Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Introduction to the Secret Language

Excerpted from a work-in-progress....

Symbols are hot these days. The massive, unprecedented success of a thriller about ancient codes and secret societies has made symbolism a national obsession. Just a few short years ago, these pursuits were of interest only to academics and white-knuckled conspiracy enthusiasts. But then one little novel opened up a door into a secret world, and introduced ordinary folks to a universal language that is thousands of years old. The cat is now out of the bag- for thousands of years prophets, artists, madmen and poets have been speaking to us in a language that is both consistent and predictive. But as conditioned as we are to recognize only the verbal -only the literal- we have gone about our business while others have plotted, prayed and postulated right under our noses.

In addition to being nearly invisible to the uninitiated, this language has a profound effect on those who care to learn it. Somehow, there is some dormant sector of the human brain that is activated when one immerses themselves in the study of symbology. This is particularly true when the language is used for religious or spiritual reasons.

Unlike literal scripture, which is forever pointing to a forever elusive revelation, the immersion into this secret language seems to create its own spiritual reality. Sometimes meditating upon these symbols seems to make them come to life and speak to you in ways you could never express or articulate. And often when you delve into this world of sacred symbology, the symbols take over and tell you things you never thought you would know.

But the symbols will escape your notice, or at least your conscious attention, until you are able to decode them. And in order to decode them you must understand where they come from and what those who speak in symbolic language are trying to tell. For there are secret languages and then there is the Secret Language. The science of decoding symbolic language is commonly referred to as Semiotics.

Human beings communicate in three basic modes - verbal language, body language and symbolic language. Of the three verbal or literal language is by far the simplest and least complex. We learn a vocabulary and then use it to communicate with others. This language is specific and localized. There are several hundred languages and dialects being used by human beings on Earth. Body language is often used in conjunction with verbal language. It consists of an astonishing array of gestures and expressions, and can even include things such as body temperature, perspiration and scent. Body language is a criminally misunderstood form of human communication. People lie incessantly with language. It is much much harder to lie with body language.

Symbolic language lies somewhere in between. It is an artificial language in that it usually doesn't arise from the voluntary or involuntary responses of the human body itself. It can either be orally or manually expressed. You can speak in symbols- such as a code- or you can write, draw, sculpt or film them. And to those who believe that every artificially expressed communication can be broken down into symbols, even literal meanings can hide secret intent.

Yet for the most part, Semiotics is actually like a secret decoder ring for nonverbal human communication. The goal of this discipline is to ascertain exactly how nonverbal modes of communication can denote meaning. In semiotics, human communication is broken down into a series of ‘signs.’ This involves a sort of reverse engineering of these symbols and necessitates tracing the origins of commonly used symbols in human communication, much as a linguist traces the origins of commonly used words. These signs are then studied individually and/or grouped into symbolic systems. ‘Signs’ can include image, gesture, body language, sounds, even placement of objects. But unlike Communication Studies, Semiotics concentrates on meaning and not modes.

The entirety of human communication is symbolic. These very words you are reading are a series of abstract symbols we've all agreed represent certain sounds, which we then agree represent certain concepts when used in various combinations. And ultimately, everything we see or hear symbolically represents something else.

When a baby sees her mother’s face, a whole series of thoughts and emotions are triggered by it. Her mother's face actually becomes a symbol for those thoughts and emotions- comfort, food, love. The triggers become ever more complex and sophisticated as the baby enters childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Likewise, a word represents not only the thing to which it has been assigned, but also the implications and associations of both the word and its object. Even the shapes of the letters can have a Rorschach-type effect on our subconscious minds, as can their sequencing.

Semiotics may seem like one of those egg-headed European theories from the 1960’s like post-Structuralism, but the term was actually coined by the 17th Century philosopher John Locke. And the method wasn’t unique to Locke either. Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine studied the use of signs to denote meaning. Yet the science didn’t come into its own until the late 19th Century, when the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce developed Semiotics as its own discipline, rather than as a subset of Linguistics. Peirce believed that “we cannot think without signs.”

And one of the best-known semioticians at work today- Umberto Eco - is also a popular novelist.

Semiotics has become quite popular in the wake of Dan Brown’s monster hit novel, The Da Vinci Code. The protagonist of that book holds the fictional title of ‘Professor of Semiotics’ at Harvard University. What Langdon does in the course of the novel is more of form of de-encryption, since the symbols he is dealing in the story with are intentional designed codes. But he calls upon his understanding of symbology to decipher the maddeningly complex clues thrown at him by the fictional Priory of Sion.

It’s interesting to note that The Da Vinci Code bears a close resemblance to Umberto Eco’s hit novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which dealt with a lot of the same esoteric topics and also showcased the art of symbological de-encryption. But Eco took a far dimmer view of the occult underground that Brown seems to champion and Foucault’s Pendulum wasn’t nearly as successful as The Da Vinci Code has been.


