I seem never to have mentioned the Voynich manuscript on LH, which is a little surprising but not very, because I’ve always assumed it to be a hoax, which puts it outside the category “language-related” for me (though I can see how others would disagree). But “Cracking the Voynich Code” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, from Tablet‘s Longform series, is so good I can’t resist passing it on (thanks for the link, Paul!). It describes the history of the manuscript and the many attempts to crack its (supposed) code, and builds so nicely to its conclusion (which I find completely satisfying) that I won’t spoil it for you by summarizing. But I had known nothing about Voynich himself, and his story is so intriguing I’ll quote that paragraph here:

Wilfrid Voynich, born Wilfridas Mykolas Vojničius, had a life filled with instances of the uncanny. A Lithuanian pharmacist, Voynich was imprisoned for his role in revolutionary attempts to free Poland from Russian rule. While serving a two-year prison sentence, Voynich looked out the window of his cell one day and caught sight of a blonde in a black dress. Two years later, after escaping from a Siberian prison and arriving penniless in London (he had to sell his waistcoat and glasses for a third-class ticket and a piece of herring, the story goes), he found that same woman in the home of his contact, another revolutionary. She was Ethel Lillian Boole, daughter of the famous mathematician George Boole, and a revolutionary in her own right. They were married, and Voynich managed to become, quite mysteriously, a recognized antiques dealer in just eight short years.

Adventure! Romance! Herring!
Addendum. See the first comment for a link to Jerry Norman’s Concise Manchu-English Lexicon, if Manchu is your thing.


  1. slawkenbergius says:

    The doomed hunt for the Voynich has had one very beneficial knock-on effect for an unexpected group of people. Apparently there is a theory that the Voynich manuscript is written in Manchu. This theory is clearly inaccurate. Yet, to aid fellow-searchers interested in pursuing the theory, one Voynichologist has scanned and rather accurately digitized Jerry Norman’s Concise Manchu-English Lexicon. [NB: the book is long out of print and has been superseded by a dictionary which came out this year, so morally speaking it’s in the clear.] It’s hard to convey how useful that big HTML file has been for me and other people I know in learning Manchu, which involves a whole lot of extremely tedious dictionary work. Thanks, Voynich!

  2. marie-lucie says:

    Great article, thanks LH!

  3. Puts me in mind of the Vinland Map, also at Yale.
    Both are works of art, in the sense of skill.

  4. Thanks a lot, slawkenbergius. This Manchu dictionary is extremely useful to me

  5. slawkenbergius says:

    Be warned: it’s missing a few pages, but my hit rate with it has been pretty good.

  6. slawkenbergius says:

    (Also, it’s not always reliable with respect to S/Š and U/Ū.)

  7. Someone’s comment partway through the article, ‘I like the idea that it might have been created as an artwork,’ reminds me of a similar book that was created as an artwork, Luigi Serafini’s beautiful Codex Seraphinianus. It’s a lavishly illustrated encyclopedia of a nonexistent world. It never occurred to me before that it might have been inspired by the Voynich Manuscript.

  8. rootlesscosmo says:

    Ethel Boole Voynich, under the name E. L. Voynich, published the novel “The Gadfly” which might be described as an anti-clerical swashbuckler. Shostakovich wrote the score to the Soviet film version.

  9. i remember crying watching the movie, the scene of the cardinal’s reconciliation with his revolutionary son before his execution, he is the most powerful man in the system and still can’t save his only son, such circumstances, and i almost never cry watching movies or reading books, must be its was the music

  10. it

  11. The Gadfly (Овод) by E.L. Voynich was almost required reading for Soviet schoolchildren. Somehow I wiggled my way out of reading it. I thought it was anti-Austrian, pro-Italian propaganda,

  12. The Believer magazine had a good article on the Codex Seraphinianus a few years ago. It describes the Voynich Manuscript as “the Codex‘s only real precursor”.

  13. Thanks a lot, slawkenbergius. This Manchu dictionary is extremely useful to me
    Little did I know when I started this blog that it would help connect people who study Manchu.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    If they could only meet some students of Womanchu, it might spawn a community.

  15. It’s an interesting article, but I have no faith that the author has correctly understood the various arguments about the nature of the manuscript. I say this because the article displays a profound failure to understand the one topic it discussed that I know a lot about–how carbon-14 dating works. I am left to wonder whether the author is not merely parroting some interesting-sounding opinions that they heard, without being fully able to comprehend or evaluate them.

