like a bolt from the blue, it appeared. One site
that seemed to have an eerie fascination with Wilkins
offered me everything I could have asked for. Not only
was the entire book online, but it was in its original
form too, scanned and converted into large GIF files.
Displayed within the browser’s window, the pages
were too small to be legible, but I found that if I downloaded
each page individually to my computer (there were more
than 600), I could then read the document in its original
Final Push consisted of trying to figure out how Wilkins
went about creating this language, requiring a healthy
chunk of the book to be actually read. As Mr. Stephenson
pointed out, Wilkins was trying to create a universal
language, and it was supposedly understandable by anyone
as long as you knew how the system worked. He came up
with a hierarchal means of classifying words, dividing
the English language into roughly forty categories. These
categories were then divided into smaller and smaller
subsections, until every word would fit somewhere within.
order to take the message and convert it back into English,
I needed something that would give me the roadmap as to
which category any particular word belonged. Once I had
located this particular chart, I realized this was the
key to using his "dictionary," from which I
could then look up words. To make things easier, I began
with a word I already knew (from the Lord’s Prayer),
and reverse-engineered it to better understand the system.
From there, it became a pretty straightforward process
to do the same with the remainder of the words.
the hang of the language’s subtleties like verb
tense, adverbs, etc., was a bit stickier and required
some extra reading, but in the end, every word found on
the Baroque Cycle site was capable of being identified
and translated. There were some liberties taken with words
that didn’t exist in 1668, like "fax"
or "telephone," but Lisa Gold, the message’s
creator—and my greatest aggravation—found
a clever way to work around these obstacles.
turns out that the message was really a set of instructions
to anyone who could read it, and the first person to do
so would receive a reward for their efforts. For all of
you who have waited patiently through all this, you’ll
find the complete translation taken from Wilkins’s
will be published in the fourth week of the ninth month
in the year of our Lord 2003. If you understand this,
a fax to 1 (212) XXX-XXXX with your name, address, phone
and email address along with your translation. The first
accomplish this will receive a signed copy of the book.
the image below for a literal translation:
image for larger view
hope you enjoyed the story, and despite my protestations
to the contrary, I really did enjoy the challenge of tackling
Wilkins's system of writing. In fact, the whole process
was an immense learning experience as well. If you have
any additional questions or comments about any of the
above, you are more than welcome to email me at todd AT substream DOT com.