Through carbon dating, the Voynich Manuscript — named after book dealer Wilfrid Voynich who purchased it in 1912 — was found to have been created sometime in the early 1400s, and possibly created in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript has never been even slightly decoded — the individual words, the sentence formation, or even the diagrams of stars and plants that are found throughout — have not been solidly identified. There have been so many unproven hypotheses put forth over the years that it’s widely considered that the manuscript was intentionally created as a (very) well-made hoax. Professional and amateur cryptographers haven’t come close in making a breakthrough, and that includes World War I and II codebreakers. However, linguistics professor Stephen Bax announced that he has finally made a breakthrough in deciphering the text, by focusing on identifying proper names.
Finding proper nouns in the Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript contains over 170,000 glyphs, most of which are created using simple strokes of the pen. For the most part, an alphabet with a maximum of just 30 characters would account for the majority of the manuscript. Furthermore, analysis of the text has found that the language pattern resembles the patterns of natural, human languages. Illustrations in the text suggest that it can be divided into six sections, covering the subjects of human biology, herbs, astronomy, cosmology, recipes, and medicine. This all suggests the Voynich Manuscript is not a hoax, as it would be one of the most complex, intelligent hoaxes in history, but there wouldn’t be much gain from putting all that effort into creating a hoax that ultimately amounts to “huh, I wonder what this thing says.” Professor Bax, however, may have just put the final nail in the hoax theory’s coffin.
A single page from the Voynich Manuscript, depicting what appears to be humans.
Bax explains that his potential breakthrough involved identifying proper nouns — namely through identifying the plants and stars depicted in illustrations found throughout the text — the way similar strategies have been used to identify Egyptian hieroglyphs. From there, Bax used the proper nouns as something of a legend for deciphering other characters. Among the notable terms deciphered, the constellation Taurus was discovered, what appeared to be the seven-star cluster Pleiades was identified, as well as the word “Kantairon,” which appeared to be used to identify the medieval herb centaury.
It’s also still possible that the Voynich is indeed a hoax. Even more likely, it could just be one traveler’s journal through foreign lands (the flora and star documentation could suggest this), and though his language was lost to time, his journal was not, perhaps through the same action that brought the book to Wilfrid Voynich — a simple sale.
Bax has not stated that he has solved the 600-year-old mystery, but rather, he is reporting his findings in order to compel other linguists and cryptologists to join in and help decode the text using what might very well be the first-ever real breakthrough regarding the Voynich Manuscript.
If you feel like doing a bit of cryptanalysis yourself, or just fancy being a bit creeped out, check out a high-res scan of the Manuscript. It’s fun to think of the circumstances that resulted in the Manuscript being written. Was it merely the brainchild of a writer who created his own language — like a prototypical da Vinci or Tolkien, perhaps — or is it the only known record of a highly advanced civilization that, somehow, was completely lost to the sands of time?