The indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript

Language Log 2019-09-11

Less than half a year ago, we were treated to yet another among countless claims for the decipherment of the mysterious Voynich manuscript (henceforth "Vm"):  "Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19).  I was skeptical then and am even more skeptical now after having read this article:

Peter Bakker, "The Voynich manuscript: the decipherment of ms. 408", Lingoblog (9/10/19)

I like the way Bakker's article begins:

Last year I was contacted by someone who claimed to have deciphered the Voynich manuscript. This manuscript is one of the big enigmas of medieval history and, for that matter, linguistics. No one has yet been able to decipher it, and many have tried. It is written in a totally unknown script in an unidentified language.

The manuscript is more than 500 years old. It has been publicly available for a century, and now it is also available online. Nobody has been able to translate the manuscript; there have been many proposals, but all have been rejected. People have claimed it could be written in a form of Hebrew, in a Romance language, in an earlier form of Romani, an Indic language, or even in a language from another planet. Medievalists are at a loss. Cryptographers—specialists in secret writing—have broken their brains on it. Linguists have tried as well, but all in vain.

In this contribution I will argue that the manuscript is in fact not interesting at all for language nerds.

I have to agree with him.

In laying out a rational way to decipher an unknown language like that of the Vm, Bakker applies the following types of analysis:

1. Is it an alphabet, an abugida, an abjad, or other type of writing system?

2. Average word length.

3. Frequency of speech sounds.

4. Distribution of sounds within words.

5. Application of Zipf's law (see also here for a 21:04 video).

6. Could it be a complicated cipher, "in which each letter is replaced by another letter, but where the form of the letter is adjusted according to some rule"?

7. Does it reflect a creole?

While the writing system of the Vm seems most likely to be an alphabet, it does not conform comfortably, distinctively, and naturally to these categories, suggesting that it does not reflect a functional language, whether invented from scratch or transliterated / transcribed from a real language.  (The Vm does subscribe to Zipf's law, but does not result in a convincing match with any known language.)

Bakker's conclusion:

Indeed, in this article I have thus far not included any links to anything having to do with the manuscript; people should just not waste their time trying to decipher it, as it is most likely a clever hoax. Who did it, and when and why, is what is interesting about it. I would however like to make an exception for this article, which presents a nice, objective and down-to-earth overview.

Almost all other things you find on the net are written by cranks. And there is a lot out there.

If you ask me, I believe that it is a very clever practical joke, a hoax, probably from the 15thcentury, the same date as the vellum and the ink. If it would have been a real language, in a rational and regular writing system, experts would have figured it out by now. There is so much text available, there are illustrations, such as the signs of the Zodiac, that provide clues to the contents. It should be easy to crack it. The mere fact that it has not been decoded, means that it is not decodable. It is simply a fake text.

I am inclined to concur.