  1. I love this line of inquiry.

  2. Hi Mr. Knowles,
    Thanks excellent as always, I tried to read an Umberto Eco book when I was a teenager lasted about half way through chapter one until I gave up for some John Byrne Fantastic4. Hahahah! You broke this down really concisely, I really look forward to the next section.
    All the best

  3. The modern academic discipline of semiotics is fascinating. Peirce was an outstanding thinker. His triadic notion of the hierarchy of signs can be employed to interpret and investigate the entire sequence of human interactions and the natural world. Old style Saussurian semiology was a more limited, culturally oriented mode it seems. Though I have yet to read his work. The complexity and multi-purposeness of semiotics is remarkable, it in itself is a language of the mind. When you start getting on to modern day semiotics, biosemitics in particular and the notion of Umwelt things start getting really interesting. One of the main driving forces in the developing of biosemiotics, Alexei Sharov, officially adopted the Ouroboros as the definitive emblem of the disciplne.

    And when we get onto concepts such as semantic closure (hence the Ouroboros), infinite/unlimited semiosis, and such, the mind boggles further. Much, much potential in this field.

    Eco's book The Name of the Rose is the quintessential semiotics novel, as much as I love Foucault's Pendulum. That is the book to read I think as an introduction. As you mentioned, Chris, Foucault's Pendulum prefigured The Da Vince Code, and I believe is a fully sound, valid warning to the dangers present in the fields of conspiracy theory research: the uber-paranoid worldview that devours the psyche. If you let it.
    And despite Eco's severe snobbery as regards Brown's book, he is right about it in many ways. It's junk food for the intellect put together with high cynicism and a rigid formula. Every one of Brown's books follows the same model. Good fun though. A long hospital stay when my concentration levels were blitzed were alleviated by four of Brown's novels. ;-) But The Da Vince Code says nothing of semiotics in itself. If we take semiotics here in the Peircean tradition.
    That it may be part of the chain of interpretation of meaning outside of it itself is a valid pursuit of course.
    The highly sensitive node it struck in the collective psyche is far more worthy of study, as I know you do.

    As for Peirce, the doyen of modern semiotics, how can you not love a guy who said:

    Accordingly, just as we say that a body is in motion, and not that motion is in a body, we ought to say that we are in thought, and not that thoughts are in us.

  4. A personal sync...
    "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" made its way into my purchases at a local dollar store today! And to add to the "Eco" weirdness... I just so happened to pull out my reprint copy of the 1623 folio earlier in the day.


  5. Don't know if you saw it yet, but this was interesting: Truck Carrying 17 Million Bees Crashes, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37320676/ns/us_news/?Gt1=43001

  6. Read "Foucalt" twice- less than impressed as storytelling. Too much of it was kind of a catalogue of all the books he read and names he knows. Point well taken on the paranoia. Hamlet was a conspiracy theorist. The Psalms are the most paranoid thing I have ever read. The Gnostics are also paranoid, no? Maybe symbols calm the paranoia by pointing to eternity? Jesus was a conspiracy theorist. Must dig into Pierce! Thanks Justin!

    "Things are symbols of themselves" was just mulling that one over all day yesterday!

    From Ginsberg or possibly his drunken guru.

    The freemies seem to have just grabbed every potential symbol- the point, the square the circle the triangle the snake, lion, dog, cat, checkerboard, all the star shapes, the entire hebrew alphabet, the kabbalah, tarot, all the mythic stories, columns, double or bi-anything, the great mother goddess stuff, the boat, the sea, the sun the moon-

    no hand holding with little kids- no family imagery though! no sitting around a table breaking bread. no tree hugging- just the tree.

  7. Flawlessly written once again,
    can't wait for what that is excerpt-ed from...!

  8. The UFO abduction experience is fraught with intense mythic symbols.

    Below are two blog postings, both from people who have extensive direct experience with the UFO abduction/contact experience. Both weirdly symbolic in their imagery.


    - and -


  9. Justin Russell are you a professor? You certainly have knowledge of semiotics. Anacalypsis by Godfrey Higgins is loaded with the histronic formulations of symbols and language. Keep digging Chris. Dennis

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Really nice post. I figured the only reason The Da Vinci Code could remain on the bestseller list for all that time was because some Freemie publishing house was secretly buying up tons of books and then reselling them, just to keep bumping it up there. What? Me paranoid?? :-)

    Doesn't F.P. suggest that there is an enormous Cosmic Cube under the earth, but at the end says "just kidding"? F.P. may not have sold as well as The Da Vinci Code, but it seems to have had a huge influence on later sci-fi movies and games.

  12. I really like where this is going. Very well written. And I can attest to the power of understanding symbols to calm paranoia. I have you to thank for a large part of that.
    Keep up the great work.

