THE SECRETS OF THE OCULISTS.

Noah Shachtman has a riveting Wired account of the decipherment of a centuries-old cipher and what it revealed about a forgotten secret society. It starts with a description of an eighteenth-century initiation, jumps to 1998 and a going-away present of a mysterious manuscript, then to 2011 and an Uppsala conference on computational linguistics that inspired the successful decipherment. If you like codes, you’ll love this story, and it’s hard to argue with the Oculists:

die neugierigkeit ist dem meNschlicheN geschlecht an geerbt wir wolleN offt eine sache wisseN blos des wegeN weil sie geheim gehalteN
Curiosity is the inheritance of mankind. Frequently we want to know something only because it needs to be kept secret.

(Via MetaFilter.)

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    A great story! and there are still some mysteries left in the manuscript and the circumstances of its writing.

  2. Impressive that they bothered to embed the symbols in the text.

  3. Annoying, though, that they never return to Hock and his involvement. Suddenly the original manuscript appears in place of the photocopies without explanation.

  4. The English translation “Curiosity is … because it needs to be kept secret” is not quite correct. … blos des wegeN weil sie geheim gehalteN is an example of a kind of occasional ellipsis that one encounters in older texts (19C and earlier), but also in modern ones aiming at a certain elevation of style. Namely, the final ist has been suppressed in weil sie geheim gehalteN ist.
    So the English should be “… because it is kept secret”. Commenter “sleepless” at the Wired link also points this out.

  5. “… because it needs to be kept secret” would have been weil sie geheim zu halteN [ist].

  6. an example of a kind of occasional ellipsis that one encounters in older texts (19C and earlier), but also in modern ones aiming at a certain elevation of style.
    The most famous such example being Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen.”

  7. Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt.

  8. Good call. And investigating, I find that Schiller originally (1786) had it as “Was der Mode Schwert geteilt” (and “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” was “Bettler werden Fürstenbrüder”!).

  9. Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt.
    I was pretty sure that hat is sometimes elided, as well as ist, but couldn’t come up with an example. Thinking more about this, I believe it is accurate to say that only the auxiliaries in perfective forms of subordinate clauses are elided, i.e. [conjunction]+[…]+[participle + sein/haben] -> [conjunction]+[…]+[participle].

  10. Stu’s spot on with his grumbling.
    I also have issues with the translation of the first sentence. ‘Inheritance of mankind’ sounds rather ominous, while the German original is a comparatively plain statement.
    If I wanted to be literal, I’d render ‘[X] ist [Y] an geerbt’ as ‘[X] is innate to [Y]’.
    ‘Man is curious by nature’, ‘it is the nature of man to be curious’, etc. would also be adequate by my standards.

  11. spherical: angeerbt … innate
    “Innate” is a good one. anerben is not a word familiar to me. It reminds me of der Anerbe, the farmer who is the sole inheritor of a farm – the Hoferbe in fact.
    So angeerbt here might mean something like “passed on from generation to generation, staying in the family”. What do you think ?
    We had a comment thread here not too long ago, in connection (I think) with the translation of a Russian story, where there was much puzzling over how to render the concept of Hoferbe in English.

  12. whatimeantersay: “stays in the family” = “innate”.

  13. Heh. Grimm sez: ANERBEN, hereditate competere, häufig aber auch innatum esse, propagari

  14. @Stu:
    I’m far from being an expert in 18th-century language, so please take the following with a cartload of NaCl.
    In the given context, I’d read ‘angeerbt sein’ without the literal inheritance thingy, even though etymologically it is clearly there. To me, the sentence simply states that curiosity is part of the package when it comes to the human condition.
    ‘Anerbe’ appears to be different. According to Wikipedia, ‘Anerbenrecht’ is a legal practice that allows a farm to be treated separately from the rest of the deceased’s estate and passed on to a single heir without compensation to the other siblings.
    I do not feel that ‘an geerbt’ in the text has anything to do with the legal concept of ‘Anerbe’; the ‘an’ looks like a preposition to me.
    However, I’m so far out on my speculative limb at this point that you can literally hear the wood creaking. I’d like to refer this question to somebody more knowledgeable than me.

  15. In the given context, I’d read ‘angeerbt sein’ without the literal inheritance thingy, even though etymologically it is clearly there.
    Right, that’s what I initially did as well. It was only later, in connection with your suggestion of “innate” as a translation, that I embarked on speculation. I pre-salted it with the non-committal “…reminds me…”, for customer convenience.

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