“Code violation” (Voynich manuscript)


The Voynich manuscript is a book with lavish illustrations, beautiful calligraphy, and not one word that has made sense to anyone since the 1400s, if then. Its 240 pages are written in an alphabet and language unknown to ever exist anywhere outside its pages.

The book is also noted for its detailed drawings of plants and flowers which nobody has been able to identify and which likely arose from the author’s imagination. The work additionally features astrological drawings, circular and concentric diagrams, and sketches of naked women dancing poolside.

As to what it all means, there have been many hypotheses, none convincing. My impromptu idea of it being an early version of wingdings, a notion that came to me while writing this sentence, has about as much validity as some of the speculations.

Many persons believe it’s written in code, but efforts to decipher it have failed. Some think it’s an artificial language, which is one that is deliberately created in a relatively short time by a few people, rather than evolving from a parent language over centuries while borrowing from other tongues. Examples of constructed languages include Esperanto, Klingon, and Tolkien’s Elvish vocabulary. This idea seems the most likely to me, but it raises the question as to the purpose behind producing it. Esperanto’s creator said his goal was to enable communication between persons of any nationality. Klingon and Middle Earth speak are appealing to specific geek categories. But the incentive behind artificially constructing the Voynich language, if that’s what was done, is long lost to history.

Some have speculated the manuscript is meant to be used with a Cardan Grille, a hole-filled paper the reader uses as an overlay to reveal the letters meant to be read. However, this is very unlikely, as none of the letters have ever been shown to be anything other than an invention of the author.

Since the pages feature no edit marks or corrections, many assume the Voynich manuscript is a copy or a final revision. This seems logical, but there could be another reason for the lack of editing: An author writing in a language that didn’t exist would be incapable of grammatical errors.

Whatever it means, if anything, it was likely written by an accomplished linguist. Extensive computational analysis has been repeatedly performed and the manuscript has been compared to many languages. No translation has resulted, but researchers have deduced that letter frequency, word frequency, and word length are all similar to verified languages. Further, patterns of word usage and word relationships unique to each of the manuscript’s six sections have been detected.

One nefarious possibility is that whoever wrote the manuscript had the same incentive as did Joseph Smith when translating golden plates, Catholic priests when speaking Latin to parishioners who couldn’t understand it, and psychics relating their vision. In these cases, the speakers are the only ones who know what they are revealing, so they can never be disproven. They have secret knowledge that only they can impart, interpret, and explain – all for a price. Similarly, the Voynich author may have used his work in an attempt to demonstrate that he alone possessed valuable insight that could be shared in return for glory, gold coins, and an exalted position.

This fall, artist and historian Nicholas Gibbs made the latest claim that purported to solve the mystery, though really he just sought to replace one mystery with another. He asserted that each letter in the manuscript is an abbreviation. Exactly what each letter is supposed to be short for is unexplained, except for two lines he allegedly translated. 

His conclusion falls flat upon cursory scrutiny. First, there is no peer review. Gibbs presented his solution not to a linguistics journal, but as a guest piece in the Times Literary Supplement. Bypassing peer review and takings one’s claims straight to the public is a pseudoscience giveaway.

Second, Gibbs wrote that he was tasked to concoct a solution by a television network (unnamed, but likely the “History” Channel). This means that his conclusion was the result of solo work done in a relatively short period, rather than being the culmination of lengthy scholarly study and corroboration with experts in linguistics and anthropology.   

There is another reason to doubt his conclusions. One would be hard-pressed to imagine a writer penning a book that no one could ever read. Even the author himself could forget what each letter was supposed to stand for. And as we saw earlier, the fabricated language of the Voynich manuscript features letter frequency, word length, and word frequency that are similar to known languages. These distinctions would be extraordinarily unlikely to have resulted if the work was what Gibbs described.

Next, he purports these abbreviations are code talk for medicinal recipes, yet he “decodes” just .001 percent of the text. And his interpretation is likely the result of having seen drawings of plants rather than his having thoughtfully analyzed the text.

Finally, while these “decoded” lines are supposedly herbal cures, Gibbs offered no translation for any words in the manuscript to represent illnesses or plants. His explanation for this is that there was an index where this information was included, but that the index has been lost. Joseph Smith would be proud.

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