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The Voynich Manuscript is open to the public to attempt translation

Voynich Manuscript Is Solved And This Time It’s Academic

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Claims of ‘cracking the code’ of the Voynich manuscript have lost their sheen somewhat over the last few years, with weak cases being presented from all and sundry. This attempt, described confidently in a research paper and presented in a press release by a UK university seems to have solid backing.

The press release from University of Bristol in South West England promotes a paper that reveals the secret language of the Voynich manuscript has finally been understood. One of their associate researchers has published the paper with the solution to the mystery. If validated (and it has already been peer reviewed) this means he has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed - by cracking the code of the 'world's most mysterious text', the Voynich manuscript .

It seems there was no ‘code’ to crack as such, just an extinct and previously unknown language to recognize, plus a lot of abbreviations and some complicated diphthongs.

The report seems very confident, but so have claims before. This time it appears to have strong academic backing.

The ‘Cryptic’ Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious illustrated hand-written vellum codex, produced in what was thought to have been a written and visual code. The manuscript has been carbon dated to the mid-fifteenth century (1404-1438 AD) and it is thought to have been composed in  Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance.  For several centuries it enjoyed an unassuming existence, until 1912 when it was purchased by a Polish book dealer by the name of Wilfred M. Voynich.

In that same year, the place of origin of the manuscript, Castello Aragonese on the isle of Ischia, Italy, was bought by a private owner, and it is thought that the document was sold as part of the clearance sale of the grand property. It is currently housed at Yale University, where it is filed as item MS408 in the Beinecke Library of rare books and manuscripts.

The island of Ischia’s Aragonese Castle

The island of Ischia’s Aragonese Castle. ( CC BY 2.5 )

In 1915, its intriguing illustrations and unknown script were revealed to the public, and immediately captured the imaginations of scholars the world over. Among those who have famously attempted to crack the code are Alan Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park. The FBI also had a go during the Cold War, apparently thinking it may have been Communist propaganda!

Investigations so far have revealed the manuscript is a compendium of herbal remedies , therapeutic bathing and astrological readings concerning matters of the female mind and body, of reproduction and parenting, and the heart, in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of Mediterranean Europeans during the late Medieval period .

This shows two women dealing with five children in a bath

This shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The new interpretation has the words describing different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery). These words survive in Catalan [tozos], Portuguese [orla], Portuguese [tolos], Romanian [noros], Catalan [or aus] and Portuguese [oleio]. The words orla la describe the mood of the woman on the left and may well be the root of the French phrase 'oh là là', which has a very similar sentiment. (Image: Voynich Manuscript )

Should we believe it this time?

Many have claimed to have ‘cracked the Voynich code’ in the past, but none have really stood up to scrutiny. The last attempt came at the end of 2018, when a Canadian engineer thought he had it dealt with and proposed it was written in a form of Turkish, using "Phonemic Orthography", which describes speech visually. He and his son had only managed to attribute some 300 words to this origin, leaving 70% that still needed to be reconciled with this solution.

The writer of the current paper notes that, “Even algorithmic data mining for patterns with computers” has been used in an attempt to decipher the text, but “resulted in abject failure, because the computer scientists lacked a vital piece of information for their programming”.

Other theories claim that the script is an amalgamation of many different languages, and even perhaps was constructed by a team of writers from different disciplines and counties of origin.

If today’s revelation stands up to scrutiny, these solutions will be dismissed completely by the new translation method.

This shows the word 'palina' which is a rod for measuring the depth of water, sometimes called a stadia rod or ruler. The letter 'p' has been extended

This shows the word 'palina' which is a rod for measuring the depth of water, sometimes called a stadia rod or ruler. The letter 'p' has been extended. (Image: Voynich Manuscript )

A New Approach

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

Cheshire explains in linguistic terms what makes the manuscript so unusual:

It uses an extinct language. Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols. It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents. All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin.

In his peer-reviewed paper, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained , published in the journal Romance Studies , Cheshire describes how he successfully deciphered the manuscript's codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

Cheshire explained in the press release :

It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance - ancestral to today's Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.

Unfolded map from the Voynich Manuscript

Unfolded map from the Voynich Manuscript. Vignette A illustrates the erupting volcano that prompted the rescue mission and the drawing of the map. It rose from the seabed to create a new island given the name Vulcanello, which later became joined to the island of Vulcano following another eruption in 1550. Vignette B depicts the volcano of Ischia, vignette C shows the islet of Castello Aragonese, and vignette D represents the island of Lipari. Each vignette includes a combination of naïvely drawn and somewhat stylized images along with annotations to explain and add detail. The other five vignettes describe further details of the story. (Image: Voynich Manuscript)

The realization of what he has uncovered was exhilarating.

I experienced a series of 'eureka' moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realized the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript.

What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated. For example, the manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

It is far from a closed case, however. According to Ars Technica there are many skeptics of the new claims, Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and critic of previous interpretations is quoted as saying:

As with most would-be Voynich interpreters, the logic of this proposal is circular and aspirational...His work has never received true peer review, and its publication in this particular journal is no sign of peer confidence.

If this interpretation method does stand up to further scrutiny, the next step will be to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Cheshire acknowledges will take some time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

Dr Cheshire optimistically states, "Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content."

We await this in hopeful anticipation.

Top image: The Voynich Manuscript is open to the public to attempt translation.  Source: The Voynich Manuscript / Public Domain

By Gary Manners

This article draws heavily on the press release by the University of Bristol, “Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text”, published by EurekAlert.

Source: University of Bristol. “Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text”, EurekAlert, May 15, 2019. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-05/uob-bac051419.php

References

The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained by Gerard Cheshire
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566

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