Code Making/Code Breaking

Linguistics A01
Fall 1998, TuTh 10.30-12
Northwestern University

Instructor: Prof. Chris Kennedy
Office: Linguistics Department (2016 Sheridan Rd.), Rm. 12
Phone: 491-8054
Office Hours: Tu 3-4; Th 4-5 (or by appointment)

Course Description

This seminar investigates the nature and use of codes and ciphers throughout the ages: what they are, and how they have affected (and possibly even determined!) the course of history and human development. We will start out by looking at writing, the most basic tool for encoding human thought, with a focus on the decipherment of the Mayan writing system. We will then turn to an exploration of how the methods of cryptography have been used to conceal and reveal information in areas ranging from literature and religious texts to wartime communications, ultimately arriving at an investigation of questions arising from work in computation theory and genetics on the nature of consciousness and human experience. We will conclude with two issues of interest to the present and future: encryption technologies on the internet and the conflict between secrecy and security, and the possibility of deciphering signals of extraterrestrial origin (should they ever be received).


Classroom participation (20%), three individual papers (60%), group project in cryptography (20%). The evaluation of written work will focus on both ideas and the clarity and coherence with which ideas are communicated, assigning equal weight to content and structure/organization.


Paper 1 (4-6 pages; due October 15) Coe (1992:26) observes that only three types of writing systems are used by the languages of the world: logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic/phonetic (or some combination). Why just these three? To address this question, construct an alternative writing system of your own design (that is neither logographic, syllabic, nor alphabetic). Explain how your system works in detail, giving illustrative examples where necessary. Contrast your writing system with the three listed above, and use this comparison to hypothesize why only logographic, syllabic and alphabetic systems are used to encode linguistic communication.

Paper 2 (8-12 pages; first draft due November 17, second draft due December 9) A research paper on a topic of the student's choice, determined in consultation with the instructor by November 12.

Group project in cryptography (cryptograms due October 29; papers due December 2) The class will be divided into four groups that will devise methods for enciphering English text and construct cryptograms in accord with these methods; each group will then attempt to decipher the others' cryptograms. Groups will document their work by writing a joint paper that describes their cryptographic system, their interpretations of the other groups' cryptograms, and the techniques and methods of cryptanalysis they used to solve them. Both the cryptograms and the papers will be posted on the class website; as a result, they must be submitted in html format (they may be submitted either on a floppy disk or by email).

Group projects on the web!


Entries marked with a superscript "R" can be found in the course reader; all optional readings are on two-hour reserve in the reserve room in the main library (2nd floor, east tower).

Introduction                                                         Required reading                    Optional reading
9.24 Types of codes and ciphers                           Kahn introR
9.29 Introduction to Northwestern's library **Class held in reference classroom, Main Library**

The Original Encryption Technology
10.1 Types of writing systems                               Coe ch. 1                              Pope pp. 181-191
10.6 The decipherment of Mayan                           Coe chs. 2-5                        Kelly; Coe
10.8 Mayan (cont.'d); other writing systems         Coe chs. 6-11                      Chadwick; Pope pp. 11-84

The Art/Science of Cryptography
10.13 A few words on secret writing                    Poe 1841R                             Smith chs. 3-6 ; Kahn ch. 21
Guidelines for group projects distributed
10.15 A brief history of cryptography                   Kahn ch. 2R;                           Way ch. 2
Paper 1 due

Text and Sub-Text
10.20 Literary ciphers                                            Gold BugR; Dancing MenR    Kahn ch. 21
10.22 Kabbalah                                                      KolataR; CohenR; 
10.27 The postmodernist angle                              Rosenheim chs. 1-3               Rue Morgue; Purloined Letter

