Aztec Voynich?

A couple of people have sent me a link to this HerbalGram article by by Arthur O. Tucker and Rexford H. Talbert or this press release about it (Revolutionary Analysis Unlocking Mysteries of 500-Year-Old Manuscript! Authors Propose Unique New World Origins of Obscure Voynich Manuscript!!); the burden of it, to quote from the article itself, is that the mysterious text is “the work of a 16th century ticitl (Nahuatl for doctor or seer). … The main text … seems to be in an extinct dialect of Nahuatl from central Mexico, possibly Morelos or Puebla.” Now, I’ve never been very interested in the Voynich Manuscript, because my interest is in language, not hoaxes, and it’s always seemed pretty clear to me that the thing is a clever hoax — in fact, the only previous time I’ve posted about it was last year, linking to “Cracking the Voynich Code” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, which still seems to me the only thing one needs to read about it unless one is sucked into the woo vortex. As Matt of No-sword wrote me, “even if all the visual identifications are correct I wonder if ‘non-meaningful gibberish text with illustrations cribbed from books about South America for added exoticness’ wouldn’t still be a more parsimonious explanation.” But I recognize that I am a crusty old cynic, and I’m curious to know what those with more open minds and/or an actual knowledge of Nahuatl and Aztec texts think, so fire away.


  1. “… unless one is sucked into the woo vortex”—haw! I have to say, I really like the word woo, and the fuller woo-woo, whether used in mockery or in self-deprecation.

  2. John Cowan says:

    Snarky copyeditor’s comment: “Ms.” is the title, “MS” is the abbreviation for “manuscript”. Signed, Disgusted in Austerlitz.

  3. Unless someone can show that Nahuatl or whatever displays that same odd syllable-clustering as was demonstrated in the Voynich, I don’t see any reason to bother much either.

  4. It’s the Manchu dialect of Nahuatl, right?

  5. LH, I haven’t studied the Voynich debate in a lot of depth, so I’m just curious as to what convinced you the manuscript was a hoax. Also, do you have any opinion as to the hoaxer’s identity?

  6. Read the Ungar-Sargon article linked in the post; her guess is as good as any.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    The HerbalGram article, based on the drawings of plants and showing that many of them as Meso-American, seems very well researched. The authors are botanists, not linguists, although some of their sources give some analysis of the plant names. If they are right, then linguists familiar with the Nahuatl of the alleged time of the manuscript (there are quite a few contemporary sources available) should be able to decipher the text, if it is indeed written in a form of Nahuatl. Apparently there are some strange characters in the manuscript, but those may have been made up in order to represent sounds which did not exist in Spanish (for instance, there could be a single character for the sound usually written as tl), and some of these strange characters could also be abbreviations or other signs, as are usually found in texts before the advent of printing (and even later), or deliberate additions making it difficult to recognize some of the words (the earlier study about syllable structure having identified several unurual characteristics, leading them to suspect a hoax). The key to deciding whether the manuscript is genuine or a hoax (or perhaps a partial hoax, hiding real information amid some fanciful drawings and perhaps some coded text) will be a linguistic study. In the current academic climate, such a study would be best undetaken by a retired Uto-Aztecanist, having nothing to lose professionally! (Nahuatl is the best-known (at least probably the earliest known) of the Uto-Aztecan language family).

    I noted a couple of allegedly French words, which the authors say appear to be written in a separate ink and handwriting (the manuscript is known to have passed through several hands, including one Frenchman’s). One of these words is nouba (with a macron over the u, which the authors gloss as “spree”. This meaning cannot be right for the manuscript. The word nouba (no macron), of Maghrebin Arabic origin, is only attested in French from 1897. The first meaning is (roughly translated) ‘music of a Maghrebin band’, and later ‘popular entertainment with this or similar music’, hence ‘noisy, boisterous party, fiesta’ or the like. One quotation explains that faire la nouba is the ‘popular’ version of the ‘bourgeois’ phrase faire la noce (lit. la noce = ‘wedding’, from the usual rejoicings at a wedding). (I know both words and phrases but the first especially may be obsolete now). Since this meaning is totally incompatible with a description of plants, the word nouba may be the name of the plant in some other language, perhaps another Meso-American one, known to the author of the separate hand notations. Similarly, the word abime seems out of place if interpreted as French abîme ‘abyss’, but must be a synonym or a borrowing into Nahuatl.

  8. John Cowan says:

    They keep calling it a syllabary, but in their transliterations they treat it as an alphabet (and there is indeed a single letter for /tl/). The transliterations are inconsistent, though.

    If the identifications are correct, that tends to confirm my belief that Voynich forged the manuscript himself.

  9. Yes, that’s Ungar-Sargon’s suggestion, and it seems plausible to me.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I guess when I have more time I will have to reread the article and other things that have been written about the manuscript!

  11. Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, has published A proposed partial decoding of the Voynich script in which he announces “the provisional decoding of 10 words, and the identification of the approximate sound values of a total of 14 of the Voynich symbols and clusters.”

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks PO! I have looked at the text briefly and Bax seems to be on the right track.

  13. I had only skimmed the paper when I linked to it. Now, after reading it carefully, it seems that Bax has applied careful scholarship to his labors. He’s also inserted loads and loads of caveats, always a good sign. Keeping that in mind, his interpretations seem sensible. Maybe he really is onto something!

  14. Thanks! That’s a convincing takedown; here’s a particularly devastating passage for those who don’t want to read the whole post:

    The most nefarious problem is that it is pseudo-rigorous – that is it, it works hard to give the appearance of being rigorous scholarship while in fact it is not at all. They cite lots of serious scholarship, and mostly they cite it correctly, but nevertheless all the citations are used only for circumstantial evidence. As soon as we look at the concrete examples and the readings they are unsupported by this evidence and rests on pure speculation – often uninformed speculation.

    For me the best problem, best because it is so solid that it clearly invalidates the entire endeavor, is the fact that none of the proposed readings are valid – hardly a single one of the proposed words actually read like a bona fide Nahuatl word.

    Many of them are completely alien to Nahua phonological structure. And to be honest I am surprised that the scholars haven’t found it to be odd that a few of the letters are so frequent that they appear in almost all words – for example more than half of the proposed plant names (and names of the nude ladies they call “nymphs”) start with the letter that they read as /a/ – that would be very odd in a natural language, unless the a was a very frequent grammatical prefix (which it isn’t in Nahuatl).

  15. Magnus: Since I cannot leave a comment directly at your site (No Google account), allow me to paste here the comment I would have left there:

    1-Excellent work.

    2-There is indeed something incredibly irritating in seeing non-linguists being taken seriously on matters relating to language, even when (as you show) they do not know the first thing about linguistics or a given language (Nahuatl, in this instance).

    3-Just a minor, double nitpick here-

    “it makes no sense to seek to make a decipherment using a language that one does not in fact understand (Champollion knew this, and that was why he spent so much time studying demotic and other Semitic languages)”

    First, Demotic, like all varieties of Egyptian/Coptic, is not a Semitic language, but a sister language of Proto-Semitic. Second, Champollion could not have studied Demotic in order to decipher Egyptian: Demotic was one of the varieties of Egyptian which Champollion ultimately deciphered. I think you meant “Coptic”, which indeed was known in Champollion’s time and which he did study. If so, I suggest you correct this to “studying Coptic and various Semitic languages”.

  16. Thanks, Etienne! I did of course mean Coptic. Silly me.

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