What is the Voynich Manuscript?
The Voynich manuscript–named after the Polish-American antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who owned it since 1912 until his death in 1930-is perhaps the most widely known example of a book written in an as yet undeciphered script. Its author and language are unknown, and no other document in the same script has ever been found. The manuscript‚s ownership history can be traced back to the seventeenth century, but carbon dating of its vellum and stylistic analysis of its illustrations suggest that it was written around the second half of the fifteenth century (Dr. Greg Hodgins, University of Arizona, personal communication). Presently, the book belongs to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, where it is identified as Beinecke MS 408. Public-domain electronic images of the full manuscript are deposited in Wikimedia Commons (commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Voynichmanuscript).
The manuscript comprises 104 folios, organized into 18 quires bound to leather thongs. Both sides of most folios contain text, written from left to right. The text consists of discrete graphemes, chosen from an “alphabet” of some 40 symbols and organized into arrays or “words” of variable length. These arrays are separated by spaces, and lines are sometimes grouped into paragraphs but, otherwise, no evident punctuation marks are used. Most pages also contain illustrations, which modern scholars have used to “thematically” divide the manuscript into five sections: Herbal, Astrological, Biological, Pharmacological, and Recipes. The Herbal section is the longest, and displays dozens of ravishingly coloured plant drawings. Oddly enough, however, not a single one of these pictures could be unquestionably recognized as an existing plant. Similarly, except for the Zodiac signs in the Astrological section, no illustration could be unambiguously interpreted in the whole book.
In spite of its unmistakable medieval-codex look, the origin, purpose, and contents of the Voynich manuscript remain a deep mystery. Since the seventeenth century, numerous attempts at deciphering the script have led to a few claims of success, but none of them has been convincing. Careful quantitative analysis of the text structure, however, has inspired some plausible hypotheses on the manuscrip’s cryptographic nature: while it is unlikely that the book is written in a European language using an unknown alphabetic script, it may be encoding an East Asian language (such as Chinese) into an alphabet invented specifically for such purpose, or contain a more sophisticated encryption of a then familiar language (Latin, for instance). Naturally, the hypothesis of a hoax -a smart fabrication contrived to deceive avid book collectors, of the sort that flourished after the Renaissance times- cannot be discarded either
As mysterious historical books go, the Voynich is pretty much the top of the list. Xavier has reported on the manuscript for its 100th anniversary.
And I included it in an article on Indecipherable Languages and how we address them, because if we ever do encounter alien intelligence, it will be an issue.
What follows is excerpted from the study and for the details you can follow the link. Really, there are charts and graphs and really technical looking stuff.
Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis
Marcelo A. Montemurro Damián H. Zanette
The Voynich manuscript has remained so far as a mystery for linguists and cryptologists. While the text written on medieval parchment -using an unknown script system- shows basic statistical patterns that bear resemblance to those from real languages, there are features that suggested to some researches that the manuscript was a forgery intended as a hoax. Here we analyse the long-range structure of the manuscript using methods from information theory. We show that the Voynich manuscript presents a complex organization in the distribution of words that is compatible with those found in real language sequences. We are also able to extract some of the most significant semantic word-networks in the text. These results together with some previously known statistical features of the Voynich manuscript, give support to the presence of a genuine message inside the book.
Most Informative Words in the Voynich Text
In any sizable piece of written human language, which articulates information about several subjects, certain words are tightly related to the main topics dealt with in the text. If the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text encrypted by translation into a coded or invented language, statistical signatures in the distribution of tokens could be used to identify candidates to play the role of those keywords.
Methods for detecting content-bearing keywords in language samples have a long history. Some of the most successful approaches have looked not only at the frequencies of words, but also at their distribution over the sample. In particular, the distribution profile of the occurrences of each individual word has turned out to be a key feature to assess the word’s relevance to the overall meaning of a text. While uninformative words tend to have an approximately homogeneous (Poissonian) distribution, the most relevant words are scattered more irregularly, and their occurrences are typically clustered. The tendency of content-bearing words to cluster over certain parts of the text is a direct consequence of their varying relation to the local semantic context as the text progresses and its meaning unfolds. Over long spans, the clustering patterns of words develop a systematic statistical structure that determines the degree of local specificity of their usage in successive contextual domains. Word clustering has been preliminarily reported in the Voynich text.
In our analysis, we used an information-theoretical measure that quantifies the amount of information that the distribution of words bears about the sections where they appear in the text. Words that are uniformly scattered contribute little or no information, since their distribution cannot tag any specific section of the text. On the contrary, words that appear only in certain contextual domains contribute much information, because their distribution identifies those specific sections. The information measure, given by Eq. 2, depends parametrically on a length scale -a given number of words- that defines the size of local domains.
By analysing similarities in the patterns of word occurrence, we can establish relationships among words that could be linked by their semantic affinities. Words that are so related will typically tend to co-occur within the same local domains throughout the text.
Despite decades of effort, a definite conclusion about the nature of the Voynich manuscript still remains elusive. The hypothesis that it is simply a nonsensical text either intended as a hoax or made up with any other purpose has debilitated in recent years, due to the increasing evidence of the text’s different levels of organizational structure. These regularities, in fact, are compatible with the presence of some kind of linguistic information. Systematic studies supporting the hoax hypothesis have invariably overlooked the fact that any model for the hoax’s fabrication must, at the same time, explain in detail how such linguistic-like structures emerged from the process itself.
One of the strongest clues in this puzzle is the fact that the frequency of words in the Voynich text obeys Zipf’s law. Despite that it has been shown that long random texts exhibit an approximate form of this law, the profile of frequency-rank distributions in human languages differs significantly from that of random symbolic sequences. Precise features of Zipf’s law in languages do not emerge in simple random sequences and generally require interplay between multiplicative and additive processes. Moreover, Zipf’s law was discovered centuries after the accepted date of creation of the Voynich text. Thus, proposed solutions like the use of sixteenth-century cipher methods, although not impossible, can hardly account for the presence of Zipf’s law in the Voynich text.
Okay, What Law?
Zipf’s law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. For example, in the Brown Corpus of American English text, the word “the” is the most frequently occurring word, and by itself accounts for nearly 7% of all word occurrences
Oh, I see.
In summary, simple methods to generate random texts with some sort of local statistical structure may seem, under superficial scrutiny, rather convincing solutions to the problem presented by the Voynich manuscript. However, the statistical structure of the text at its various levels still requires an explanation that needs to go beyond reproducing local features like word forms or local word sequences. Here, we have contributed evidence of non-trivial statistical structure in the long-range use of words in the Voynich text. While the mystery of origins and meaning of the text still remain to be solved, the accumulated evidence about organization at different levels, limits severely the scope of the hoax hypothesis and suggests the presence of a genuine linguistic structure.
Copyright: © 2013 Montemurro, Zanette. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
It still does not tell us what the text says, or why it was written, pretty clearly to confound someone, but at least it seems like deciphering it might not be a waste of time.
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