Has the Enigmatic Voynich Manuscript Code Finally Been Cracked?
The Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious illustrated hand-written vellum codex in a currently unidentified written and visual code. However, according to a non-peer reviewed paper published in John's Hopkins University digital journal, a Canadian researcher has finally cracked the six century old Voynich Manuscript code. But has he really?
History of the Mysterious Manuscript
The manuscript’s documented history stretches back to 1639 (though it is said to be older than this), when a Prague citizen named Georgius Barschius wrote a letter to a Jesuit named Athanasius Kircher who was living in Rome. He told Kircher that he had a strange manuscript filled with illustrations of plants, stars, and “chemical secrets” accompanied by an “unknown script.” Barschius wrote with hope that Kircher may help translate the work, but Kircher couldn’t apparently accomplish the task either.
The next time the manuscript appears is almost 300 years later, and that story explains how it became known as the Voynich Manuscript. The name comes from Wilfrid Voynich (1865 - 1930), a Polish revolutionary, antiquarian, and bibliophile who operated one of the largest rare book businesses in the world. Purchased by Voynich in 1912, the manuscript, which he simply called his “cipher MS,” has been Carbon-dated to between 1404 -1438 AD and it is thought to have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance.
- The Enigmatic and Undeciphered Voynich Manuscript Unlikely to be a Hoax
- Can Mexican plant unravel the enigma of the Voynich manuscript?
There is much secrecy around Voynich’s acquiring the mysterious manuscript, but he did say some, possibly untrue, things about it. For example, Voynich claimed to have found the document in a collection of illuminated manuscripts in some “ancient castle in Southern Europe.” He wrote:
“While examining the manuscripts, with a view to the acquisition of at least a part of the collection, my attention was especially drawn by one volume. It was such an ugly duckling compared with the other manuscripts, with their rich decorations in gold and colors that my interest was aroused at once. I found that it was written entirely in cipher. Even a necessarily brief examination of the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings and the pigments suggested to me as the date of its origin the latter part of the thirteenth century. The drawings indicated it to be an encyclopedic work on natural philosophy. [...] the fact that this was a thirteenth century manuscript in cipher convinced me that it must be a work of exceptional importance, and to my knowledge the existence of a manuscript of such an early date written entirely in cipher was unknown, so I included it among the manuscripts which I purchased from this collection.”
Famous Attempts to Decode the Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript traveled with its owner to London in 1912 and then to the United Sates in 1915. He sometimes provided people with photographic samples of the manuscript to see if they could decipher what it may mean. In 1920, a man named William Romaine Newbold famously suggested a possible solution to a part of the manuscript, but it was later disproved by John M. Manly in 1931.
In 1969, the Voynich Manuscript was donated by Hans P. Kraus to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it is currently catalogued under call number MS 408. Measuring 23.5 by 16.2 by 5 cm (9.3 by 6.4 by 2.0 inches) the text is written from left to right in a sophisticated script. With around 240 pages collected into 18 quires, and because many pages fold out, the artifact brings to adults all the same intrigue and interactivity as pop-up books offer children. 14 of the pages are missing and there is no author or title provided on the cover.
Some pages of the Voynich Manuscript fold out to show larger diagrams. (Public Domain)
Hundreds of professional cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and II, have attempted to decipher the text and interpret the images; but none of the hypotheses proposed thus far account for all, or even most, of its many parts. Literary specialists and historians have proposed a long list of possible authors including: Roger Bacon, John Dee, Edward Kelley, Giovanni Fontana, or even Voynich himself.
Mr. Voynich among his books in Soho Square circa 1899. (Public Domain)
The Text’s Content
The text of the Voynich Manuscript is written in short paragraphs and is still a mystery. It may be tempting to assume there is some link between the writing and illustrations, which appear to be connected to Medieval science or medicine, but this can’t be verified. The manuscript’s visual content is generally described as being: herbal, botanical, astronomical, biological, cosmological, and pharmaceutical in nature, and specialists have observed characters from Latin/Greek/Old Cyrillic/ Croatian Glagolitic cursive, and Hebrew. Detailed studies of the parchment, cover, binding, ink, paint, and retouching methods are available online and we will waste no time on these elements in this article. Our clear purpose here is to look at the solution recently presented by Canadian researcher, Mr. Amet Ardic, who believes the manuscript contains “shapes meaning prefixes and suffixes in distinctive letters, resembling the Turkish language used in his home country.”
Detail of an unidentified plant on page 78r of Voynich Manuscript, in a part of the text which has become known as the “biological” section. (Public Domain)
Is Turkish the Key to Cracking the Voynich Manuscript Code?
Mr. Ardic claims he and his son have discovered more than 300 words in the Voynich Manuscript Code. His research paper was published on the John's Hopkins University digital journal. In his online video presentation , which has been watched almost a million times, Mr. Ardic concluded that the manuscript was written in a poetic, rhythmic method called "Phonemic Orthography" which describes speech visually.
Mr. Ardic first noticed the Turkish character “Turqu" seven times in the Voynich manuscript” and he made another convincing observation in the illustration featured in FOLIO 67-R, known as the “astronomy” section. A circle divided into 12 sections suggested to Mr. Ardic that it might be a calendar and each piece may represent one of the 12 lunar months.
