Friday, November 7, 2014

How To Read the Voynich Manuscript

In case you aren't familiar with it the Voynich Manuscript (pictured at left) is currently one of the bigger linguistic mysteries out there .  It is a set of some 240 hand-illuminated pages, bound in codex form, making what appears to be a reference work on such topics as herbalism, biology, and astronomy.  Many of the illustrations are of plants and flowers that do not actually exist or cannot be precisely identified.  Most puzzling is the text, which is written in an unknown and undecipherable script that bears no relation to any known language or script.  You can see high-quality scans of the book here, courtesy of the Yale Library.

It is believed that the manuscript is a pharmacopoiea, as it bears some similarities to other such works.  However, much of it is puzzling, and incomprehensible.  Some scholars have proposed the manuscript to be a fake, one of a number of herbals made in the Middle Ages by alchemists and charlatans to impress simple people with the possessor's supposed knowledge.  The text is gibberish, mere squiggles on a page, meant to look like writing and yet containing no message.  That's one proposal.

Yet, the script looks intentional.  The same letters are repeated, and even specific ligatures are discernible.  The letters are repeated in such a way that shows consistency, as though the author were writing in an actual script, and not merely scribbling.

There are all kinds of hypothesis about how and why the manuscript was authored.  The most plausible is probably that the text is an invented script meant to write an East Asian tonal language.  Other theories are that it is a secret script or language invented by the author to hide his writing, or that the script is a code, containing information in some secondary feature of the words.

Those are the best theories.

But I want to propose a crazy theory, and a way to test it.

Suppose the Voynich manuscript were written by a time traveler from the future.  Suppose the language in the manuscript is a language that has not yet come to exist, but that will exist at some time in the future, when time machines are built.  Suppose the author were an explorer, who went to the Middle Ages, and either brought the Voynich manuscript with him, or wrote it in the past, in his own language, to record knowledge he had brought from the future to help him survive in the Middle Ages.

It's a crazy hypothesis, but I'm definitely not the first person to think along these lines.  But I think I'm the first person to think of a way to practically use the hypothesis to propose a way to decipher it.

Supposing the manuscript were written by someone  from the future writing in a future language and script, then this hypothesis let's us figure out what that language and script is right now.

We need a team of linguists.  People unfamiliar with the Voynich manuscript, its history, proposed theories of it, yet proficient in the patterns of human language and writing.  We will introduce this team to the symbols, and how they occur in words, but absolutely not to actual passages in the actual book.  We ask them to  assign meaning to the symbols.  They assign them in a way based on human language, but not on supposed translations of the text, but otherwise arbitrary.  Whatever meaning they want, so long as it is consistent with what they know about other languages.  This task is similar to the construction of Dothraki, Klingon, or Quenya; we're not asking them to decipher, but to invent.  It is important that their decision of meaning is by no means influenced by hypotheses about the words as they occur in the manuscript.

Then, whatever language they come up with using those symbols, we declare those symbols to be the Voynich language.  We publish books listing all of the rules of the Voynich  language, and start popularizing the language, maybe through fictional universe tie-ins.

Assuming that our construction of the Voynich language begins seeing use, then, if the original Voynich manuscript were indeed written by a time traveler from the future, we would expect the author's use of the Voynich language to, at worst, be a naturally evolved version of our published Voynich language.

We have now reduced the problem of deciphering a bizarre and alien script with no clues as to content, to a matter of translating one version of a language to a later version of the same language.  This is much easier to work with.

If it turns out that our published Voynich language sheds absolutely no knowledge on what the original Voynich manuscript says, then I think we can fairly safely rule out the possibility of time travelers from the future.  If, using our invented language, we are able to clearly read the Voynich manuscript, then that is pretty strong evidence for the existence of future time travel.

Is the Voynich manuscript written by a time traveler from the future?  I really, seriously doubt it.  But if it is, then now we know a way to test it, and more interestingly, a way to read it.


  1. You can stop with your assumptions, because there is already a solution. It almost seems to be a law of nature that if you can not explain something, aliens and time travelers are trying. The Voynich is a simple ingenious work of brilliant thinkers. It is better to spend time with his thinking, to develop a solution that is called: it is written in LATIN!
    More can be found on my homepage or via the direct link to the English pages.