War and Espionage
10.29 Navajo Code Talkers; criminal codes              Navajo Code Talkers video      Way ch. 7
Submission of group cryptograms in html format
11.3 Ultra, Enigma, and bombes                             Hinsley & Stripp (tba)            Rosenheim ch. 6
11.5 Ultra, Enigma, and bombes (cont.'d)               Hinsley & Stripp (tba)            Hodges 1983; Way ch. 4-5

Codes, Computation, and Consciousness
11.10 Turing's legacy                                              Hodges 1997                         Turing 1950
11.12 The Genetic Code                                         BelkinR; TeslerR                      Rosenheim ch. 4
11.17 The Linguistic Code                                      Stephenson
Draft 1 of paper 2 due

Looking Ahead
11.19 Secret writing on the Internet                       Roesenheim chs.                    Relevant websites
                                                                               7-appendix; WaynerR (see below)
11.23 Video theater, 7.30 pm                                 Contact
11.24 Messages from outer space                          Kahn ch. 26

12.2 Submission of group papers
12.3 Group presentations
12.9 Final draft of paper 2 due in my office by 5 pm


Required Texts (available at Great Expectations Bookstore, 911 Foster St., Evanston)

Coe, Michael D. 1992. Breaking the Maya Code. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Hinsley, F. H. and Alan Stripp. 1993. Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hodges, Andrew. 1997. Turing. London: Phoenix.
Rosenheim, Shawn J. 1997. The Cryptographic Imagination. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Stephenson, Neil. 1993. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Spectra.

Course Reader (available from Quartet Copies, 818 Clark St., Evanston)

Kahn, David. A Few Words. In Kahn, D. 1967. The Codebreakers. New York: MacMillan.
Poe, Edgar A. A Few Words on Secret Writing. Graham's Magazine. April, 1841.
Kahn, David. The First 3,000 Years. Chapter 2 of Kahn 1967.
Way, Peter. Code Makers, Code Breakers. Chapter 2 of Way 1977.
Poe, Edgar A. The Gold Bug. In Poe, E. A. 1967. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories. London: Penguin.
Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Dancing Men. In Hodgson, J. (ed.). 1994. Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays. Boston: St. Martin's Press.
Kolata, Gina. A 500-Year-Old Mystery of a 'Demonic Tract' is Unraveled, Twice. International Herald Tribune. Monday, April 20, 1998.
Cohen, Hal. God Only Knows. Lingua Franca. July/August 1998.
Tesler, Lawrence. Programming Languages. Scientific American. September, 1994.
Belkin, Lisa. Splice Einstein and Sammy Glick. Add a Little Magellan. The New York Times Magazine. August 23, 1998.
Wayner, Peter. From Toy Rings to Sophisticated Codes, a Quest for Secrecy. The New York Times. Thursday, May 28, 1998.
Wayner, Peter. Code Breaker Cracks Smart Cards' Digital Safe. The New York Times. Monday, June 22, 1998.
Kahn, David. Messages From Outer Space. Chapter 26 of Kahn 1967.

Readings on Reserve (Main Library, 2nd floor east tower)

Chadwick, John. 1958. The Decipherment of Linear B. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coe, Michael D. 1997. The Art of the Maya Scribe. London: Thames and Hudson.
Kahn, David. Heterogeneous Impulses. Chapter 21 of Kahn 1967.
Kelly, David H. 1976. Deciphering the Maya Script. Austin: The University of Texas Press.
Hodges, Andrew. 1983. Alan Turing: The Enigma. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Pope, Maurice. 1975. The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Heiroglyphic to Linear B. London: Thames and Hudson.
Smith, Laurence. 1943. Cryptography: The Science of Secret Writing. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Turing, Alan. 1950. Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind LIX, no. 2236. 433-460.
Way, Peter. 1977. The Encyclopedia of Espionage: Codes and Ciphers. London: The Danbury Press.

On the Web (a selection of relevant and informative websites)

The National Security Agency
The Center for Democracy and Technology
Internet Privacy Coalition
International Cryptography
Alan Turing
Navajo Code Talkers (U.S. Navy site)