  16. It’s just a little unfair to say that if the author misunderstands one technical detail, he or she is incompetent at all other disciplines.

  17. It’s also unfair to expect journalists writing for a general audience to know and accurately convey all the details of every specialty they wind up writing about. I’m sympathetic to your complaint, since I frequently have occasion to rail against the things journalists write about language, but the complaint is only well founded if whatever specialist the journalist consulted gave them a clear and accurate description, designed for a lay audience, of whatever phenomenon is under discussion and the journalist didn’t bother trying to understand it or pass it on correctly. I suspect that it’s often the case that the specialist gives a garbled or overly technical explanation and the poor journalist has to make the best of it, inevitably getting some details wrong.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    I read the article and I remember being a little surprised at the explanation of carbon-dating, which seemed to be mixed up with dendrochronology, but I went on with the rest of the article, which sounded very good. How carbon-dating works was not crucial to the argument anyway, so the author (or editor) could be forgiven for the error. The major point was the nature of the text itself, whether it is a cipher (and if so, of what type) or a hoax, while the age of the parchment or paper could help in ruling out some authors but is secondary to the mystery of the text.

  19. Dendrochronology – that’s what was going wrong with that explanation. I knew something there was out of place.
    Of course, to be fair to Brett, it does sound like the experts are all amateurs – there’s a WWII cryptologist, two physicists, a computer scientist, a psychologist, an engineer and a jeweler turned writer. (Which is perfectly understandable, this doesn’t sound like a very fruitful use of a professional historian’s time, no one would take it up except as a labor of love.) So it’s certainly possible that some of them are out of their depth here. But that cast of characters makes for a far better story than you’d get out of questioning half a dozen historians who all say, “I don’t know, it’s probably a fraud, I have better things to do with my time”.

  20. Some of the works on Voynich are monuments of creative fantasy in themselves. I’m thinking especially of Newbold, himself quite a character, whose book I have a copy of.

  21. When I first read about the Voynich I talked to my father (who studied at the University of Pennsylvania) about Newbold. He confirmed that even undergraduates widely considered him a nutbar. This even though they knew nothing about his “decoding”, which has the interesting property of being not in general reversible; it can be decoded but not encoded unless you pick your plain text very carefully.

  22. John Cowan says:

    I missed this before: I don’t see anything wrong with the article’s discussion of carbon-14 dating. It says:

    Because the unstable form of carbon, or C14, decays at a known rate from the day that an animal or plant dies, its measurement can yield a time frame of death, Hodgins explained to me patiently on the phone. This time frame is then compared to a database assembled of known C14 measurements gathered from trees, whose rings correspond to years. “Radiocarbon dating is not accurate, but it is precise,” Hodgins explained.

    That corresponds exactly to what Wikipedia says:

    The measurement of the remaining proportion of ¹⁴C in organic matter thus gives an estimate of its age (a raw radiocarbon age). However, over time there are small fluctuations in the ratio of ¹⁴C to ¹²C in the atmosphere, fluctuations that have been noted in natural records of the past, such as sequences of tree rings and cave deposits. These records allow fine-tuning, or “calibration”, of the raw radiocarbon age, to give a more accurate estimate of the calendar date of the material.

  23. In an announcement straight out of the Edo Nyland playbook: the Voynich manuscript is written in proto-Romance. We’ve got Dominican nuns and all.

    (Proto-Romance “Not a thing” says a Medievalist.)

  24. Oy gevalt.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Discussion on Language Log with links to several articles panning it.

  26. David Eddyshaw says:

    This shows such a thoroughgoing failure to comprehend even the basics of scientific method that It makes you wonder rather a lot about the academic standards in Cheshire’s actual PhD field (don’t tell me: I really don’t want to think about it.)

    But that is to miss the point, I think. What Cheshire is evidently very talented at indeed is self-promotion. This is likely to stand him in good stead in his future career as a used-car salesman, advertising executive, politician … the world is his oyster.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    A good part of this Voynich business appears to be booleshit.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    I just noticed the “paper” is in open access – I didn’t expect that from Taylor & Francis! Thanks, DMT.

    Yup, this “Proto-Romance” consists of random words randomly drawn from random Romance languages. It’s not a language.

  29. There’s another Voinich attempt from 2018 which may be interesting. It’s from a Turkish engineer who knows old Turkish and who says that he, together with his son, have already deciphered 30% of the manuscript.

