After 600 years, the secret language of the Voynich manuscript may finally be understood
By Rich McCormick
Around two-thirds of the way into the aged vellum pages of the Voynich manuscript, you’ll find a line drawing of a bath. A pipe leads into it, another pipe leads away. Inside the bath, knee-deep in a green liquid, squat 16 naked women. Over the page, more naked women stand in the openings of ornate horns, seemingly suspended by jets of water and using their hands to support pipes, or archways, or rainbows.
All around these pictures — above, below, to the left and right, sometimes in gaps where the pictures connect with each other — you’ll find text. It seems to be there to annotate the pictures, to explain their purpose, but there’s a problem: the text in the 600-year-old book doesn’t make any sense.
Since the manuscript was brought to the public’s attention in 1912 — when antique book collector Wilfrid Voynich bought it in Italy — experts from a range of fields have tried their hardest to make sense of it. Cryptographers have tried to crack its code; linguists have tried to decipher its base language. Botanists have identified the plants sketched within its aged pages and attempted to cross-reference their ancient and modern names.
None have come up with a full cipher for the Voynich manuscript’s strange text. Few claim to even understand any of its words. Of them, Professor Stephen Bax is perhaps the closest to having a claim to making some progress. Bax, a professor in applied linguistics at the University of Bedford, announced last week that he has provisionally decoded 10 words and identified the approximate sound values for 14 symbols included in the manuscript. If his deductions are correct, they’d be the first words to be deciphered in the manuscript since Voynich rediscovered the book last century. Bax says they are a “springboard for the full decoding and eventual decipherment of the manuscript as a whole.”
Almost everything we believe we know about the Voynich manuscript we don’t really know for sure. It’s a codex illustrated with strange figures and sketched plants that has been carbon-dated to between 1404 and 1438, and it could’ve come from Renaissance Italy. But there are discrepancies with this origin theory: the sunflowers shown in the manuscript’s pages, for example, didn’t grow in Europe during the 15th century.
There is no default, accepted theory to explain the manuscript’s provenance, and any theory that gains traction is usually disproven or disregarded by the huge community of amateur and professional Voynich scholars. Ten years ago news reports appeared suggesting the document was a hoax, written 100 years after its carbon-dated vellum suggests. It might’ve come from Mexico. Or it could’ve been a philosophical experiment, or a work of art or, according to theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner, put together by an “an autistic monk, who subconsciously followed a strange mathematical algorithm in his head.” Or aliens wrote it…