Is the Voynich Manuscript in an unidentified language? Part 2

By Gordon Rugg

In the first part of this pair of articles, I looked at the general principles that linguists use when trying to identify a previously unknown language.

In this article, I’ll look at what happens when you apply those principles to the Voynich Manuscript.

In brief, it doesn’t end well for the idea that the manuscript is written in an unidentified language. That idea was tried and rejected by the specialists decades ago, for very good reasons. Anyone trying to resurrect the “unidentified language” theory needs to show that they’ve found a convincing set of counter-arguments to those reasons for rejection. So far, nobody’s come close; instead, the recent theories simply ignore the show-stopping problems.

Here are some of those reasons.


(Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library.)

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Is the Voynich Manuscript written in an unidentified language? Part 1

By Gordon Rugg

The short answer to the question in the title: Almost certainly not.

Linguists have been identifying previously-undeciphered languages for a long time, and they’re pretty good at it now. This section looks at some methods that let you take an unidentified language and work out what it’s likely to be. When you apply those methods to the Voynich Manuscript, the results are very, very odd. In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the methods. In the next article, I’ll look at what happens when you apply them to the Voynich Manuscript.

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The Bax article on a proposed Voynich Manuscript decipherment

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a new claimed decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript, by Stephen Bax. In this blog article, I’ll report what the proposed decipherment claims, as far as possible in Bax’s own words, using screenshots to ensure as much accuracy as possible.

Here’s how it’s described in the press release from his university. I’ve trimmed detail from the middle, for brevity.

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This week’s Voynich Manuscript decipherment

By Gordon Rugg

I’d never realised how easy it was to decipher the Voynich Manuscript. There have been at least two solutions in the last two weeks (and those are just the ones with press releases).

It’s getting difficult for journalists, researchers, and the public to keep up with decipherments, so I’ll add the latest ones to a list when I hear about them. If I miss any, please drop me a line in the comments section, and I’ll add them. (Please only mention the ones that have had a journal publication and/or a press release, otherwise there will be no chance of keeping the list reasonably up to date.)

Yes, in case you’re wondering, this post is basically humorous. But seriously, anyone who puts out a press release claiming a new solution really ought to check whether their approach contains anything new. Two classic re-inventings of the wheel are:

  • “Some words of the Manuscript look like words in this real language.” If you’re claiming that, you should be aware that the “unidentified language” approach was shot down years ago – the text of the manuscript is very different structurally from any known language.
  • “The text of the Manuscript is non-random.” Yes, we’ve known that for at least ten years. If you’re going on to claim that therefore it can’t be a meaningless hoax, then you should consider that my proposed hoax solution specifically involves non-random combinations of text.

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Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 8: The illustrations and script

By Gordon Rugg

In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money. We’re looking at the problems and decisions you’d face, and at the implications of various possible solutions.

This article is about how issues involved in producing illustrations and a script for the hoax.

When you produce images and a script with the intention of hoaxing, you have three human weaknesses working strongly in your favour. Two of them are fairly well known, but the third isn’t, and it shows up over and again in research carried out by people who think that the Voynich Manuscript is actually a simple problem. Those things are:

  • Pareidolia
  • Confirmation bias
  • The birthday problem

All of these problems are on show in a recent paper by Tucker & Talbert that featured in New Scientist and elsewhere this month. I’ll discuss it in brief within this article.

voynich collage

(Images courtesy of the Beinecke Library)

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Tucker and Talbert and the Voynich Manuscript

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a new paper about the Voynich Manuscript. It’s  been published in HerbalGram, The Journal of the American Herbal Council, by Tucker & Talbert, and it’s been featured in New Scientist. It will probably also be featured by all the usual suspects.

Rather than go through it in detail, I’ll put up this resource, which readers might find useful. It can be easily adapted for other purposes. You get a point for every “no” that goes into a box on the right. I’ve tested it on the Tucker & Talbert paper, which contains some fascinating speculations about extinct Mexican languages that might feature in the Voynich Manuscript.

I hope you’ll find this useful.

voynich bingo3

The Tucker & Talbert paper is available online here:

The Voynich Manuscript and the Unexplained Files

By Gordon Rugg

I’ve just watched the feature about the Voynich Manuscript on “The Unexplained Files”.


If you’ve just encountered the Voynich Manuscript for the first time via that feature, here’s a quick overview of how most Voynich researchers actuallly view the evidence.

Between 1912 and around 2004 the general consensus was that the text of the manuscript was too bizarre to be a language, and too complex to be a hoax, leaving a code as the only remaining plausible explanation. However, ninety years of work by the world’s best cryptographers found no sign of a code.

I showed that in fact it was possible to produce a meaningless hoax as complex as the text in the manuscript, and showing many of the same statistical properties as accidental side-effects, using very simple technology – basically a card with three holes cut in it, and a big table of gibberish syllables. This made a hoax a simple, feasible explanation; there was no need to look for a super-code so sophisticated that the world’s greatest codebreakers had failed to find it, let alone crack it. Many Voynich researchers still think that there’s a code in there somewhere, and are continuing to look for it. I think that a code is by no means impossible, but not very likely; I think that a hoax is a simpler and more probable explanation.

The documentary mentioned the carbon dates, but those are not terribly helpful; it’s perfectly feasible that a hoaxer would use already-old vellum to make a hoax look more plausible, and old vellum was available in antiquity. (It’s also logically possible that the manuscript contains older text re-copied onto vellum made around 1420, but I don’t think anyone seriously believes that.)

The story has also been complicated by a recent paper by Montemurro & Zanette, which contains numerous unfortunate and serious errors and misunderstandings, which I’ve discussed at length in other articles on this site. I’ve included links to reviews by professionals in other relevant fields, who have been scathing.

So, the documentary didn’t exactly give a clear insight into current research, but its suggestion of an alien code was … interesting…. and it featured some nice photography.