Encoding systems

The process of verbalization of one’s feelings, impressions, sensations, etc., both oral and written, is actually the act of encoding them. Depending on their purpose, people have used various, simple and exceedingly complicated, encoding systems. One example is the Polybius square.

The Polybius square is a device invented in ancient Greece and made famous by the historian and scholar Polybius. The alphabet is divided into 5 groups; letters are put in a grid with numbered cells so that each letter is represented by its coordinates in the grid (see the grid for the modern Latin alphabet in the image below). Only 5 numeric symbols are needed.

Later, the Polybius square was used in telegraphy and cryptography, as a basic cipher.

The signal “help me” sent from the tower by way of lighting up windows

Other encoding systems were used in the ancient world. The header image shows one simple system, dactylonomy, or, finger-counting. Merchants from different countries did not necessarily understand each other’s language. When they wanted to negotiate a price without the cost of an interpreter, they used their hands to explain, literally counting on the fingers.

How did it work? The imaginary dividing line ran across the hand, as if cutting the space in half. All the five fingers closed together to form a ring under the line symbolized the number 5, the ring above the line meant ten. Unfolded fingers below the line with no ring shown represented numbers 1-3. A finger-ring below the line and one unfolded finger showing meant a subtraction operation: 5 –1 = 4.

A ring above the line signified ten. One, two, or three unfolded fingers under the line with a ring above it meant, respectively 9,8, and 7 (10-1; 10-2; 10-3). Zero was also shown as a finger-ring above the imaginary line.