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posted by LaminatorX on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:25AM   Printer-friendly
from the somebody-call-in-Enoch-Root dept.

Thexalon writes:

"University of Bedfordshire professor and applied linguist Stephen Bax has decoded 10 words of the baffling Voynich Manuscript. He focused on proper names that would match the accompanying drawings, which allowed him to find similar drawings in other books of the period."

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Voynich Manuscript Solution Claimed, Rebutted 24 comments

So much for that Voynich manuscript "solution"

Last week, a history researcher and television writer named Nicholas Gibbs published a long article in the Times Literary Supplement about how he'd cracked the code on the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. Unfortunately, say experts, his analysis was a mix of stuff we already knew and stuff he couldn't possibly prove.

As soon as Gibbs' article hit the Internet, news about it spread rapidly through social media (we covered it at Ars too), arousing the skepticism of cipher geeks and scholars alike. As Harvard's Houghton Library curator of early modern books John Overholt put it on Twitter, "We're not buying this Voynich thing, right?" Medievalist Kate Wiles, an editor at History Today, replied, "I've yet to see a medievalist who does. Personally I object to his interpretation of abbreviations."

The weirdly-illustrated 15th century book has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories since its discovery in 1912. In his article, Gibbs claimed that he'd figured out the Voynich Manuscript was a women's health manual whose odd script was actually just a bunch of Latin abbreviations. He provided two lines of translation from the text to "prove" his point.

However, this isn't sitting well with people who actually read medieval Latin. Medieval Academy of America director Lisa Fagin Davis told The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang, "They're not grammatically correct. It doesn't result in Latin that makes sense." She added, "Frankly I'm a little surprised the TLS published it...If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat."

Voynich manuscript.

Previously: Voynich Manuscript Partially Decoded


Original Submission

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  • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:27AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:27AM (#3038)

    LOL it's people!

  • (Score: -1, Offtopic) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:33AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:33AM (#3043)

    Hey guys, I just heard some sad news - Horror/Sci Fi writer Stephen King was found dead in his Maine home this morning. There weren't any more details. I'm sure everyone in the Soylent community will miss him - even if you didn't enjoy his work, there's no denying his contributions to popular culture. Truly an American icon.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:38AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:38AM (#3047)

      Damn if that doesn't take me back to 1997.

      • (Score: 2, Funny) by evilviper on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:16AM

        by evilviper (1760) on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:16AM (#3073) Homepage Journal

        Damn if that doesn't take me back to 1997.

        You must be new here.

        I mean, it's no Beowulf cluster of naked and petrified Natalie Portmans covered with hot grits and confirmed by Netcraft.

        --
        Hydrogen cyanide is a delicious and necessary part of the human diet.
        • (Score: 5, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:31AM

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:31AM (#3079)

          Thinking about it... We're all new here!! :)

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @11:38AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @11:38AM (#3360)

      Supernaturalism is not science fiction.

  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by dingo on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:38AM

    by dingo (1579) on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:38AM (#3049)

    Sounds fishy to me. From TFA:

    "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." and
    "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."

    So he's guessing, same as everyone else attempting to decode the manuscript over the years and he can't prove those 2 words (where are the other 8?) are, in fact, correctly translated/interpreted.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:12AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:12AM (#3071)

      I believe that this is how must translations are done, and it takes a lot of time, trial, and error. We can only hope and can certainly agree that having SoylentNews.org reporting these facts will cause more discoveries like this to occur. Most likely, another document in the same language as the voynich manuscript will be found, sort of a Rosetta Stone.

      Thanks soylent news!

    • (Score: 5, Informative) by girlwhowaspluggedout on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:39AM

      by girlwhowaspluggedout (1223) on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:39AM (#3293)

      I haven't seen Bax's alleged decipherment, so I can't comment on it. But, generally speaking, making educated guesses about the contents of undeciphered texts, silly as it may sound, is actually one of the first steps in the decipherment of languages and writing systems. Champollion, for example, began deciphering ancient Egyptian using the two proper names that appear in the Philae Obelisk [wikipedia.org]. The Rosetta Stone came later.

      Even so, decipherment is a long and arduous process. This is easily illustrated using the decipherment of Old Persian. Although we know that Grotefend's partial decipherment of the language and its script [wikipedia.org] was correct in its assumptions, he was nevertheless way off base when it came to phonetic reconstruction. The words that he read as Khscharscha, Goschtasp, and Darheusch (=the Old Persian names that are known in the West by their Greek forms Xerxes [wikipedia.org], Hystaspes [wikipedia.org] and Darius [wikipedia.org]) are now read as shown here [pastebin.com] (damn you, UTF-8!). Grotefend's breakthrough also allowed him to identify the name Cyrus [wikipedia.org] and the Old Persian words for "king" and "great". But, again, out of the 22 signs in the two texts that he was working with, he only got 8 right.

