For centuries, code breakers and laymen alike have tried and failed to decipher the mysterious Voynich manuscript. One linguistics professor says he’s done it.
As beautiful as they are mysterious, copies of the centuries-old Voynich manuscript gather dust on scholarly bookshelves around the world. Curly, fluid letters dance across the page in an unintelligible babble, accompanied by textbook sketches of flowers and nightmarish paintings of naked women frolicking in a green pond. Antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich discovered the eponymous manuscript 100 years ago, but scholars still struggle to translate even a single word of text, and heated arguments abound as to why the manuscript was written to begin with.
Last week Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor at the University of Bedfordshire, announced that he had finally begun to chip away at the stubborn code. Bax publicly presented his findings at a lecture in the UK earlier today, and published the details of his research in an academic paper on his personal website. Bax has spent years puzzling over the Voynich manuscript. “It’s curious all around,” he says. “Not a single word of it has ever been understood.”
A Linguistic Approach
Modern cryptographers have repeatedly tried and failed to break the code with computer analyses, and large-scale statistical approaches have come up empty. The Voynich manuscript is a particularly frustrating puzzle because it contains about 35,000 words and a generous supply of images.
“You’d think that something with so many pictures and so much text would be decipherable,” Bax says. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s called the most mysterious manuscript in the world.”
About two years ago, Bax resolved to take on the Voynich manuscript by hand, without any cumbersome, big data method. “I decided not to come up with a grand, overarching theory, but to start more linguistically—to focus on a bottom-up approach,” he says.
Bax put his knowledge of ancient Semitic languages to work, and began to link letters to sounds, and then images to their likely meanings. He scoured medieval manuscripts, comparing known plant species to their Voynich counterparts and piecing likely names into a cipher for decoding words and phrases. “It was a long, laborious process of trial and error, elimination and comparison,” Bax says.
Ultimately, Bax concluded that the manuscript was a sort of medieval textbook, describing natural phenomena for posterity. As a proof of concept, he deciphered words that pointed to a constellation near Taurus and letters that identified a medieval herb.
But some scientists doubt whether Bax’s plant identifications can be trusted. Count amount those Arthur Tucker of the Delaware State University Department of Agriculture.
“With over 60 years in plant identification…a record with working with private industry and the U.S. federal government on identification of botanicals for almost 40 years, and as Co-Director of a major Herbarium, I can only say on record that his plant identifications are naïve and mostly wrong,” he tells PopMech via email.
Tucker, who has published his own take on Voynich flora and fauna in the journal HerbalGram, argues that accurate plant identifications require training and a scientific approach, rather than a linguistic one. “We didn’t cite the web pages on poor plant identification in the Voynich by non-botanists,” he writes. “This is a story about pure, hard scientific facts.”
Bax, however, believes that his linguistics training provides him with unique insight into cracking the Voynich code. He is quick to note that his results involved building on prior research, toying with scraps of dead languages and comparing his findings to medieval sketches. “This was not a sole effort,” says Bax. “My work springs from many other researchers, who have been working on Voynich for decades.
Lessons from a Medieval Manuscript
Bax predicts that the Voynich manuscript will contain lessons about the medieval mind, and how cross-culture influences shaped ancient perceptions of the nature. “If we decode the manuscript, it should give us fascinating insights into how people at the time understood the world around them,” he says.
Although his work is far from complete, Bax chose to present his preliminary findings publicly so that others could continue where he left off. He hopes that his provisional research will encourage others to uncover even more secrets hidden in the Voynich.
“It’s like a small chink in the armor,” Bax says. “There is still plenty of mystery.”