Nav: Home

Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text

May 15, 2019

A University of Bristol academic has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed - by cracking the code of the 'world's most mysterious text', the Voynich manuscript.

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

In his peer-reviewed paper, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, published in the journal Romance Studies, Cheshire describes how he successfully deciphered the manuscript's codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

"I experienced a series of 'eureka' moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript.

"What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated. For example, the manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

"It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance - ancestral to today's Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now."

Cheshire explains in linguistic terms what makes the manuscript so unusual:

"It uses an extinct language. Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols. 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."

The next step is to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Cheshire acknowledges will take some time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

"Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content."
-end-
Further information:

We kindly request that reporters hold off publishing anything until 7pm on Wednesday 15th May EDT/ Thursday 16th May 00:00 GMT. Happy to provide information and images in the meantime.

Paper:

The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained
Author: Gerard Cheshire
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566

The Voynich manuscript is a medieval, handwritten and illustrated text, which has been carbon-dated to the mid-fifteenth century. It is named after Wilfrid M. Voynich (1865-1930), a Polish book dealer and antiquarian, who purchased the manuscript in 1912. This happens to be the same year that its place of origin, Castello Aragonese, Ischia, fell into private ownership, so it seems likely that the manuscript was part of the 'house clearance' prior to the property sale. It is currently housed at Yale University, where it is filed as item MS408 in the Beinecke Library of rare books and manuscripts. Given its cultural importance, there would seem to be legitimate call for its safe return to the Italian people in due course.

The manuscript was first revealed to the public in 1915 and its intriguing illustrations and unknown script immediately captured the imaginations of scholars the world over. Among those who have famously attempted to crack the code are Alan Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park. The FBI also had a go during the Cold War, apparently thinking it may have been Communist propaganda!

Translations so far have revealed the manuscript is a compendium of herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings concerning matters of the female mind and body, of reproduction and parenting, and the heart, in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of Mediterranean Europeans during the late Medieval period.

There is a fascinating pictorial map within the manuscript. It tells the remarkable tale of a rescue mission by ship, led by Queen Maria, to save the survivors of a volcanic eruption close to the island of Vulcano, which began 4th February 1444. The map, which shows Ischia, Castello Aragonese, Lipari, Vulcano and Vulcanello, enabled the manuscript's exact location and date of origin to be ascertained.

There is some irony in realising that the manuscript was not written in code at all, but a contemporaneous language and writing system that fell out of use. The writing system is more singular and less intuitive than modern systems, which may be why it ultimately became obsolete. However, a significant vestige of the language has survived, with its lexicon sequestered into the many modern languages of Mediterranean Europe.

University of Bristol

Related Language Articles:

Human language most likely evolved gradually
One of the most controversial hypotheses for the origin of human language faculty is the evolutionary conjecture that language arose instantaneously in humans through a single gene mutation.
'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.
How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?
New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.
Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
Lying in a foreign language is easier
It is not easy to tell when someone is lying.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.