Cryptology and Language (and Teletubbies)

From left to right, the Teletubbies are: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. The spellings are of little importance, since the show was intended for pre-readers, however those are the official spellings of the names.

From a little prior research, I know that the Teletubbies was aimed at children who had not yet learned to speak through kindergarten. Their shape, colour, and their faces, were intended to reflect the infant's perception of the world in colour, movement and in terms of the parts of the face that are the most important.

The four Teletubbies are here also arranged in order of size and therefore (presumably, since young see the size and age relationship as exactly proportional) age. The youngest, "Po" has the phonetically simplest name. "Laa-Laa" (pronounced as two "long 'a's", "Lala") is only Twice as complex, by repeating the same syllable. "Dipsy" has two syllables, but they are different, and a plosive consonant followed by a sibilant - so at least twice as complex as "Laa-Laa". "Tinky Winky" leaps to four syllables but keeps the complexity low by repeating most of the sound, however it uses a sound formed from two consonants "nk" and is hence about two and a half times as complex as "Dipsy". This more-or-less linear progression of complexity matches the infant's growing perception of the complexity of language which seems to increase as you get older (and never seems to stop IMHO).

This is all very clever, and though this cleverness probably contributed to the success of the show, it is likely that it is an example of the kind of attention to detail and level of production values that went into the show, which altogether explain its success.

It also all leads me to wonder whether (assuming Teletubbies to be (as they appear) members of an Eloi-like alien race) as Teletubbies get older, their names become more complex according to a strict pattern.

Let us examine:

All names begin with con-vow: Ti, Di, La, Po. This must be the constant.

By comparing Po with Laa-laa it is easy to infer that when Laa-Laa was younger she was called simply "Laa" and that when Po is older he will be called "Po-po". Not "Poo-poo", however, as this would change the vowel sound?It is difficult, though, since "laa" is just an elongated "a" whereas "Po" is pronounced as a diphthong "Poe". We could perhaps infer that Laa-Laa was called "Lau" and Po will be called Per-per (with an unvoiced UK style R) then (remember this is about the sounds, not the spellings. If lɑː-lɑː was ˈlaʊ then pəʊ will be pɜː-pɜː .)

We can also infer from the comparison of "Tinky Winky" with "Dipsy" that the former was once known as "Tinky" and the latter will later be known as "Dipsy-*ipsy". That star is the sticking point. How do we work out what it ought to be? It might be that all Teletubbies just double up with the double u, but this leaves me unsatisfied. Double u (despite the convention in English of calling it a consonant) is a vowel, which suggests that a vowel is needed, but all the alternatives seem unpleasantly difficult to say:


Could the relationship be mathematical?

W is only three letters after T. This would give "Dipsy Ghipsy". I'm not altogether satisfied with this, so I'm going to move on to the most difficult question. Given that "Dipsy" must have been called "Dee-Dee" (diː-diː), we can infer that Laa-Laa will be called La**y. We even know that the vowel will shorten (from lɑː to  ). But what will those two consonants be. I think we can only guess here. There are a number of consonants in English that can be paired and be followed by a "y"; (I'm also assuming that "nk" and "ps" are already taken) here are a few that might work:


Of these, I quite like "Lafty", so I'm going with that. This would give (as the fourth name) "Lafty Pafty" which is rather good. Sounds like an Italian clown.

Finally, Po, Per-Per would become Pelty (my arbitrary choice), then Pelty Selty.


TiuTee-TeeTinkyTinky Winky
DiuDee-DeeDipsyDipsy Ghipsy
LauLaa-LaaLaftyLafty Pafty
PoPer-PerPeltyPelty Selty

This post illustrates the key techniques of cryptology and, indeed, of editing, exposing them as:

  • detailed and meticulous research
  • broad general knowledge
  • fastidious attention to detail
  • structured and logical approach
  • guesswork
(And you now know what to call your four children as they grow up.)