27 November 2012 by Published in: rants 4 comments

I’ve been getting caught up on Fringe lately.  They are kinda notorious for encoding (fairly easily-decodable) messages into the shows, and famously their glyphs have been solved through machine-assisted cryptanalysis.

As the series has developed, a group of beings called The Observers have become more and more important to the storyline, and they have always been depicted using a written language or code.  Examples of their writing has been pretty sparse, but over this past season, the writing system has exploded in prominence, with numerous examples (and in some cases, English translations):

A dual-language sign

Constructed languages and cryptanalysis are something of a hobby of mine, so I decided to give it some study and see what I could turn up.  I figured that they had learned from their mistakes with simple mono-alphabetic ciphers, but between the many shots of Observer Language plus a few examples of Observer-English dual language signs, it shouldn’t be that difficult.

The first stop is frequency analysis just to see what we are dealing with here, and that means collecting examples of the language and trying to turn them into gylphs.  Here, things took an unexpected turn:

Yes Victoria, that is selectable text

It turns out that, like all good little web developers, they’re using web fonts instead of clunky images.  And, thanks to the terrible mess of cross-browser compatibility, you can download the Observer font in four formats!

Sadly, this dashed all hopes of getting to do real cryptanalysis!  After all, the site just alternates between fonts:

So let this possibly be a lesson to you: the next time you’re designing a secret language, don’t publish a font for it!  Just dividing the strokes into glyphs is a major clue, and obviously here there’s complete correspondence between each character in English and in the Observer language.

And with that, I’ve generated a complete key that maps the capital and lowercase letters and the normal special characters into Observer symbols.  I should point out that I discovered later that some sharp guys over at FringeTelevision beat me to the punch by a few weeks with the font discovery, but their key is less complete.

Some notes about the font itself: it contains all the usual characters, but it also contains a lot of glyphs that are “unused” (e.g. lots of “U+00BD VULGAR FRACTION ONE HALF”).  Some of the symbols are also repeated–U+00C8 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER E WITH GRAVE is the same symbol as  U+00D0 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER ETH.  My sense is that these symbols were not made to actually have any meaning, but are rather just arbitrary symbols for the set designers to put in places.

Bolstering this theory is the way that the Observer Language tends to actually be used:  as best as I can tell, there is only one potentially meaningful string of characters in this shot:

The situation that caused this error is something of a minor plot point, and a reveal here might contain a plot spoiler.  Unfortunately, the rest of the shot is just random (printable) symbols together, as if a graphic designer is mashing a keyboard.  I think the most likely possibility here is that the graphic designer that produced this shot knew that they were designing an error screen, but were not told (either for security reasons or because the ending of the series hasn’t been written yet) exactly what the error was.

A more intriguing possibility is that there is a second code or a constructed language in play here.  It’s possible, but I find the scenario unlikely.  For one thing, an actual press release from Fox written in Observer actually has strings that (now turn out to be) “123456789”.  So we are well into keyboard mashing territory.  Zort70 points out that there are many examples of misspellings and questionable abbreviations (probably to make it fit on signs, as Observer symbols are much wider than their Latin equivalents).  But we have no good evidence for a second code.  And here the trail runs cold.

…or does it?  Because there are a few Observer language sightings that cannot be explained by keyboard mashing alone.

An observer’s notebook from Season 1.

This notebook from very early in the series contains characters that do not appear in the font.  However, this can be explained with a little behind-the-scenes probing:

“From [Michael Cerveris’s] notes in the book we extrapolated and made a language, now there’s actually a font you can get, we call it The Observer.”

That would make this notebook into a bit of a “proto-Observer” language.  Is it possible there’s more to this shot than meets the eye?  Perhaps.  But none of the symbols repeat, which would require a rather complex shorthand rather than a mono-alphabetic cipher, which is not the time and effort you would go to to make a 2-second shot.  My chance at using machine-assisted translation is still dashed.

Perhaps the same notebook was used for this Season 5 shot

Interestingly, a different page from this notebook (or something built to look a lot like it) was used in Season 5 as a “shipping manifest”.  You see here the same proto-Observer type writing.  It’s interesting to note that the page in this shot seems to have been written by different pens or at different times, and this is consistent with the theory that it is a “proto-Observer” type of document, perhaps being a glyph reference collected at different times, not something that carries any meaning.

Further lending credence to this theory is an additional shot:

Another shot of a notebook from Season 1

The symbols here are entirely unintelligible with the Observer Font.  However, you can see that they look like the font glyphs, as if someone was trying to make something that looked like them from memory, or as if the font was “inspired by” this shot.  I’ve highlighted some correspondences that I’ve noticed between the notebook and the font, and you can see clearly there is some relationship, although it is very certainly not one that would lend any meaning to the text here.  Note too, that the actor scribbles after the “prepared” text in a way that is very different from what was prepared.  I am certain that I have studied this shot far more than anyone on the crew intended me to.

So I’m afraid the result is a little disappointing: there is not that much here to really study.  All of the meaningful bits have been revealed with the font; everything else is gibberish.

This is particularly amusing because Astrid “needs a lot more computing power” to crack the Observer’s code due to the alleged complexity working out how the individual characters map to glyphs. If only she had a web browser that would allow her to right-click and inspect an element…

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  1. Nick
    Sat 01st Dec 2012 at 1:14 am

    The notebook from the episode August( the first picture) was explained in the episode to be a code for Walter to find. It was based around the elements.nas for the notebook September wrote it, I am pretty sure it translates to something. And he had notes on the language. It was interesting that the video with fringe props stated “there’s an observer font” long before reward wire went up. I don’t recall previous versions of the font file. Great work though and hopefully we can figure out what those notebooks say.

  2. neowulf
    Sun 08th Dec 2013 at 11:56 am

    The notebook scribblings in s01e04 aren’t even consistent between shots, take a look at the notebooks used while he sits in the diner observing the construction site.
    Also his clock varies in colour and apearance; Season 1 shows a dark blue style, season 2 has a white one.

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