      Perhaps Bax has indeed solved part of the Voynich mystery. The real problem is in proving that his readings are accurate. For that, he will need to extend his decipherment to the rest of the manuscript. As the repeated attempts to decipher the Byblos Syllabary [wikipedia.org] show, this is no mean feat.

      --
      Soylent is the best disinfectant.
      • (Score: 1) by WillAdams on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:36PM

        by WillAdams (1424) on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:36PM (#3416)

        The golden guess is the full round of truth.
        ---Tennyson

        That was on an epigraph page for the print versions of _Military Cryptanalysis: Part 1 --- Monoalphabetic Substitution Systems_:

        http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/declass/military_cr yptanalysis.shtml [nsa.gov]

        Seems to be missing from the scans though, probably 'cause it was the usual page for stamping the classification on it.

  • (Score: 5, Funny) by maratumba on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:40AM

    by maratumba (938) on Thursday February 20 2014, @01:40AM (#3053) Journal
    • (Score: 3, Funny) by paulej72 on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:21AM

      by paulej72 (58) on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:21AM (#3115) Journal

      Now I feel at home. I just need an in Soviet Russia joke and it would be complete.

      --
      Team Leader for SN Development
      • (Score: 2, Informative) by Subsentient on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:39AM

        by Subsentient (1111) Subscriber Badge on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:39AM (#3132) Homepage Journal

        In Soviet Russia, Voynich Manuscript decodes YOU!!!

        --
        "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." -Jiddu Krishnamurti
      • (Score: 1) by Thexalon on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:41AM

        by Thexalon (636) on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:41AM (#3135)

        In Soviet Russia, manuscript decode YOU!

        --
        The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
    • (Score: 1) by zafiro17 on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:31AM

      by zafiro17 (234) on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:31AM (#3290) Homepage

      I'd forgotten about that XKCD - it's a good one. That guy is a genius.

      On topic, I agree with the poster who said that ten words only, on the basis of guessing, isn't very impressive. Does anyone know if J.R.R. Tolkien ever had a look at this? His linguistic background and penchant for developing new languages from thin air might have been useful. It's not impossible that the original author wasn't just a similar kind of guy - rich artisan with free time and an interest in languages. He gets out some parchment and just starts inventing something, illustrates it for fun, and then it takes on a life of its own. Lewis Carroll, same kind of thing. "Worbly went the Vorblesneetches" or however that old, clever verse goes. (does anyone know what I'm talking about? Would love to find it.)

      --
      Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis - Jack Handey
      • (Score: 2, Informative) by KritonK on Thursday February 20 2014, @10:55AM

        by KritonK (465) on Thursday February 20 2014, @10:55AM (#3330)
        Are you referring to the Bandersnatch [jabberwocky.com]?
  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by combatserver on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:02AM

    by combatserver (38) on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:02AM (#3064)

    I had come across the voynich.nu website years ago when doing some research for a short story idea I was working on--I was instantly intrigued. Was this some elaborate hoax? Was there anything in the document that could verify it's authenticity? And more importantly, WTF is the dude writing about?

    It is that last question that really got me thinking--was there anything that could be discerned when viewing the work as a whole? It seems to me that there were a few obvious--and some not-so-obvious--subjects that might explain the sum total of the manuscript, but two stood out for me.

    The first thought I had was that the author/illustrator was simply mentally ill and had documented his perceptions and ideas in the form of a manuscript. It wouldn't have been the first time such a thing has happened, nor the last.

    The second possible explanation that occurred to me was that the manuscript was a description of the "Paradise" described as the destination for the "faithful" in Muslim teachings. Perhaps this is a description/travelogue of what "paradise" would be like--virgins (lots!), botanical descriptions of plant-life (no plants in Paradise, you say?) and maybe even celestial map-markers for finding "paradise"

    --
    I hope I can change this later...
    • (Score: 4, Funny) by combatserver on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:04AM

      by combatserver (38) on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:04AM (#3065)

      Period.

      --
      I hope I can change this later...
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:27AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:27AM (#3124)

      The second possible explanation that occurred to me was that the manuscript was a description of the "Paradise" described as the destination for the "faithful" in Muslim teachings.

      I think it would be in Arabic if that were the case. In the early spread of Islam, a manuscript wouldn't have been created because it was all about military conquest and power consolidation in Arabia. By the time Islam was established and had its golden age of literacy, Arabic was established as the proper language for such things, right?

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by combatserver on Thursday February 20 2014, @05:56AM

        by combatserver (38) on Thursday February 20 2014, @05:56AM (#3213)

        "I think it would be in Arabic if that were the case."

