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September 26, 2016

Is the Voynich Manuscript just high-concept bullshit?




Ah, the Voynich manuscript! It’s old, it’s weird, and nobody knows who wrote it or what it means. Every few years somebody claims to have made a breakthrough, but it still continues to baffle linguists and antiquarians alike.

However, there’s one group of academics who believe that the book will always go untranslated — because it’s not actually written in code, and is in fact just intentional gibberish. Rebecca Boyle reports for the New Scientist:

Advocates for a meaningful code argue that the text shows similarities to texts written in natural languages. For instance, the distributions of words and syllables follow a linguistic pattern called Zipf’s law.

But Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the UK, who has spent more than a decade studying the text, argues that even such apparently natural features would be easy to fake with a few simple techniques.

The fact that the manuscript remains undeciphered after decades of research implies that if there was a code in it, then it was either “anachronistically sophisticated” or “based on some radically different underlying approach from any known code”, writes Rugg in a new paper.

Opponents of the “Admirably Elaborate Bullshit” (my phrasing) theory, including Marcello Montemurro of the University of Manchester, argue that the chances of creating a made-up non-language that still displays tantalizing non-random patterns would be possible, but highly improbable, thus shifting the burden of proof back to the AEB crowd.

“It is not impossible that these tables can generate Zipf’s law, in the same way that it is not impossible to win the lottery 10 times. It is still very unlikely,” he says. “Bringing in all of these narratives to explain something makes it sound so far-fetched. They are writing a thriller, not a scientific paper.”

In a separate analysis, Montemurro found statistical similarities between the botanical and pharmaceutical sections of the manuscript, both in the art and in the indecipherable words.

“That means whoever made the hoax was aware of these subtle layers of structure that are very difficult to find just by looking at the text,” he says. “We cannot say for certain whether it is a hoax, or hides a message. But we can say, whoever wants to propose that it is a hoax needs to explain how all of this can arise spontaneously without the author planning all these things.”

Rugg, however, stands firm. And at first blush this would appear to be a practical but very unfun answer to the Voynich mystery.

But if you accept that Rugg is correct, it begs the question — does this make the manuscript’s author (or authors) the greatest trolls of all time?

After all, the Voynich manuscript occupies hallowed space among the world’s most famous unsolved ciphertexts. It remains unlikely that any truly conclusive proof of its hoax-ness could be extracted from those pages, barring someone discovering a contemporary account of the manuscript’s creation that quotes the writer saying, “Oh whatte a naughty johke I shalle play on these researchers of the futurre,” or something to that effect.

But if such proof came about, that would immediately place the manuscript’s creator(s) in the pantheon of our greatest literary charlatans and pranksters — alongside the authors of Atlanta NightsNaked Came The Stranger, and L. Ron Hubbard. 



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.