No, somebody hasn’t cracked the code of the mysterious Voynich manuscript

Enlarge / Composed circa 1420, the 240-page Voynich manuscript is taken into account by students to be essentially the most fascinating and mysterious doc ever discovered.

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The Voynich manuscript is a well-known medieval textual content written in a mysterious language that to date has confirmed to be undecipherable. Now, Gerard Cheshire, a College of Bristol educational, has introduced his personal resolution to the conundrum in a new paper within the journal Romance Research. Cheshire identifies the mysterious writing as a “calligraphic proto-Romance” language, and he thinks the manuscript was put together by a Dominican nun as a reference supply on behalf of Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon. Apparently it took him all of two weeks to perform a feat that has eluded our most good students for a minimum of a century.

So case closed, proper? In spite of everything, headlines are already trumpeting that the “Voynich manuscript is solved,” decoded by a “UK genius.” Not so quick. There is a lengthy, checkered historical past of individuals making comparable claims. None of them have proved convincing so far, and medievalists are justly skeptical of Cheshire’s conclusions as nicely.

What is that this mysterious manuscript that has everybody so excited? It is a 15th century medieval handwritten textual content dated between 1404 and 1438, bought in 1912 by a Polish e book seller and antiquarian named Wilfrid M. Voynich (therefore its moniker). Together with the unusual handwriting in an unknown language or code, the e book is closely illustrated with weird photos of alien vegetation, bare ladies, unusual objects, and zodiac symbols. It is at present stored at Yale College’s Beinecke Library of uncommon books and manuscripts. Potential authors embrace Roger Bacon, Elizabethan astrologer/alchemist John Dee, and even Voynich himself, presumably as a hoax.

One other day, one other doubtful declare that somebody has “decoded” the Voynich manuscript.

There are such a lot of competing theories about what the Voynich manuscript is—more than likely a compendium of natural treatments and astrological readings, primarily based on the bits reliably decoded to date—and so many claims to have deciphered the textual content, that it is virtually its personal subfield of medieval research. Each skilled and novice cryptographers (together with codebreakers in each World Wars) have pored over the textual content, hoping to crack the puzzle.

Among the many most doubtful is a 2017 declare by a historical past researcher and tv author named Nicholas Gibbs, who printed a long article within the Occasions Literary Complement about how he had cracked the code. Gibbs claimed that he had discovered that the Voynich Manuscript was a ladies’s well being handbook whose odd script was truly only a bunch of Latin abbreviations describing medicinal recipes. He supplied two strains of translation from the textual content to “prove” his level. Sadly, stated the specialists, his evaluation was a mix of stuff we already knew and stuff he could not presumably show.

Gibbs’ most vocal critic was Lisa Fagin Davis, government director of the Medieval Academy of America. “They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense,” she told The Atlantic on the time. “Frankly I’m a bit of stunned the TLS printed it… If they’d merely despatched to it to the Beinecke Library, they’d have rebutted it in a heartbeat.”

Polish book dealer and antiquarian Wilfrid M. Voynich among his books in Soho Square.
Enlarge / Polish e book seller and antiquarian Wilfrid M. Voynich amongst his books in Soho Sq..

Gibbs’ motives have been additionally questionable, as Annalee Newitz reported for Ars on the time. “Gibbs stated within the TLS article that he did his analysis for an unnamed ‘tv community,'” Newitz wrote. “Provided that Gibbs’ principal declare to fame earlier than this text was a collection of books about how to write and sell television screenplays, plainly his aim on this analysis was most likely to promote a tv screenplay of his personal.”

Simply final 12 months, Ahmet Ardiç, a Turkish electrical engineer and passionate scholar of the Turkish language, claimed (alongside along with his sons) that the unusual textual content is actually a phonetic form of Previous Turkish. That try, a minimum of, earned the respect of Fagin Davis, who called it “one of the few solutions I’ve seen that is consistent, is repeatable, and results in sensical text.”

Cheshire argues that the textual content is a type of proto-Romance language, a precursor to fashionable languages like Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, and Galician that he claims is now extinct as a result of it was seldom written in official paperwork. (Latin was the popular language of import). If true, that might make the Voynich manuscript the one recognized surviving instance of such a proto-Romance language.

“Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols,” he said. “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.”

Fagin Davis naturally had robust opinions about this newest doubtful declare, too, tweeting, “Sorry, folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing. This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense.” When Ars approached her for remark, she graciously elaborated. And he or she did not mince phrases:

As with most would-be Voynich interpreters, the logic of this proposal is round and aspirational: he begins with a idea about what a selected collection of glyphs would possibly imply, normally due to the phrase’s proximity to a picture that he believes he can interpret. He then investigates any variety of medieval Romance-language dictionaries till he finds a phrase that appears to go well with his idea. Then he argues that as a result of he has discovered a Romance-language phrase that matches his speculation, his speculation should be proper. His “translations” from what is basically gibberish, an amalgam of a number of languages, are themselves aspirational quite than being precise translations.

As well as, the basic underlying argument—that there’s such a factor as one ‘proto-Romance language’—is totally unsubstantiated and at odds with paleolinguistics. Lastly, his affiliation of explicit glyphs with explicit Latin letters is equally unsubstantiated. His work has by no means obtained true peer evaluate, and its publication on this explicit journal is not any signal of peer confidence.

Ouch. [UPDATE] And he or she’s not the one skeptic. “The decipherment is limited to some phrases and words, and I don’t find any translation of a longer passage. I am not a medieval (Vulgar) Latin expert, so I can’t comment on the plausibility of individual words,” stated Greg Kondrak, a pure language processing knowledgeable on the College of Alberta who has used AI to try to decode the Voynich manuscript. “The a part of the paper which is dedicated to the Zodiac signal names appears to make most sense, however the truth that these names are of Romance origin is well known, they usually appear to have been added to the manuscript after it was accomplished. Concerning the decipherment of the person symbols, a variety of individuals have come up with a mapping to Latin letters, however these mappings hardly ever agree with one another, or with this proposal.”

So one other day, one other doubtful declare that somebody has “decoded” the Voynich manuscript. Look, it is an enchanting subject, and it is at all times enjoyable to have an excuse to dive down the rabbit gap of medieval manuscripts, mysticism, and cryptography, reveling in all the varied theories that proceed to be propounded about this mysterious treatise. However a phrase of recommendation: the subsequent time somebody claims to have lastly deciphered the Voynich manuscript—of course there might be a subsequent time—take a deep breath and test together with your native medievalist earlier than excitedly glomming onto the declare. (For an in-depth evaluation of a number of the points students are having with Cheshire’s work, see this blog post by J.Ok. Peterson at The Voynich Portal.)

What would it not take to persuade students like Fagin Davis? She outlined her standards in a follow-up tweet: “(1) sound first principles; (2) reproducible by others; (3) conformance to linguistic and codicological facts; (4) text that makes sense; (5) logical correspondence of text and illustration. No one has checked all of those boxes yet.”

DOI: Romance Research, 2019. 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566  (About DOIs).

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