The writers need a new language. But they don't want to actually invent a new language. So they make the "new" language a cipher of English — usually, a substitution cipher
— with the same words, grammar and all. Typically, an entirely new 26-letter alphabet is invented, but occasionally "cryptogram"-style ciphers are used, as in Final Fantasy X
and Order of the Stick
Works from non-English-speaking countries may do the same with their own language or alphabet, but not always.
See also Wingdinglish
and The Backwards R
. When writers take it even further and start creating new lexicons, syntax, and grammar, on into a full-blown original language, you get the supertrope Con Lang
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Anime and Manga
- Digital World writing in the first three seasons of Digimon is also a cypher of katakana. (The fourth season only uses three or four symbols.)
- Dog Days has a cypher of katakana. That they use to spell English words.
- Haibane Renmei has an ancient alphabet which is basically written sign language. The sign language appears first, and is said to be indecipherable by those not in the know, but Rakka finds a gravestone with a familiar name written on it and recognizes the symbols as hand gestures.
- The runes of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Comes with three variants!
- Rave Master has the dead language Symphonian, which substitutes hiragana for characters made up of English letters. For example, the symbol for 'ka' becomes a sideways 'K' with an upside-down 'A' on top of it.
- Queen's Blade uses a cypher of English (at least in the sequel QB Rebellion). Subverted, as anyone can easily read those runes if you notice them enough.
- In Yu Gi Oh ZEXAL, the "alien language" seen on the Numbers cards is actually a cipher of Japanese katakana. Likewise, the Varians' writing system is a cipher of the Roman alphabet.
- A variant is also seen in the original series, where the text on The Seal of Orichalcos is written in romanized Japanese using the Enochian alphabet.
- Starting with Best Wishes, the Pokémon anime started using a cypher language (well, three cypher languages) for background signs and the like. The text generally translates to a mix of romanised japanese and garbled english, though some of it is apparently just gibberish.
- Legion of Super-Heroes uses a substitution-cipher font to represent the future language Interlac; both the comics and the cartoon series use this for in-jokes.
- Superman's home planet Krypton's language has a substitution cipher.
- Marvel's Doopspeak (the language spoken by the character Doop from X-Statix) was a substitution cipher using the font "Roswell Wreckage".
- The Blue Beetle scarab's language was originally represented by a substitution cipher, but eventually transitioned over to English. In a clever move, during the transition, they used an alien-looking font in a style that resembled the substitution cipher, but whose characters could be made out as the Roman alphabet.
- The "Symbion" alphabet in this Merchandise-Driven comic from The Eighties is not only a substitution cipher for the English alphabet, but based closely on, of all things, the cipher used by the Freemasons.
- In X-Men, one member of the Starjammers' thoughts are expressed in what looks like a cipher, but if viewed carefully, turns out to be very oddly-lettered English.
- The Shadow Strikes issue 1 did this for what was supposed to be Russian.
- Quite a bit of the Worthies' Black Speech in Fear Itself is English written with the Elder Futhark runic alphabet as a cypher. Matt Fraction then used the same system in a Defenders title.
- In Tintin the Syldavian language is in fact a dialect of Flemish written in a cyrillic-like script.
- Played entirely straight in Hickman's Avengers World with Adam's language.
- The original Buck Rogers strip had a modified alphabet and calendar.
- The Vogon written language in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a stylised version of Pitman 2000 shorthand
- The Gelfling language in The Dark Crystal. We only hear a few lines, but it's pretty obvious.
- In Star Trek The Motion Picture, it was decided in post-production that it would make sense for a scene set on Vulcan and featuring all-Vulcan characters to feature the Vulcan language. Since the scene was already shot, they just recorded lines that roughly matched the actors' English lip movements. The same process happened to a short exchange between Spock and Saavik in The Wrath of Khan.
- A major plot point in Gregor and The Code of Claw.
- Piers Anthony sometimes does this for the language barrier between Xanthians and Mundanes outside Xanth.
- The Artemis Fowl series has lines of Gnommish and Centaurian running along the bottom of each page (ommited in some U.S. editions.) Rather than being graphemes of a full-on Con Lang they constitute a Cypher Language offereing secret messages to those who decode them.
- Though this is only applicable for the codes along the bottom of the pages- in-universe, Colfer instead makes them completely separate languages.
- Aurabesh (sometimes Aurebesh) in Star Wars. It has a few new characters for common two-letter combinations like "th", but whether they get used varies.
- Dinotopia's footprint alphabet, supposedly invented by small three-toed dinosaurs running on wet sand.
- Even J. R. R. Tolkien was not above this. The writing on the map in The Hobbit is plain English, written with Old Norse runes as a simple substitution cipher. If you already knew the runes it wasn't that much of a cipher. To be fair, he was supposed to have been translating the Red Book in the first place to get the Hobbit. At least, he was by the time he finished Lord of the Rings.
