Again With The Voynich?

I’ve been fascinated about the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript ever since I first heard about it.  This is attested to by a couple of previous posts here, one in 2010 – I Like A Good Ancient Mystery: The Voynich Manuscript – and one written in February two years ago – Whatever Happened With the Voynich Manuscript?

voynich_bathers

In short, for those who haven’t run across mention of this ancient document which may come to us from the 15th Century or before, the Voynich Manuscript is written in an indecipherable script by person or persons unknown. It is also decorated with unknown star constellations and plants, and with a variety of naked female figures cavorting in and around vaguely alchemical vessels.

You can look at a digital version of the manuscript for yourself on The Internet Archive.

Over the years, the most fascinating aspect of its mystery has become the proliferation of both plausible and bizarre theories about it.

Basic human psychology

There is a basic aspect of human psychology at play here: our tendency – our need – to create patterns and meaning out of ambiguous or mysterious raw material.  And then to clamp like a vise to these preliminary gestalts as if they’ve been bestowed by the gods themselves.  Once a shallow channel of belief takes form, it only seems to deepen with the flow of time and self-convincing, and rarely finds another path.

When last I wrote about it – my knowledge consists of web sources – there had seemed to be a minor breakthrough by Stephen Bax, a linguistics professor in England. He thought he had deciphered 14 characters and 10 words of the Voynich. He believed he was able to pick out names like hellebore or coriander for some of the plant diagrams. He tried to identify proper names in the text, which is a strategy used in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

More recently Bax speculated that “the script was devised for a particular community, possibly to write down an already existing language, and then that script was lost to us, with the exception of the Voynich manuscript.”  He cites an example of lost languages only recently revealed in manuscripts kept in an old monastery in Egypt.

Bax, let me hasten to say, is one of the more serious and reasonable people to look at the manuscript.

Here is a short list of other theories:

— an early work by Leonardo Da Vinci
— written in the Manchu language with an original alphabet
— a medical text written in the language of the Aztecs
— a liturgical manual for ritual euthanasia in the Cathar religion of the Middle Ages
— a sixteenth-century hoaxer created the gibberish text
— created by an alien visitor to Earth

Artificial Intelligence and a finding of Hebrew

Most recently, computer scientists from the University of Alberta here in Canada used artificial intelligence methods to try to decode the manuscript.

As you may know, artificial intelligence has in recent years improved by an order of magnitude or more with such accomplishments as “Watson” winning the TV game show Jeopardy, and AI beating the world’s best at the oriental strategy game of Go.  The latter is especially impressive given the reliance upon a highly trained intuition about the shape of the game by the best human players, which is a step above the admittedly complex accomplishments of the grandmasters of Western chess.

In the Voynich case, in preparation for tackling the manuscript, the scientists trained the AI to decipher 380 different language versions of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The AI determined after the first 10 pages of the manuscript that 80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be written in Hebrew.

So the researchers tried to have a native Hebrew speaker translate.  He couldn’t do it.  Then they tried Google Translate!!

With that, the first sentence read something like: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”  It could possibly make sense….

The scientists also translated the so-called “herbal chapter” and seemed to get words like “farmer” and “air” and “fire.”

Of course, we have to remember that this AI was trained on modern-day languages.  Even if it was Hebrew, Google Translate only works with the modern language, not medieval dialects.

And 20 percent of the examined text didn’t seem to be associated with Hebrew at all, but gave wildly different results, such as Malay and Arabic.

The Times of Israel provides a detailed review of the history of the manuscript and an analysis of these most recent results.

The article points out that the AI analysis is based on the premise that the person who wrote the manuscript encoded by both substituting letters for one another, and mixing up their order as in an anagram. This is an assumption that is unproven.

Another researcher tested Google Translate with another sample of the manuscript (with another manipulation process) and ended up with Hindi….

We are still left with the mystery of the Voynich.  The only proper response seems to be to celebrate its inscrutability.

And that is what composer Hannah Lash has done.  In the 2016 post, I mentioned that she was creating a symphony based on the enigma of the Voynich, a creative reaction amidst the noise of all the theories.  As of 2017, she completed it, and the symphony in its entirety has been performed.

You can hear an excerpt from the third movement at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra site.

If you really want to get into her musical process about the manuscript, there is a large selection of videos on YouTube.

[Home]

Note:  For an interesting breakdown and comparison of Voynich images with other sources, see this analysis of the illustrations at René Zandbergen’s site about the Voynich Manuscript.

Also, it is sad to note that linguist Stephen Bax cited above recently passed away.  His site, and fascination in the last part of his life about the Voynich, will apparently continue to have some connection with fellow “Voynichero” René Zandbergen.

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Book Review, Culture, Internet, Music, mystery, Voynich

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: