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No, the Voynich Manuscript has not been 'decoded'

by Brian Dunning

September 8, 2017

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Donate 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.

by Brian Dunning

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