    1. Jutta, after reviewing your website, I have to call bulls**t on you. You claim to have already translated the manuscript, yet you are asking for "250 thousand USD" to complete and publish your work. Although there are limited Latin references in the manuscript, it does not help in the deciphering. Plus if it were written in Latin, it would have already been deciphered by now. After all, numerous scholars from prestigious universities have been working on it for decades (however you were able to do so with no problem). Your website does not list who you are or what your credentials are. Just a link to "Donate". This blog is not claiming that aliens and time travelers are responsible - it is just a theory meant to exercise imagination and promote healthy inquisitive dialogue among people with the same interests.

    2. Thanks Sylvia! Yeah, I checked out his site, and didn't really get it. I would think Latin would be the absolutely most obvious language to check for an illuminated manuscript written during the middle ages. They've already tried Latin. Part of the problem with Latin is that the Voynich manuscript has a lot of repetitions of words in it, which is not a common feature of Latin. I couldn't figure out how the interpretation scheme was supposed to work, but it seemed like it involved a lot of randomization and guessing.

  2. I most defiantly been feeling and noticing Hugh changes to many people I know as if we were in a different movie all together , it never made any sense to me, now I do believe theres been an alternet shift in our world here.

  3. Reece, this is a wonderful idea - basically reverse engineering the written language! My only question is how long do you think we would we have to wait for our version of the Voynich language to evolve in order to extrapolate the translation for the original manuscript?

    (I just discovered your blogspot and I'm loving your writing - hope to see more soon)

  4. Interesting theory - I like that your version of time travel is consistent with the time-traveler-meddling-in-the-past-inadvertently-causes-his-own-future school of thought. I've never bought the theories about changing the past and consequently altering the future. Easiest way to ruin good scifi is to use time travel that's not internally consistent.

    1. I think among the most jarring examples of this was Lost in Space. The ending of that movie made no sense to me, at all. (Also, sending one older family with one teenage daughter and one pre-teen son, an older male doctor, and a young adult pilot, on a space journey lasting decades and never returning was a really bad decision...) Devil with a Glass Hand was also really about about this, but I let it slide for Rule of Cool.

    2. There are so many others - Back to the Future, Terminator 2, Looper - all movies I loved the first time I saw them but, on repeated watchings, became disappointed with the giant holes in the plot and illogical endings that only seem plausible when you don't think them through. But sometimes you have to lower your standards and let the cool factor be enough.

      Still haven't seen Lost in Space or Devil with a Glass Hand, but I'll add them both to my list of movies to watch.

    3. Devil with a Glass Hand is really neat. It's an old Outer Limits special from the 50's. I think you can find it on YouTube, actually. The time travel in it makes no sense at all, but the plot line is really well paced.

      Have you seen Primer? They did things really well. The production quality is really bad, though (it was made for like $1000 in a basement), so it's hard to hear them sometimes and you miss critical plot points.

    4. Try Predestination for a time travel movie. I'm sure it's scientifically ridiculous but it's consistent within its own rules. It's also a hell of a mindtrip.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. What if by trying to reverse engineer the language used in the Voynich we ended up creating it for the future generations. Like a closed loop.

  6. What if by trying to reverse engineer the language used in the Voynich we ended up creating it for the future generations. Like a closed loop.

  7. I have two issues with your theory.
    1. The idea of using the already existing symbols to create the language introduces a paradox: to create the language, you use the symbols you got from the language you are about to create with the symbols you got from the language you are about to create with the symbols... And so on.

    2. Ignoring the paradox, what if the manuscript was written more recently (i.e. before your creation of this Voynich language) and was then taken back in time? It would not follow the rules of your Voynich language, even though it is still written with the same symbols.

  8. Has Anglo Saxon been taken into consideration? There were supposed forms of anglosaxon that were meant to be used for purposes of sending messages without having to worry about them being taken and deciphered.

  9. What if the manuscript is just from an alternate reality where there is a launguge that never existed here and plants that never did and it somehow got here


Feedback is welcome. Please leave a comment.

Anonymous commenting is allowed, but please pick a name so we can refer to your comment more easily.