  13. Great website! I'm glad I ran into it! Thank Michael Tsarion.


  14. Awesome- I'm glad you guys are feeling this one. I'm working on a new Baptist installment as well which I really need to make sure is perfect. Watch this space- more of this article to come very soon, just as soon as I get all of these deadlines taken care of.

  15. "Foucault’s Pendulum wasn’t nearly as successful as The Da Vinci Code has been."

    Well, it hasn't sold as many copies, if that's what you mean. Pendulum is much more successful as a piece of literature though... not that Da Vinci even pretends to be lit.

  16. Chris, you and I have both discussed the idea that perhaps some of this info is being put out there intentionally, almost as an initiation, so we can aid in finding answers to the questions that have plagued the mystery schools since their inception - that maybe we are being turned into a Deep Thought computer. (And maybe that's not a bad thing)

    However, there's currently a big push of DaVinciCode-for-kids products:
    There are the "39 Clues" books where the kids learn they are descendants of a secret society "that rules the world."
    Discussed here: http://allthehappycreatures.blogspot.com/2010/04/circumpunct-breakfast-masonically.html

    Now, Disney is putting out "The Red Pyramid" by the same author, with a very similar plot line. Two kids with the last name Kane "discover that the gods of Egypt are waking...a quest that brings them ever closer to the truth about their family, and their links to a secret order that has existed since the time of the pharaohs."

    Again, if revealing the nature of symbols can help mankind, then I really have no issue with it. But, these contrived forms kinda make me gag.

    What are your thoughts on how the symbols are introduced and from what source? Just as conspiracy circles can paint every marking as evidence of a luciferian plot, cannot the likes of Disney introduce them for their ends? Or, do you think, in the end, the symbols contain their own intrinsic truth that cannot be skewed indefinitely?

  17. Funny that you point out "Foucault’s Pendulum"
    it is the only book I have in my library that I haven't read yet,
    maybe it is time to dust it off :)

    I'm currently training someone that will take my place at work, we were discussing world event and he asked me if I saw the movie zeitgest,

    I think the rabbit/bird/dragon/etc is really out of the hat this time, "normal" people are heavily enjoying this new reality, but as soon as I started talking about the second zeitgeist and how weird it had a weird agenda.
    the topic was off ahahhaa, I guess I'll have to wait for national treasure 3.

  18. What an interesting post!

    I'm fluent in...quite a few languages; although, I can't help but feel a majority of my vocabulary is unnecessary.

    - your visual aptitude is way more important than your verbal aptitude.


    Have you ever gone shopping in an international supermaket? [they're common here in NYC]

    Walk down any random isle.

    Even if you can't read the signs or labels, you'll quickly figure out what isle you're on.

    Cereal is still packaged in cereal boxes. Soda is still found in glass bottles or aluminum cans.

    ...it's just different words being used to describe the same 'ole stuff.


    Did you ever see the 90's film Baby Geniuses?

    It was a cheesy family film that ripped off the Rugrats with “babies talking a secret language that adult's can't understand” - except the film actually explained why babies can speak this language.

    According to the film, before a child learns to talk they communicate with a complex form of body language and symbols.

    [I'm serious, this is how the film explained it:] These body languages/symbols are embedded in our DNA; it could be used to draw upon the complex knowledge of our ancestors.

    As the babies get older, they forget this skill. [the film called it “crossing over”]

    In the film, a secret government program observes babies to decipher this language.

    Towards the end of the film, a baby's father asks his two year old “So, do you know the secrets of the Universe? Can you tell me?” [he was the scientist that had finally deciphered the baby's language – cue government agents seizing him] the child sarcastically replies: “Duh, we all know the Secrets of the Universe.” - the child never explains them because he “crosses over”.

    Yeah, definitely Netflix “Baby Geniuses”.

    Anyway, the film raises a lot of good points.

    Language is just a bunch of fancy words that represent the same few symbols.

    Only the symbols a baby understand are important. [Hot, Cold, Yes, No, Happy, Sad, Hungry, Thirsty, etc.]

  19. Amazing work, Chris. This is an area of the whole symbolic awareness thing that I'm trying to understand better. It seems that our reaction to the symbols are based entirely upon our imprint of where they come from, and who we see using them. But we know it goes far beyond this.

    レベッカ - I've seen that movie. It's been maybe 11 years, but yeah, I remember it being slightly disturbing to me at the time, possibly because of the symbolic potential of the story, which you summed up very well.

  20. @CDH

    More "SPILLER BEES" in MINnesota no less!
    Interesting find Christopher, Thanks!


  21. Personally, not a fan of Foucault's Pendulum at all. It read to me like a boring, mainstream version of stuff that Thomas Pynchon and Robert Anton Wilson had already done much better, ie a satirical version of grand overarching conspiracy narratives. Plus its ulimate message seemed to be "Leave history to the professors, you conspiracy bums!", which I can't quite get behind.