12-27-07, 07:32 AM #1
Deciphering the Voynich manuscript
The Voynich manuscript might be the most unreadable book in the world. The 500-year-old relic found in 1912 at a library in Rome, consists of 240 pages of illustrations and writing in a language not known to anyone. Deciphering the text has eluded even the best cryptographers, leading some to dismiss the book as an entertaining but lengthy hoax. But a statistical analysis of the writing shows that the manuscript does seem to follow the basic structure and laws of a working language.
The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book with incomprehensible contents. It is thought to have been written between approximately 1450 and 1520 by an unknown author in an unidentified script and language.
Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame (all of whom failed to decrypt a single word). This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax — a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural languages. For instance, the word frequencies follow Zipf's law, and the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so "labels" attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page, and may be the name of the plant.
12-27-07, 06:00 PM #2
I wish there were larger-scale photos of it in the sources. I'd get a kick out of seeing the actual letters--or whatever kind of graphemes they turn out to be.
As for supercomputers... Regardless of the sophistication of your tool, you can only "crack" codes, not languages. Learning a language requires something beyond spoken or written samples. There must be something to correlate the words--or whatever kinds of morphemes it uses--with referents. Interactivity is the easiest of course, point to something and indicate that you'd like to hear the word for it. But just listening to people talk while they go about their lives, hearing words occur in specific situations as they work with specific objects, will eventually do it--with emphasis on "eventually." You can't learn English by watching one English-language movie multiple times. If you watched different movies for several hours a day, I'm sure you'd make some progress after a few weeks or months, but that just shows how difficult it is.
To do this with the written language... Let's see. Comic books showing various conditions and activities might be almost as helpful as movies. But text-heavy books with an illustration or two on every page? I don't think so. Maybe an entire library of such books, but hardly one book. Especially since the pictures are either inscrutable or just poorly drawn--or deliberately misleading.
If this is indeed a genuine, unknown language, it's hopeless. It would have to be closely enough related to a known language that a scholar would notice the similarities after guessing at the phonetic values of the letters. E.g., if there's some lost language of the Baltic-Scandinavian region that is as similar to Finnish and Estonian as they are to each other; or a long-forgotten southwestern Romance language in the family with Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, etc.; or a Bible translated by a priest into the language of a Gothic tribe that nonetheless escaped any other historical notice--then we've got something.
Otherwise no computer in the universe is going to be able to "decipher" it, because a language is not a cipher.
The Star Trek "universal translators" that give U.N.-quality translations of the language of a newly discovered alien, after hearing only a few sentences? There's a reason they call this stuff science fiction. In the later series like "Enterprise," they made it clear that there are language families in Roddenberry's universe, and the linguists's first task (they hadn't invented UT's yet) is to identify the family. That makes sense.
Code? Lost language? Made-up language? Obscure language in a made-up alphabet? Or just very clever gibberish? I'm as curious to know what this is, as I am to find out what it says.
12-27-07, 08:16 PM #3
12-28-07, 09:40 AM #4
At medium resolution it almost looks like the Roman alphabet. If someone told me it was just one writer's fancifully embellished style of writing the Roman alphabet, I'd believe it. If someone told me it was just another form of the letters, like Irish, I'd believe that. If someone told me it was just another alphabet derived from the Greek for a different language, like the Roman or Cyrillic, I'd believe that too.
This is about as cursive as anyone's writing got 500 years ago. Handwriting (English handwriting anyway) as we know it wasn't developed until around the 17th century, wasn't in common use among scholars for another hundred years, and wasn't widely taught in American schools until the 19th century. Before that, people simply printed their letters, somewhat stylized for quick transcription, with occasional ligatures (two letters run on) that came naturally with repetitive hand motions and were the forerunners of true handwriting.
Hand-written (as opposed to "handwritten") documents in alphabetic writing systems all looked very much like this, from the time that the invention of ink permitted faster writing, until the adoption of true handwriting.
What I notice are the signs of practiced hand movements. There's a consistency within a small range of acceptable variations, a casual familiarity with the letters and letter combinations. It's not likely that this was his first work in this particular style of calligraphy, done with slow, painstaking deliberateness. If a professional handwriting calligrapher in English began studying the Armenian, Cherokee or Thai alphabet, it would take him quite a while before he could turn out something that looked like this: neither printing press perfect nor childish scrawling. Perhaps he's a talented artist and this book was enough practice to perfect the technique, but in that case the early pages should look more primitive.
The writer has done a lot of writing in this alphabet. It could be a private code he made up many years earlier and had been using in his personal journals, one that no one knew about. This manuscript may have been made for his own amusement and it just happened to survive to perplex us.
We all have a few creations in our desks and closets that would baffle our heirs. Occasionally one is so beautiful that it's not dumped in the trash, even though no one will ever know what was going through our minds when we created it.
01-04-08, 02:12 AM #5
12-18-08, 09:30 AM #6
the voynich manuscripts
12-22-08, 06:52 AM #7
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