- Fridge Brilliance at play here: The lingua franca of Middle-Earth is Westron, presented as modern English, and older names and terms (mostly those concerning Rohan) are derived from Old English/Anglo-Saxon - however, these are only Tolkien's stand-ins for the actual Westron, which in-universe are a lot closer to Adűnaic, which is a language in its own right and bears little to no similarity to Indo-European languages. Odds are that the heavy usage of nordic-looking runes is just a placeholder for the actual letters used in the areas where Westron is spoken.
- This is stated in the LotR title page. The Cirth at the top reads "The Lord of the Rings, translated from the red book" while the Tengwar at the bottom continues, "of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of the War of the Ring and the return of the King as seen by the Hobbits."
- Most of the people who use tengwar in Real Life are using it in this context, rather than using it to write actual Elvish languages, though the better ones at least make a set of phonetic rules to write English in rather than substituting English spelling.
- Tolkein's runes aren't a "simple" substitution cipher. The phonetic rules are necessary because, for example, there's no direct equivalent of the letter X, and the combination TH is represented by a single character (and depends on whether it's voiced (then) or unvoiced (thin)).
- Converting the Hebrew characters of "golem language" statements in Making Money reveals that it's in English, although spelled phonetically in part.
- In the Sarah Woolson mystery The Cliff House Strangler by Shirley Tallman there is a diary written in what is supposed to be Coptic.
Live Action TV
- The Hebrew alphabet is used for this purpose in the Aussie version of 'The Amazing Race'.
- The creators of Stargate made a cypher to function as the Ancient language during production of Stargate Atlantis. It even fed back into the main series, though obviously episodes from before the premiere of Atlantis don't use the actual cypher, but are just "made up as we go" blocky-looking symbols. Stargate Universe uses the cypher, too, drawing most attention to the numbers of the countdown clock. Enterprising viewers have created a font called "Anquietus" and some fans are fluent in written Ancient (which isn't as hard as it sounds; it could easily be learned in a day and mastered in a week).
- In Kamen Rider Kuuga, the untranslated language the villainous Grongi speak is a simple substitution cipher of Japanese. The Linto runes themselves feature a stylized form of Katakana (Note: Website is in Japanese).
- They also added a sentence structure switch that only existed part of the time.
- In Kamen Rider Gaim, possibly as a Mythology Gag, the Overlord Inves speak in a foreign language that's, again, a cipher of Japanese.
- When Games Workshop released Tau, they used such an alphabet for the Tau's language.
- Used for elvish and dwarven scripts in some Forgotten Realms products.
- BIONICLE is a borderline case. It claims that the characters are speaking a different language, but it also provides a 26-letter alphabet with stylized, circular or hexagonal letters, and most of the written text in the canon consists of English words written in the BIONICLE Glyphs. Then again, this may still be the Translation Convention at work.
- Al Bhed from Final Fantasy X. Happily, the cypher is designed so that the replaced letters can (usually) be pronounced phonetically and still sound like a real language, both in English and in Japanese. It had to be, since there are some voice-acted parts in Al Bhed.
- Final Fantasy X also features three written scripts, dubbed Spiran, Yevon, and Al Bhed by fans. They're all English alphabet ciphers.
- Hylian is like this in Zelda. More specifically, it's a code for Japanese kana in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and a code for English in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (though flipped right-to-left in the Wii version).
- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword adds another English cypher to the collection, with an oddity: the alphabet has less letters than the Roman one we use, and a few of its symbols can translate into two letters, depending on context (so, one symbol may mean D or W, another can mean G or Q, and so on).
- In The Elder Scrolls series of PC games, Daedric is a substitution cypher of the alphabet, with symbols replacing letters. However, Daedric runes are not arranged like Latin letters - it's quite common to see writing in Daedric written vertically or with runes superimposed over others. In a similar vein, there's the Dwemer language seen in a few books (though it's completely meaningless, in that case), but becomes similar to Daedric cipher in Oblivion.
- The dinosaur language "Saurian" in Star Fox Adventures — in fact, the key to decode it is even given in the game's manual.
- Melnics in Tales of Eternia looks graphically like angular, runic Sanskrit, but it's a (good) English cipher.
- Many Tales games have text which are cyphers, or in the extreme cyphers where the new letters actually look similar to they're English counterparts, making it actually fairly legible if you look hard enough.
- The "Standard Galactic Alphabet" in the Commander Keen series simply substitutes symbols for English letters. Episodes 3 and 6 contain translations of the entire alphabet hidden in secret levels (a secret island in episode 3, and a space station in episode 6). The alphabet appears to have been designed to be written with a calligraphy pen, but with slight modifications to a few letters it can be written with a normal pen.
- A Metroid Prime 2 design sheet (viewable in one of the game's bonus galleries) gives a complete set of 26 three-dimensional Luminoth characters and their English alphabet equivalents. They actually work in-game; the Luminoth Lore images are 3-letters that have some relevance to the lore in question. Indeed, the last image in the game's bonus galleries is a very long message in Luminoth script. One that has sadly been untranslated, because translating 3D text on a 2D image is really hard.
