February 26, 2014

Another breakthrough in deciphering the Voynich Manuscript?

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A linguistics professor in the UK believes he's decoded parts of the Voynich Manuscript.

A linguistics professor in the UK believes he’s decoded parts of the Voynich Manuscript.

2014 is shaping up to be the year of the Voynich Manuscript. The inscrutable text plays a major role in Rachel Cantor’sA Highly Unlikely Scenario, published by Melville House this January. And as my esteemed colleague Julia Fleischaker wrote earlier this month, a botanist in Delaware reached what he believed to be a breakthrough, identifying the illustrated plants as native to Mexico, possibly linking the manuscript to a geographical area. Now, a British linguist believes he’s discovered further clues into what exactly the Voynich says.

Carbon dating has placed the origin of the Voynich Manuscript sometime in the 1400s, but since its rediscovery in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, nobody has been able to decode what it says. Writing for BBC News, Nic Rigby points out a few past attempts to understand it — cryptographers haven’t been able to crack it, and World War II codebreakers came up empty. Responding to theories that the whole thing might just be a hoax, Marcelo Montemurro of the University of Manchester published a study last year which showed that the text follows the structural rules of real languages, and is likely legitimate…it’s just been really difficult to pin down what the language could be.

Rigby reports that Stephen Bax, an expert in linguistics and professor at Bedfordshire University, believes he has identified ten distinct words in the Voynich Manuscript. Starting by trying to pick out proper names — a technique used in translating Egyptian hieroglyphics — he’s spent two years working on it, and has identified words he believes to read “Taurus,” for the constellation, and “Kantairon,” which accompanies an illustration of the herb Centaury. He describes part of his process:

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.

Bax has posted a 47-minute video about his investigation into the Voynich Manuscript, on his website, which you can also check out below:

Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.

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