    See here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6keMgLmFEk

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    A good part of this Voynich business appears to be booleshit.

    Indeed. And Proto-James-Bond seems to be implicated too. It’s got everything.

  31. Owlmirror says:

    The discussion above about radiocarbon dating is from 2013/2014, so maybe no-one is interested anymore, but a good lay explanation of dating systems is Nature’s Clocks, by Doug Macdougall. Chapter 4 discusses radiocarbon dating, and specifically states that the scientists working on the system collaborated with dendrochronologists so as to calibrate yearly differences in radiocarbon going back many years.

    At the moment, I am able to preview in the Google book, so here’s page 81.

  32. Whoever used to be interested is still interested, and I can see the Google Books page, so thanks!

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sorry to discover that the journal that actually published this crackpottery has associations with my home town:


    I hereby apologise to the world of scholarship on behalf of my fellow-citizens, who currently seem to be brazening it out.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    There’s another Voinich attempt from 2018 which may be interesting. It’s from a Turkish engineer who knows old Turkish and who says that he, together with his son, have already deciphered 30% of the manuscript.

    Under the video it says:

    Currently, a formal paper of the philological study was submitted to an academic journal in John Hopkins University.

    Welp, I’ll wait for the paper then. Incidentally, it’s a massively stupid thing to announce that you’ve submitted a manuscript. Wait till it’s accepted, because it might not be.

  35. Well, “massively stupid” applies to almost everything connected with these alleged decipherments.

  36. John Cowan says:

    Wait till it’s accepted

    In 19C India (and for all I know, later than that), being matriculated at a British university was a source of prestige even if you didn’t get a degree; indeed, even sitting the entrance examinations, even if you didn’t pass them, was also. So Indians of consequence would write things like “B.A. Oxon. (Failed)” on their business cards.

  37. For very junior researchers, it often makes sense to list submitted papers on their CVs. If you are looking for a post-doc position, it can look quite different to have one paper published, versus one published and two submitted. However, that assumes they are coming through the normal process of academic training, so that their advisors (who ought to know the field) have signed off on the quality of the submitted papers.

    A crackpot listing their (totally unvetted) submitted papers before acceptance is just them being a crackpot. No crackpot understands that they are engaging in crackpot behavior.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    it often makes sense to list submitted papers on their CVs

    Oh yes, I do that myself. But announcing in public that you’ve submitted a mind-blowingly groundbreaking paper to a journal that you’re not naming but still trying to brag about is a different beast.

    Numerous are the groundbreaking manuscripts that were rejected, in this order, by Nature, Science and PNAS and ended up in a much less widely known journal.

  39. I don’t list submitted manuscripts, in part because I submit a fair number if things to Physical Review Letters, with little expectation they will be accepted. Physicsts often liken submitting to PRL to a barrier penetration problem. For most submissions, there is a small, random chance of quantum tunneling through the barrier. However, there are also multiple broad resonance regions, so that papers in certain topic areas have much higher chance of getting in.

    My most recent submission to PRL languished for a few weeks, before the editor wrote back to me that they would not consider it without a stronger justification. I am usually pretty good at such justifications, and I had tailored my paper carefully for the journal. I happened to be at a conference last week, and several colleagues told me that PRL was simply not publishing pure theory papers in particle physics these days, even if the papers introduced new methods or placed new limits based on existing data (both of which my paper did). After I transferred the paper to Physical Review D, I got the acceptance notice less than three hours after I got the notification that the paper had been sent out to a referee.

  40. Too bad. I imagine PRL as what physicists read on the bus on the way to work.

  41. @Y: The condensed matter theorist David Mermin published a book of humorous essays about his work as a physicist. The first one told about how had brought a couple of issues if PRL with him on a long plane ride, feeling he should catch up on the journal. However, he was astonished to discover that PRL had apparently changed the spelling “Lagrangian” to “Lagrangean.” When he landed, he checked to see whether any of his colleagues had noticed, and nobody had. His conclusion was that nobody was actually reading PRL any more.

  42. David L says:

    So Indians of consequence would write things like “B.A. Oxon. (Failed)” on their business cards

    It was also the case that Indians who had spent time in Britain, whether for education or other reasons, would describe themselves as ‘England-returned. I think I learned this from reading The Jewel in the Crown long ago. I suppose the idea was that being ‘England-returned’ was a mark of sophistication, no matter how idly you might have spent your time in Blighty.

Speak Your Mind