One reader of this blog brought up the subject of the Voynich Manuscript and asked whether the Goldlist method could be a good tool to someone wishing to decipher this.
I produced the first draft of the below answer in the comments section next to the query, but I thought it was a very good idea to talk about this as a main article on its own account, so I’m reproducing the answer here, and expanding it a bit with a few more thoughts.
It will be a nice precursor to another article I have in the pipeline, namely my story “Otherwise Engaged” which also talks about a special book made by one person and handed down in a family, this one containing a self-fulfilling prophesy. Although it was among my favorite short stories in the ones I ever entered into the Daily Telegraph‘s monthly short story competitions some years back, it was one of the ones that actually didn’t get anywhere, other than some nice comments by other Telegraph bloggers at that time.
Anyway, now to my thoughts on the Voynich Manuscript.
The easiest thing is to assume that it is a hoax, as so many of the unexplained things are hoaxes, but in order not to assume any bad intentions on the part of the author, let us say that it is a work of art.
The paper and the ink seem to be consistent with 15th century Italian, which also had a writing style of the sort used here at that time, a revival of an earlier Carolingian handwriting style.
The manuscript should not be looked at in isolation from the accompanying illustrations. They contain detailed drawings of plants which are not actually consistent with plants to be found in any of the linguistic locations posited, in fact, these plants don’t exist, unless they all existed once and all coincidentally disappeared, or maybe they exist on another planet and the author was a shipwrecked alien, or, most likely they are the product of someone whose psychology is a ‘creator’ style psychology.
I go for the latter. I believe we have someone who is aware of the respect Italian society has for the creator, for the artist, for Leonardo, and has given free reign to his fantasy to ‘create’ new species of plants, to show naked women going into pits, to show a calendar in circular form and possibly have some form of astrology or at least agricultural events going on in it. This person probably was an Italian and the language is probably either some version of Italian or Latin, maybe an “abbrev- lang-” or “-viation -guage”, or some early conlang made up by this fellow.
It may be that he knew something of the Orient or at least had fantasies of the Orient, but Asian academics do not recognise any asiatic science or culture in the drawings. The samovars which are shown are ornate, but impractical. The tube in the middle is not commensurate with the water vessels on the outside. Neither is it clear how the hot water comes out, as there is no tap. Nonetheless, the design of a Russian samovar is clearly there.
Just as the images are beautiful and aesthetic but not carrying any practical meaning, I would suggest that that is a major clue that the text does precisely the same thing. I have yet to see a book with illustrations where the character of the illustrations differed wildly from the character of the text. If you looki at Pepys diary, it is not accompanied with botanically impossible drawings and neither is the Rosetta Stone. If you are trying to encrypt something you don’t draw a picture of what it is right next to the thing you are trying to encrypt!
So the person, undoubtedly male and probably autistic, wrote this book to fulfill his creative and fantastic drive and to give expression to his inner world. It has probably no meaning other than in his own private world which he built into it. Whereas almost no women have embroiled themselves into the study of it, it appeals very strongly to other men of a similar mindset, and some like the Polish linguist Banasik have got so far embroiled in it as to attempt a deciphering of the script and to persuade himself that he can partly read it.
I expect his fantasy is nearly as strong as that of the original author, and certainly his attempts read to me like someone attempting a Sudoku with all the wrong numbers, getting to the end and finding he can’t finish. I understand that if one’s name sounds as though it means “little Banach”, Banach being the Polish mathematician of immense stature, the greatest cryptographer of his day, one might feel oneself naturally drawn to follow in his footsteps, but there’s no logic and no mathematics involved here, just a total insufficiency of relevant data.
This is not the Rosetta Stone, it is not a cuneiform accounting tablet. It is pure art, and should be appreciated as such without people going and losing themselves in it. For those who do wish to go into that journey, which I don’t advise, the Goldlist method will be as useful and as useless as any other tool for the task of collating the uncollatable.
You could assign a numerical value to each of the separately recognisable glyphs without prejudicing its final decided pronunciation, and then feed those into an Excel sheet or other tool for numerical analysis, looking for cases where the beginnings of words are the same. You could make a dictionary just based on the number values with no assumed phonemes. The number of glyphs will give you a clue whether it is a true alphabet, an abudiga, or something else, or if indeed it is even humanely possible to pronounce the number given.
You would need to look for numerical clues to which ones are vowels and/or tone and stress markers. You would also need to remember that it’s unusual for people to invent much without some basis in life, and that some of his glyphs are likely to be upside-down or mirror reflections of glyphs in other languages, and also when people do invent they try to bring in some economy so that similar sounding phonemes look similar, so that you would look for voiced versions of consonants to have a common deviation from the unvoiced versions of the same consonants.
I would use Excel for most of that, rather than Goldlisting, were I sad enough to embark upon the task.
I would suggest that anyone seriously undertaking the task should first study the work that has been done by museums on deciphering Cuneiform and apply some of their success strategies. But it will only be a game. No more productive or less productive than World of Warcraft or the latest version of Sims. It may be just as enjoyable, if not more, but other than the enjoyment, you won’t win anything.
You could be learning living languages, whether rare or common, in the same time, so that’s your opportunity cost if you embark on Voynich. So to quote one famous movie, the only way to win as a linguist with the Voynich manuscript is not to play.
And that’s my two Terobrian ungots’ worth, on that subject.
- BBC News – French library finds Leonardo da Vinci manuscript (bbc.co.uk)
- Preserving Ancient Manuscripts in Africa (biblicalpaths.wordpress.com)
- Digital Medieval Manuscripts – Collections – Houghton Library – Harvard College Library (hcl.harvard.edu)