Top: Folio 67r displays a circular design with 12 inner sections which are believed to represent the 12 annual lunar months. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University) Bottom: Mr. Ardic and his son say common suffixes are used among different letters. (Gigazine)
To advance his theory, the researcher then replaced the characters detailed within each of the 12 suspected months with modern Turku characters, for example; October is pronounced “Ogzaf" and in the old Turkish dictionary it is spelled “Yuzai.” The word essentially means the season “fall.” The word "Ai" means “two moons”. From these, Mr. Ardic translated the letters of ‘October’ to mean "autumn moon.” Extending this system of interpretation across the ‘moon’ circle, further correspondences were noted, for example: November is written as “Sepel”, which when translated to modern Turkish “Seper Ayi” means "moon of rain.” Furthermore, July translates to "the month of harvest.”
- First words in mysterious Voynich Manuscript decoded
- Publisher Wins Rights to Publish Mysterious Ancient Manuscript that Has Never Been Deciphered
What you have read and seen of the Voynich Manuscript thus far might have already convinced you that it has been successfully deciphered, but this would be a hastily drawn conclusion before taking a closer look at Mr. Ardic’s claims from alternative points of view; an activity which makes it clear that not everybody is buying his ancient Turkish theory.
Screen shot from promotional video showing Mr. Ardic researching a copy of the Voynich Manuscript. (Voynich Manuscript Research/YouTube Screenshot)
Stand Back… Here Comes the Skeptical Opinion to Ruin Everything
Before we begin, I must make it clear that I am not a trained linguist, but I am an experienced investigator, and in this instance my case book is full of niggling inconsistencies which we will try to rationalize before drawing a conclusion.
Firstly, it is important to remember that Turkish is a very well documented language and the Voynich Manuscript has been studied by professional linguists from all over the world for over 500 years. Mr. Ardic, with all and absolute respect, is an electrical engineer. Any balanced juror would have to agree that the probability is much, much higher that, just like Egyptian hieroglyphics , cuneiform, Mayan, and Linear B , so too would the Voynich Manuscript most likely be decoded by a linguist.
Secondly, if you had just cracked the code of one of the world’s oldest cyphers, the video releasing your amazing findings to the world might begin with a simple table or chart translating the encoded characters into modern letters with a step by step decipherment; letter by letter, word by word, page by page. Contrary to this, one would need to watch the presentation on Ardic’s interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript code five times to really understand the theory. This suggests the researcher possibly found a seed, dug around it until he found a root, then a plant.
Detail of a page in Folio 33-V of the Voynich Manuscript. (Gigazine)
I must now slow down a little on my unrelentingly skeptical attitude because Mr. Ardic and supporters of this hypothesis could firmly argue that Yale University made the manuscript public in the first place because not one of the world’s PhD linguists was able to decipher it for over five centuries. What is more, he might refer us to the quite brilliant book Wikinomics by author Don Tapscott, who provides many great examples of outsiders and amateur enthusiasts disrupting existing fields. And speaking personally, if we were to all underestimate the capacity of enthusiasts I wouldn’t even be writing this article! Not to mention, the world is full of highly advanced thinkers without PhDs applying themselves as software engineers, developers, and hackers – and they are running rings around the world’s national security and banking systems.
Mr. Ardic claims to have studied ancient Turkish languages with his son and they were able to pinpoint the Voynich writing style to an ancient phonetic variant. But his findings assume that there is only one language encoded into the manuscript. Why not 2, 5, or 12? That would go a long way to explaining why only a small part of the content can be related to Turkish.
- Beautiful, Decorative, and Sometimes Crude: Illuminated Manuscripts and Marginalia
- Cracking the Code to Discover Ancient Tarot Symbolism and Forgotten Universal Knowledge
Detail from Voynich Manuscript, page 50; Folio 25v “dragon” as the detail is agreed to most resemble a classic mythological dragon. (Public Domain)
What I find really interesting in all this is that the online amateur research community attributes a selection of different languages to the Voynich manuscript. When these proposed countries of origin are looked at on a map they form an approximate geographical area which might suggest the manuscript was not actually written in northern Italy, as many scholars have argued.
What is more, many researchers see Serbo-Croatian, Ottoman, and Old Turkic - it might be prudent for linguists to take these observations and look closer at Croatian Glagolitic cursive and Angular Glagolitic, which might have in part evolved from Turkic language systems. And then, it must be considered that the Voynich manuscript might be an amalgamation of Glagolitic and Turkic cultures condensing shared botanical, pharmaceutical, astronomical traditions, and craft knowledge.
Whether Mr. Ardic’s findings will stand up to peer review or not will remain to be seen, but there is no part of me that is not inspired by the dedication both he and his son have committed to furthering our understanding of the code within the Voynich Manuscript.
Top Image: Two pages from the Voynich Manuscript. Has the Voynich Manuscript code finally been cracked? Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
By Ashley Cowie
Gigazine. (2018) “A theory that Voynich manuscript which was not decoded for over 100 years is written "in old Turkish" appeared.” Gigazine. Available at: https://gigazine.net/gsc_news/en/20180320-turkish-engineer-translate-voynich-manuscript/
Stolte, D. (2011) "Experts determine age of book 'nobody can read'". PhysOrg. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2011-02-experts-age.html
Tapscott, D. & Williams, A.D. (2006) Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. https://books.google.com.co/books?id=-WUhErZgmpoC&pg=PA24&redir_esc=y
Voynich-manuscript.com. (n.d.) “How to Read the Voynich Manuscript.” Voynich-manuscript.com. Available at: https://www.voynich-manuscript.com/general/how-to-read-the-voynich-manuscript
Voynich Ninja. (2018) “Voynich Ninja Discussions in Medievalia.” Voynich Ninja. Available at: https://voynich.ninja/
Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (2012) “Cipher Manuscript.”
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Yale University. Available at: https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3519597