Archaic “Languages” and Codes to Inspire Your Next Novel

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Codes and secret languages have made the world a little more mysterious since humans started using less-secret languages. Whether you discuss them openly in your story or not, these historical codes and ciphers can sweeten a twist or underpin a theme beautifully. They also, of course, go well with intrigue.

Hobo Hieroglyphics

Before we jump into this, please note that “hobo” has become an offensive label, and shouldn’t be regularly used in modern, American English.

When people traveled through America filling seasonal and part time positions – often in the countryside – they faced everything from territorial farmers and white supremacist mobs to over-saturated work environments and bad roads. They were poor. They often came from marginalized communities. During the Great Depression, when riding the rails looking for work became more and more common, these disparate laborers did what they could for their fellow hobos. They left messages.

A secret, simple set of hieroglyphs scratched or marked into fences, outbuildings, stations, and homes told others what to expect. Did a kind man live in the house? Did the family let wayfarers sleep in the barn? Was there danger? The code made life a little easier. A little safer. It’s a terrific element to include in historical fiction, and the idea’s foundation would suit just about any original world.

Language of Flowers

You probably already know a little about this code. What does a red rose represent? It usually means romantic love. That’s why shops explode with them on Valentine’s Day every year. Maybe you know yellow roses stand for friendship and white stand for purity or mourning.

The Victorians loved flowers – local and exotic. There are entire books dedicated to the subject, and it’s a fun way to choose flowers for gifts and special occasions. It’s also a terrific element to add in a story. Whether your modern romance drops hints with petals, your Victorian lovers flirt through blooms, or your original world rewrites the concept to include imaginary flora, it’s all good. Flowers can also hint at intrigue in a mystery, tacitly reveal a plot twist early on, or simply boost characters’ personalities.

Language of Fans

This is another social subtlety of the Victorian era. There’s significant debate on whether it was actually used as it’s been recorded, or if the written outlines are farces playing on murkier body language. Either way, it’s ripe picking for fiction.

The language of the fan turns a practical accessory into a code-maker. Fanning yourself quickly with one hand meant something wildly different than fanning yourself slowly. Users could hint to partners that they were being watched, hint at potential suitors that they weren’t interested, or even ask for a kiss. Heaven help the debutante that needed to use her fan for its function.

The Voynich Manuscript

The Italian Renaissance gave the world timeless art. It also gave us a timeless mystery. The Voynich Manuscript is written in a language or cipher no one has been able to crack in over five hundred years. Strange illustrations fill spaces not occupied with the script, the subjects of which include herbal sketches, astronomical bodies, and women bathing.

Everything, including the manuscript’s proposed origin in Italy during the 15th Century is based on scientific testing and academic hypotheses. All anyone has been able to understand are a few words in Latin and High German – presumably words outside the writer’s chosen or native language. Experts aren’t even sure if that language was a real, spoken one or if the writer made it up as a cipher. Imagine how a book, writer, or collection of bizarre illustrations like these could enhance the drama of your own piece of the unusual.

What is your favorite historical code, cipher, or secret language? Have you ever used one in a story? Share your thoughts with other writers below!

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