No, the Voynich Manuscript has not been ‘decoded’

Every so often, someone comes forward having claimed to have translated the Voynich Manuscript, the famous 15th century nonsense book that has intrigued codebreakers and linguists over the centuries. The most common explanation for the book is that it is carefully constructed nonsense, made by monks knowledgeable in linguistics, for a wealthy customer (probably an astrologer), perhaps to impress his clients by showing them that he had access to mystical ancient wisdom. All the analysis done to date is consistent with this, and no claimed translation has ever stood up to scrutiny.

Today, news outlets are trumpeting yet another claimed solution, this one by Nicholas Gibbs, an artist and historian. It should be made clear that, despite what the popular interpretation seems to be of this new solution, Gibbs makes no representation to having translated it. According to his analysis, every letter in every word represents an abbreviated word. Judging by the illustrations, he believes the book to be about women’s health. His solution is highly vague and makes no verifiable translations.

A large red flag is raised by Gibbs’ explanation. He says he was commissioned by an unnamed television network to come up with a solution for the Voynich Manuscript. In other words, his solution is not the result of years of study or expertise or collaboration with other experts, but rather it is content created for a TV show. Popular television networks, such as the History Channel, have extraordinarily poor reputations for manufacturing sensational pseudohistory.

We should always be skeptical of new discoveries when they are not reported through reliable channels. Gibbs presented his solution not through a linguistics journal or other scholarly source, but as a commentary piece in the Times Literary Supplement, a weekly magazine about literary culture. To my knowledge, no historians or reputable linguists have published any endorsement of Gibbs’ analysis; certainly his article was not subjected to any form of peer review.

Regarding the validity of his solution, I personally find it lacking in logic. No author would expect a book to be understood by its readers when only the first letter of each word is given; it’s a massive loss of content. And then grouping together those letters so that they appear to be words obfuscates the meaning further. If his analysis that it’s a book about women’s health is correct, it’s the worst one ever written. It could have served no reader.

Notably, his analysis is at odds with all the best analysis that has been done over the past hundred years — see the full Skeptoid transcript for details of what’s been learned. The words and sentence structure of the document are not at all haphazard, and cannot be reconciled with Gibbs’ abbreviations. The nonsense language in which the Voynich Manuscript is written is meticulously persuasive. The letter frequency, word length, and word frequency are very similar to what we see in real languages. A detailed understanding of the Voynich Manuscript makes it very hard to accept Gibbs’ analysis.

I don’t mean to criticize Mr. Gibbs at all. He was hired to do a job for a TV program, and he did it. My suggestion is that we keep his analysis of the Voynich Manuscript as just that, and do not try to conflate it with the document’s actual history and provenance.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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9 Responses to No, the Voynich Manuscript has not been ‘decoded’

  1. David Gouldstone says:

    A slip of the keyboard has prevented you from naming the ‘Times Literary Supplement’.

  2. Phil Kyson says:

    It could be just an ironic joke! Women’s health gives that away. He wasn’t game enough to say psychological health that all!

  3. Paul Carter Block says:

    The vellum of the manuscript has been dated to the early 15th Century and one can assume that the ink is contemporaneous.
    I am no expert on the late mediaeval period but I suspect that “women’s health” was not of major concern the male-dominated European societies of the time. It seems too modern an interest to be the subject matter of the work and sounds like spin for a 21st Century audience.
    The Voynich Manuscript has all the hallmarks of a vanity project, a bit of fluff to impress the crowd.
    (And Mr Kyson’s comment is almost as imprenetrable).

  4. Mr. Gibbs has done a lot of effort to bring together different aspects, but his translation approach, like all previous ones, is part of the “narrow gauge cryptology”.
    Correct is that the manuscript is written in LATIN, but the stories which are told in it telling about crusades, battles, pirate ships…
    Some small examples I have published on my website. http://www.voynich.solutions

  5. Jake Cross says:

    Unfortunately, I think your claimed solution is maybe even less persuasive than that of Mr Gibbs.

    Your statement that:

    “The most common explanation for the book is that it is carefully constructed nonsense, made by monks knowledgeable in linguistics, for a wealthy customer (probably an astrologer), perhaps to impress his clients by showing them that he had access to mystical ancient wisdom. All the analysis done to date is consistent with this, and no claimed translation has ever stood up to scrutiny.”

    In many respects is false. Here are some basic observations:

    1) That is not the most common explanation.
    2) All analysis done to date is not consistent with your theory.

    I am sorry to be so harsh, but I started by thinking “Good here is someone taking a stance against the merry go round of new Voynich theories that popup repeatedly in the media” only to find you hawking your own theory.

  6. Jake Cross says:

    I would also question the following statement:

    “The letter frequency, word length, and word frequency are very similar to what we see in real languages.”

    There are ways in which it is similar to real languages and ways in which it is very different.

  7. D Schwartz says:

    It’s fascinating that every refutation here of the OP’s writing is based on some idea that is “proven” yet no one provides evidence. And the one site claiming to have translated it all fails to provide the method instead claiming intellectual property. Which is limited to one and only one known example. So instead we must accept on faith that they are correct.

    Not a strong stance to take.

  8. mudguts says:

    The subject still has the odd OP in the ancient alien loon sites!

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