An amazing day, with three comments. Not to mention that someone pointed a translatebeanish.com domain to this blog…
I am going to reply to the comments in this post.
First, the comment by Hel-G:
1. I think Randall has meant it to be decodable. In the blog he writes “[I] created a plausible future language for readers to try to decode”. This means it is probably NOT completely made up, but it is probably based on en existing language. There simply isn’t enough context to decode a language with arbitrary words. It also means he has provided hints. I think [42bJ]=[water] is crucial.
You are right; when we consider the tradition of xkcd and in particular XKCD Time, it’s unlikely that Randall would throw pure, random garbage at us, and I don’t think he would ever lie about it being decodable. Beanish must be based in one or more existing languages (natural languages, or at least plausible languages, as we know what he thinks about Lojban…) and [42bJ] is our main key. But as it was posted in another comment, Randall is not an humanities guy and, what is more important, he says “decode” the language, not “understand” it. It might actually be a lot simpler than what we are assuming (just like his explanation for the Voynich manuscript).
2. He mentions experts in several fields who has helped him with various aspects of the world (astronomers, biologists and botanists), but no linguists. This probably means he has based it on a language he already knows. I also think we could limit the candidate base languages to English as it is Randall’s native language and a language all readers are familiar with, or one of the languages that are geographically close to the “comic”‘s location, that is Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian or Arabic.
English is the most probably candidate, but his statament of a “plausible future language” might be pointing to a different direction. And we should also add at least Provençal to the list of geographically close languages (or even Basque!).
3. I believe historical linguists work on the hypothesis that languages evolve following sound changes that are consistently applied to all words that meet certain criteria and the same goes for syntax in general. (Now we are well outside of my field of study and please correct me if I am wrong.) I find it very likely that Randall has invented a few laws and applied them to one of the above-mentioned modern languages. The story is set very deep into the future, so deep that historical linguists usually refuse to go back a similar timespan, but I think we can (must?) postulate that the pace of change has been slowed down a lot due to the invention of writing.
You are right, this is the basis of historical linguistics — there are of course many footnotes to it, like words that resist to changes, cultural/geographic areas that are not subject to the changes and later “export” an unchanged word back into the language and so on. Regarding the invention of writing, you are stepping into a very dangerous field, where scientific research sometimes meets ideology, however — even though we don’t have a very large time frame of almost full literacy to test this theory — it is accepted that writing does not slow language change. Some theories, almost fringe linguistic theories at this time, say that modern language communication (omnipresent television and so on) will slow down language change, but I don’t think it is likely (my own fringe theory would be that it will give us a stronger, world-wide diglossia, but let’s go back to Beanish — if people from Language Log read what I wrote I will be in trouble 😉 )
4. The strange script is probably just to throw us off. Megan and Cueball obviously don’t speak Modern English and what we read is a translation (like in Lord of the Rings) and it is therefore necessary to render Beanish in an invented script so that it looks as strange to us as it is to Cuegan. Even if it is Arabic, using Arabic script would be too much of a giveaway.
I also had this “Lord of the Rings” feeling, but I am still puzzled by the script. At first it looked Semitic, but after investigation it does not seem to work like, say, Arabic. Its inner gears are likely those of an alphabetic script, perhaps even one based in the Latin alphabet, but I still can’t help with the diacritics.
5. The spelling is probably very phonetic or it would be too difficult, e.g. “ghoti”… It could even be that Beanish script is simply obfuscated IPA and each character represents a phoneme or phone of Beanish.
This is actually the hypothesis I am working on, and that’s why I can’t wait for a free time to compile and study the tables of letter transitions! It is also possible that Randall didn’t use IPA, but one of the many “corrected” ortographies of English (like this one, which derives the new words from the old ones with a C program: http://www.zompist.com/spell.html ).
Based on this I will propose the following working hypothesis:
– Beanish is English, Italian, Catalan, French or Arabic changed according to a few consistent rules and written in an obfuscated version of IPA.
We could try to apply this to the Beanish word for [water] and the syntactic elements you have found to see if it leads to any insights. For geographical reasons, French would be the most natural choice for base language (we’re certain they are at the Château d’If) and Randall may very well have learnt it in school, but I can’t see how it is possible to go from [eau]/|o| to [42bJ] without letting the phonetic spelling hypothesis go. I’ll try English (which I know quite well) and a little Italian (which I learnt more than a decade ago, but have used very little). From your blog I would guess you are an Italian with an extremely good command of English (looks native to me, but why is the blog software in Italian?), so I guess you are much better than me at trying these languages. Spanish is a good candidate as I believe it is a much taught second language in the US and the Beanies seem to have been at Gibraltar, but unfortunately I don’t know Spanish. Arabic is Greek to me, and most likely to Randall too, so I think (hope!) it is the least likely candidate. (I can help a bit with German and above all the Scandinavian languages, but I find these highly unlikely candidates.)
I am both Italian and Brazilian, but you are too generous saying that I have an “extremely good command of English”.
Back to what matters, your hypothesis is, given that, taken that, just like mine. I have tried to mentally apply some changes and go back to the languages I know, unsuccessfully. I still think that English is more likely (perhaps the Beanie are actually Britons, Big Hair is Queen Elizabeth CCXLII and their “water”ends with a schwa) but I believe that, unless someone cracks the script, a study of the morphology and the syntax will be more helpful than word matching.
Second, a comment by Ronald:
As I pointed out earlier on the OTT, if you mirror the Beanish characters, they become like English characters. For example, the feline that attacked Megan, the characters then look like ‘Panther’. Mirroring also seems to be consistent with the prefixes discovered here – mirroring it means left-to-right becomes right-to-left, which is consistent with English. It is also quite possible that Beanish is a cypher, not a true language. Also, Randall is an exact science guy – it’s possible that words for water are based on chemical symbols, so mirrored H2O.
It is unlikely that Randall spent days on creating Beanish, so I expect the level of effort to crack it to be medium at best. Also note that Randall said ‘decoding’, also indicating some kind of cypher.
Great insights! I had not thought of translating “water” into “H2O”. It makes a lot of sense; the more I think about it, the more it seems obvious, especially given that it is only real clue he has given us (besides the punctuation in Big Hair speech).
I must have missed your comment in the OTT. I will go back to it because it is intriguing; unfortunately, I cannot see it by myself right now, and it would be difficult to explain part of the syntax — perhaps the language isn’t pure, current English? And you are right, “deconding” seems to indicate that it is a cypher in the mathematical sense (which makes sense if we think about all that Randall has done so far).
Third, a comment by Joel Dinda:
I’d say “unfortunately, Beanish does not seem to have drawn much attention, even among XKCD enthusiasts” is overstating things. Just as the thread (OTT) was trying to come to grips with Beanish, the comic’s tempo changed, and we were all caught up in the rush. And I’m pretty sure everyone was assuming we’d get more examples after Cuegan escaped from the flood.
Didn’t work out that way, and everyone went into mourning for a few days. About now we’re beginning to regroup. People are working on the Wiki again, we’re beginning to inventory what we haven’t figured out, and here you are working out the Beenies. That timing’s about what I’d expect.
Glad you’re here, and that folks are passing the word about your blog. I’m really not qualified to help, but I’m really interested in seeing what you (and anyone else) can figure out.
I am sorry, I didn’t express myself very well: what I wanted to say is that it was not drawing much attention anymore. But I have fortunately been proved wrong. 🙂
Last but not least, a comment by waveney:
There is also beanish writing on the gate (best seen in frame 2821) I think it is a 2
You are amazing! It seems that there is a , I doubt I would have ever noticed it.