        It almost appears to be a combination of western characters and Arabic..

        http://www.canadianarabcommunity.com/arabiclanguag e.php [canadianar...munity.com]

        compared to the "Currier's Hands" section of this page...

        http://www.voynich.nu/writing.html [voynich.nu]

        --
        I hope I can change this later...
      • (Score: 1) by tibman on Friday February 21 2014, @02:13AM

        by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Friday February 21 2014, @02:13AM (#3989)

        Arabic is also written right to left but this manuscript appears to be left to right.

        --
        SN won't survive on lurkers alone. Write comments.
  • (Score: 5, Informative) by martyb on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:31AM

    by martyb (76) Subscriber Badge on Thursday February 20 2014, @02:31AM (#3080) Journal

    I suggest he might want to talk to the folks who published this: A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript [herbalgram.org] by Arthur O. Tucker, PhD; Rexford H. Talbert. If you prefer, they have a pdf which contains all the pictures and analysis available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue100/HG10 0-voynich-online.pdf [herbalgram.org]. They used, for example, botanical knowledge to identify certain plants from the illustrations, and with that worked out the translations and possible origins of many words.

    For those who would like to examine the entire manuscript, Yale has a copy you can access and download here [yale.edu].

    As usual, there's a very readable description of the manuscript and the challenges of translation on Wikipedia. [wikipedia.org]

    --
    Wit is intellect, dancing.
    • (Score: 2) by combatserver on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:27AM

      by combatserver (38) on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:27AM (#3125)

      "They used, for example, botanical knowledge to identify certain plants from the illustrations..."

      The article mentioned possible Mexican origin of some of the flora described in the manuscript--not too far away from South America. Which brings me to a conversation my wife and I just had on the subject.

      I explained to her my theory that the manuscript is a guide to Muslim "Paradise" and she immediately voiced her disapproval of the male-centric views of "paradise"--there is little, or no, room for female martyrs in "paradise" she says. This led me to the realization that there no images of men anywhere in the manuscript--none whatsoever. If one were describing "paradise" to a male, the preclusion of males in that paradise would make the idea all the more acceptable--no references to males is the same thing as saying "And no competitors ever again!".

      Her perspective gave me another idea, though. Imagine a European (or perhaps, Middle-Eastern) explorer, in the early days of South American exploration (the timing would be about right, based on the estimated age of the manuscript) discovers a society buried in the jungles of the Amazonian Basin that consists solely of women. Perhaps this explorer not only documented the day-to-day life of this society, but adapted their spoken language to his own European/Arabic standards of written text to be used in the very descriptions. Perhaps this is a document that describes what we have all come to know as the myth of "Amazons", their local flora, their religious beliefs, how they go about maintaining a society that is both reliant on males for reproduction (or not!) and exclusive of them, their understanding of the Cosmos, etc.

      Or, perhaps it is a hoax to support one of those two theories that simply never "took root" (I'm not the first to posit either the idea of paradise or Amazons)?

      --
      I hope I can change this later...
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @11:48AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @11:48AM (#3365)

        The "Amazons" were figures in Greek mythology that were supposed to have lived somewhere in Asia Minor.

        • (Score: 3, Informative) by combatserver on Thursday February 20 2014, @12:06PM

          by combatserver (38) on Thursday February 20 2014, @12:06PM (#3369)

          "The "Amazons" were figures in Greek mythology..."

          I used the term "Amazons" simply for lack of a better analogy. My choosing the Amazon basin for my little theory was based on the name alone--the manuscript could be describing the very areas you suggest.

          From the wikipedia article:

          "The name 'Amazon' is said to arise from a war Francisco de Orellana fought with a tribe of Tapuyas and other tribes from South America. The women of the tribe fought alongside the men, as was the custom among the entire tribe.[2] Orellana derived the name Amazonas from the mythical Amazons of Asia and Africa described by Herodotus and Diodorus in Greek legends.[2]"

          --
          I hope I can change this later...
  • (Score: 3, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:04AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:04AM (#3103)

    Of a theorem which nowadays (with the benefit of algebraic notation) would be expressed as:

    There are no solutions of the equation

    a**n + b**n = c**n

    where a, b, and c are positive integers, and n is an integer greater than 2.

    So whoever cracks this manuscript might get a twofer.

  • (Score: 5, Informative) by forsythe on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:22AM

    by forsythe (831) on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:22AM (#3118)

    The linked article to the BBC goes into some depth, but Bax's page [stephenbax.net] contains a download of his full paper that I didn't otherwise see an immediate link to (and which does include, as another post requested, all the words).

