Cryptologic Bytes

Breakthrough in Voynich Manuscript?

By Nic Rigby
BBC News

In Feb 2014, a potential breakthrough was made in attempts to decipher the Voynich manuscript, a mysterious 600-year-old manuscript written in an unknown language.

The Voynich Manuscript, carbon-dated to the 1400s, was rediscovered in 1912, but has defied codebreakers since. Bedfordshire (UK) University's Stephen Bax says he has deciphered 10 words, which could lead to more discoveries.

The manuscript, which some think is a hoax, is full of illustrations of plants and stars, as well as text. It has been latched onto by supporters of a whole range of strange theories including some linking it to Leonardo da Vinci or even aliens.

'Encourage other linguists'

It largely disappeared from public record until 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich, an antique book dealer, bought it amongst a number of second-hand publications in Italy. Since then, scholars and cryptographers have studied the document but have failed to find meaning in the text. It was investigated by a team of code breakers during WWII, but they also failed to find meaning in the words. Academics across the world have been trying to decode the manuscript.

In June last year, Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist from the University of Manchester, UK, published a study which he believes shows that the manuscript was unlikely to be a hoax. Dr. Montemurro and a colleague, using a computerised statistical method to analyse the text, found that it followed the structure of "real languages".

In February this year, a paper published in the journal of the American Botanical Council said one of the plant drawings suggested a possible Mexican origin for the manuscript. Prof Bax, an expert in applied linguistics, said he had been working on the Voynich Manuscript for about two years. He said he had managed to find the word for Taurus, alongside a picture of seven stars (seen as part of the zodiac constellation of Taurus) and the word Kantairon alongside a picture of the herb Centaury.

Prof Bax said he had been trying to crack the manuscript using his knowledge of medieval texts and his familiarity with Semitic languages like Arabic.

"I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script," he said.

"The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at medieval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.

"My aim in reporting on my findings at this stage is to encourage other linguists to work with me to decode the whole script using the same approach, though it still won't be easy.

"But already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language."

Prof Bax said he hopes a conference can be arranged later this year, to bring together experts on the manuscript.

Read the original article & see additional photos in the UK BBC News article .


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