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Summary:

“Beanish” is a fictional language in an epic comic series from XKCD — and fans, working together, are gradually decoding it — showing, once again, the problem-solving power of the crowd.

BeanishGlyphs

Nerdy cult comic XKCD is often known for its minimalistic stick-figure drawings and witty math jokes. But creator Randall Munroe has recently created a much bigger phenomenon.

Munroe is the artist behind a picture series called “Time.” The comic spans thousands of panels and tells an epic story of a couple navigating a mysterious landscape. The panel of the comic initially changed every half hour, and later that became hourly. The result is a 3,099-frame comic that, when sped up, played like an animated movie. 

But readers have been fixated on one particular feature of the comic: a confusing language known only as “Beanish” because it’s spoken by characters with beanies on their heads. 

Fans of the comic have been working around the clock to decode the mysterious language. While the goals initially were to figure out whether the language followed linguistic patterns, what has been uncovered in just the past week shows how quickly a group of like-minded internet obsessives can crack seemingly impossible mysteries.

We’ve seen the problem-solving power of the virtual crowd in a growing number of instances, for real and fictional events. Whether it’s decrypting a note passed by a mysterious homeless man on the subway via Reddit or Steam’s controversial 2011 Alternate Reality Game Potato Sack. Or what companies like Kaggle and TopCoder do all the time.

XKCDTimeBeanish

Forum user Tresoldi has documented progress on Deciphering Beanish, a WordPress website created after Time’s conclusion.  Deciphering Beanish can be difficult to understand for ancillary fans of the comic or linguistic novices (or both), but the intentions are clear: to reverse-engineer the rules of Beanish by identifying key characters and translating them into English while utilizing conversational cues from the comic itself.

Over time, fans have identified consonants and vowels in the Beanish language, leading to rough translations of some Beanish phrases. For example, they have identified customary greetings (“Hello”) as well as important nouns (“cream for healing,” identified when main character Megan injures her leg).

Deciphering Beanish has had extensive analysis on decoding the glyphs within the comic, and analyzing the relationships between each letter to better understand how the language is constructed. In short, the translation of Beanish, rather than being a simple phrase code, is as complex and deep as a true language.

According to Wired, Munroe enlisted the help of a linguist to construct Beanish, ensuring its complexity and likening it to the yet-to-be deciphered Ancient Cretean language Linear A.

XKCD, which has been around since 2005, doesn’t release user numbers, it’s one of the most popular web comics out there. Some 314,235 people are registered on the XKCD forum. And Time, one of the many long-term pieces Munroe has embarked on, has 13 million Wiki members and 52 active editors for more than a thousand pages dedicated to the comic.

Beanish, in a sense, has gone beyond the comic that has spawned it. While superfans are rapidly making progress to decipher the language and further understand the mysteries locked within Time, they’re still a long way off from seeing the big picture. But as more tests and discussions follow, it’s only a matter of time before a small subset of them will actually be able to communicate in in Beanish — making Munroe’s fiction a lifestyle.

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  1. Where are you getting that 13 million wiki members number? I’ve made a few edits, so I suppose I’m one of those 52 editors, but I’m guessing the 13 million is the number of members for the wikia network as a whole, not just for our little Time wiki :)

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