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:39AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 20 2014, @03:39AM (#3133)
    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by lx on Thursday February 20 2014, @07:43AM

      by lx (1915) on Thursday February 20 2014, @07:43AM (#3252)
      Let it go man! You can't be free until you stop competing with the Other Place.
      • (Score: 2, Informative) by JeanCroix on Thursday February 20 2014, @04:11PM

        by JeanCroix (573) on Thursday February 20 2014, @04:11PM (#3540)
        Yup. The only way Riker could beat Locutus was to finally let go of Picard.
      • (Score: 2, Insightful) by etherscythe on Thursday February 20 2014, @04:58PM

        by etherscythe (937) on Thursday February 20 2014, @04:58PM (#3564) Journal

        Besides, it's not like the Other Place was known for its timely notice of current events. Two hours!? Pick a higher standard!

        --
        "Fake News: anything reported outside of my own personally chosen echo chamber"
  • (Score: 1) by laserfusion on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:57AM

    by laserfusion (1450) on Thursday February 20 2014, @09:57AM (#3300)

    There was a religious persecution at the time, which must have been the inspiration for encrypting the text, to protect the author. The images might be also protected in some way. Maybe the images are allegories, or somehow the real content is encoded in them.

  • (Score: 3, Informative) by johaquila on Thursday February 20 2014, @06:11PM

    by johaquila (867) on Thursday February 20 2014, @06:11PM (#3609)

    Stephen Bax's paper is available here: http://stephenbax.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/V oynich-a-provisional-partial-decoding-BAX.pdf [stephenbax.net]

    I find the paper convincing. It does appear that the Voynich manuscript is a real book about medicine in the widest sense: botany (for medical plants), anatomy, and astronomy (for astrology). It does appear to be in an as yet unidentified though possibly well known language.

    There are European influences (castles, people who look European), influences from further east (plants that have been identified as Asian), and an import influence from semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician etc.): The writing system seems to share features with semitic languages, which seems to be why the high-level statistic approaches are having difficulties. Vowels are sometimes included, sometimes dropped, as is usual in scripts for semitic languages.

    All of this made me think of Maltese. The Voynich manuscript has been dated to the 15th century. At the time the island of Malta was under Sicilian rule, but the (Christian) population was still speaking (and is still speaking today) the semitic language of which we don't really know whether it goes back more to the Phoenician era or more to later Arabic rule. It was shortly before the time of the Knights of Malta.

    At the time there was a pressure to replace the Maltese language by Latin and Italian. It was not a good time for writing in Maltese. According to the French Wikipedia language on the Maltese script, before 1750 essentially no written Maltese is known - neither in the Latin script nor in the Arabic script.

    To me this appears to be an ideal environment to come up with a semitic-style script with letters that look more similar to Latin and Greek, used to write in an essentially European culture about plants which include some from further east.

    While researching this I learned that Malta was closely related linguistically and politically to a part of Sicily which was under Arabic and Berber rule 831 to 1072. The Emirate of Sicily was on the island of Sicily, close to Salerno, the medieval centre of medical sciences in the time 10th-13th century.

    Now this made me think about a possible Berber influence. This is what I found:

    Bax has tentatively identified a number of Voynich letters. They correspond quite well to letters of modern Tifinagh, the Berber script, and of Phoenician, from which it is derived:

    According to Bax, the Voynich letter that looks like a small o, commonly transcribed as O, has the phonetic value of a. Tifinagh has precisely the same letter with the same sound.

    According to Bax, the Voynich letter that looks like a capital R without the stroke on the left, or like an incomplete Q, which is commonly transcribed as R, has the phonetic value of r. Turns out that one of the two Tifinagh letters with r-like sound values is a capital Q. (The other is a capital O.)

    According to Bax, the Voynich letter that looks like the number 9 has the phonetic value of n. The Phoenician n is very similar: It looks like a 7 with an extra stroke up on the left, or like a sloppy 4 written with a single stroke. You just have to close it at the top to get a 9.

    Bax has identified a certain complicated Voynich letter as a probable k. One of several Berber k letters (yak) is quite similar. In fact slightly more so than Greek kappa / Latin K.

    Bax has identified a sequence of two letters as ir. The first is a Latin i (though there is a similar Tifinagh j; note that vowels are more likely to be taken from Latin in a script based on earlier semitic scripts which lack them), the second is a variant of the letter mentioned earlier as an r written like a Q. And in fact it looks like a capital O, just like the other Tifinagh r does.

    A weird letter which Bax identifies as something like ch (either as in English or as in German) looks a lot like a script version of Tifinagh yaʕ, a letter for a very weird sound of which I don't know if it is related.

    Bax has identified the Voynich letter that looks like c as o, and cc as long o. The Tifinagh letter for o looks like --, so similar enough.

    So my guess is: The Voynich manuscript was written in Malta or Sicily in the local language, for which no script is known to have been in use at the time. The script was related to Phoenician, Tifinagh, and likely also Latin and Greek.