Cryptograms and the science of language

Language areas of the brain Angular Gyrus Supr...

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Puzzle-solving is one of my favorite hobbies, even if I tend to buy more puzzle books than I solve. I guarantee you I’ve at least a dozen hiding over the house half-finished! I tend to just pick one up and try to work from cover to cover, but which one I pick up, and how far I get between the covers, is another story.

Lately I’ve been working on cryptograms – the simpler kind in which a sentence is presented with each letter in the alphabet randomly replaced by another letter in the alphabet, and the solver must figure out which letter resembles which. For example (answer at the end of this post for the curious):


At first glance, a cryptogram can be mysteriously hard to solve. The key to solving cryptograms is primarily in recognizing word patterns which, in turn, means knowing an awful lot more about language than you think you really know.

For instance, if you’re making an attempt to solve the above, you might first look for common words – words like “the,” “to,” and “it,” for example. Another usual starting trick is to find any single letter words, as they can only be “I” or “a.” These, of course, are all whole words, easy ways to get started.

If this doesn’t work, or get things moving enough, the next thing you’re bound to do is look for patterns inside words. See a double letter together? That letter is probably an L, R, S, or T. Not sure if a three letter word is “the”? Look to see if you see the first two letters paired together in other words, as TH is a common digraph, as is CH and SC.

Wait, a digraph? Yes, even though you may not know the name for it as you have an “aha” moment while solving, your brain is actively working to reconstruct language from its intricate knowledge of how sentence structure and words work. You don’t have to be a linguistics major or orthographer to solve a cryptogram; you simply need to speak its language. Our brain does the rest: it knows all the sounds, the connections, the subtle nuances of letters and patterns that we use in every day life, without the need for specialized education.

If you’re curious about how language works, there’s no better way to start than solving word puzzles, including cryptograms. By letting your brain get to work, you can consciously study and learn more about the language you use every day.

Puzzle answer: The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

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