- The Elites' language in the original Halo is English played backwards and distorted. In addition, backwards messages from the Gravemind are hidden in "Mausoleum Suite" from Halo 2, and "Black Tower" and "Gravemind" from Halo 3.
- The Strogg "Language" in Quake IV. In Quake II, it was just English in a Foreign-Looking Font.
- In Space Quest 3, Roger can view a secret message for getting a high score on Astro-Chicken. If he uses his Secret Decoder Ring on it, he discovers it's an English cipher.
- In Final Fantasy: Unlimited, the native language of Wonderland is a cipher of English. If you want the key, though, you'll have to track down the (out-of-print) artbook.
- Precursor/Old Precursor, a substitution cypher from the Jak and Daxter series.
- Similiarly, the Ultima series employed a number of these (such as Britanic runes, Gargish, and Ophidian), which were mostly substitution cyphers given in the manuals. It used to be that being able to read Britanic runes marked you as a dedicated (retro)gamer, while knowing D'ni marked you as insane. That was years ago, so both are now likely to signify the latter.
- Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn use a strange curvy alphabet for the "old tongue", which is used primarily by heron and wolf laguz. It's a cypher, but the game never provides the key. Translating it can produce a form of Bilingual Bonus; particularly Leanne's support dialogue, where most of what she says is actually her complaining about not being able to speak modern languages well (which actually doesn't make a lot of sense if you support her with someone who speaks to the old tongue.)
- The Bilingual Bonus with Volug's support reveals he is actually one of the funniest characters in the game. For example, wondering aloud if everyone would be so shocked as to stop fighting if he eats an enemy.
- The script in Aquaria is a substitution cipher. Lazy players can replace the graphics file holding the glyphs for the Aquarian alphabet with one containing English letters, and have almost all of the text in the game translated, except for a few bits that are painted into the background scenery.
- Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter used a pseudo-Cyrillic alphabet for writing in the game. Not used in game mechanics, but the game creators ended up putting a lot of Easter Egg notes in the game itself as well as official artwork.
- La-Mulana has what would otherwise be ordinary Arabic numerals rendered in cipher symbols.
- Nelly Cootalot uses the Piraglyphics system, where an improvised pangram would be translated into an ordinary alphabet, thus scrambling the letters. To make his particular version work, Bloodbeard used the initials of his pseudonym and the traditional signing "X" (along with intentionally misspelling a vital phrase). Unfortunately, Nelly accidentally lets the secret slip into the hands of his evil brother, thus giving him the clues to his treasure!
- Pokemon Mystery Dungeon uses 'footprint runes'. While there's no actual direct-to-English alphabet translation ever given, it is amusing in that they are the actual footprint images designed for assorted Pokémon.
- In Resident Evil (not the remake), the second laboratory password is "Mole" written in the Runic (pre-Latin Germanic) alphabet.
- Twisted Metal: Black uses a simple numeric substitution cipher for Minion in his Story mode's loading screens.
- King's Quest VI had the "Ancient Ones' alphabet", a set of pictographic-looking symbols which is just a cipher of English (although they added four conceptual meanings for each symbol for extra depth). This is actually Hand Waved in the Guidebook to the Land of the Green Isles, whose fictional author speculates that the alphabet may have been a code, or that his own alphabet may have evolved from it. Also functions as a layer of Copy Protection.
- Ni no Kuni has the Nazcaän language, similar to the above, but the symbols for I and V double as J, U and W (two V's).
- The White Legs from Fallout: New Vegas: Honest Hearts speak a broken/pidgin English cypher.
- Copy Kitty: Anything related to Exgal (including its name) is written in the game using a set of creepy looking glyphs. They are just a one-to-one cypher for English letters, and a few fans have decoded it.
- Dead Space: You see writing in a strange language scrawled on the walls. Practically the first time you see it is also the same time you see a decoder key nearby.
- The Legion Of Superheroes uses a substitution-cipher font to represent the future language Interlac.
- An alien language invented for sight gags in Futurama used this, being a straight letter-replacement for English. It would frequently show up as graffiti or on signs that viewers could interpret to get an extra joke. A second alien language (AL2, to obsessed fans) was invented in the second season, using a much more complicated mathematical substitution, because the writing staff are a bunch of massive nerds.
- The Canadian Series Dragon Booster has its dragon script. Again, it's a substitution-cipher font.
- According to Word of God, the written language in Storm Hawks is this and can actually be deciphered if one looked hard enough.
- Transformers: Beast Wars featured separate alphabets for the Maximals and Predacons, both of which were ciphers for English with rather elaborate systems for writing numbers. They were used to insert a few easter eggs into the series.
- The "Maraglyphics" that adorn the wait queue for the Disneyland attraction Indiana Jones Adventure are a simple substitution cipher. The park occasionally distributes cards bearing the translation.