Aztec Voynich?

A couple of people have sent me a link to this HerbalGram article 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. 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.

  17. *bangs head on desk*

  18. ‘World’s most mysterious manuscript’ has finally been decoded

    What, again?

    ‘The manuscript is written in proto-Romance – ancestral to today’s Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician.

    The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government.

    As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.

    Oh, he’s good.

    The next step is to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Dr Cheshire acknowledged will take some time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

    Haw! Haw!

  19. Yes, I expect that word “funding” explains the whole thing.

  20. John Cowan says

    “No, the Voynich manuscript has not been deciphered” by Artemij Keidan. Here’s the intro:

    A [paywalled] paper containing yet another amateurish and blatantly inconsistent “decipherment” of the Voynich manuscript has been recently published on a peer-reviewed journal by G. Cheshire, Visiting Research Associate at Bristol University, Dept. of Neuroscience (see Cheshire 2019). I am one of the very few linguists who actually read the paper in its entirety. Since I would not recommend this experience to anybody, I thought that sharing some detailed criticism might be a useful service for the community.

    The rest of the paper reports all sorts of entertaining blunders by Cheshire: not only does he conflate Proto-Romance and the lingua franca, but he also conflates the Old Italic script with italic type! The final paragraph suggests that the only alternative to the idiot-author theory developed through Keidan’s debunking is that it is a Sokal-type hoax, in which case the University of Bristol and Romance Languages fell for it, hard.

  21. Even the author’s title, “visiting research associate,” seems to be pretty much nonsensical.

  22. David Marjanović says

    My title is Gastwissenschaftler or Visiting Researcher. It just means I’m not paid.

  23. John Cowan says

    What do you do, then? Take up a collection in your classes?

  24. Rodger C says
  25. Stu Clayton says

    What do you do, then? Take up a collection in your classes?

    Probably not one of those old-timey Privatdozent scams. It’s not clear to me how academics stay alive who are not full professors. There must be research projects with budgets for the researchers.

    In a somewhat different context, I know how programmers stay alive – they’re paid. When I do code reviews and see what they produce, I instead wonder why they are kept alive. I usually then succumb to the insight that Trump could fire *me*, so I shouldn’t get so uppity. Unfortunately, we’re all doing the best we can. I guess.

  26. John Cowan says

    Probably not one of those old-timey Privatdozent scams

    Being a paid tutor doesn’t have to be a scam, provided you actually know what you are teaching. In the U.S., of course, anyone can set up as one with no credentials whatsoever.

    When I do code reviews and see what they produce, I instead wonder why they are kept alive.

    In hopes that they may learn better, I think.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    After 13 years, hopes are dashed. It’s not for not trying, God knows, and I still do try. Nothing changes.

    The problems recur due to fluctuation, low pay, general cluelessness on the part of managers, and the inertia of every large corporation. These “programming boot camps” in the states are scams. Nobody learns how to do anything right in 6 weeks.

    In one of the recent reviews I discovered Java classes inspired by Haskell, with names like Monoid, Any, Curry – actually not particularly Haskell, but type and category theory. These classes were laid in the project by an external consultant cuckoo. I came down really hard on this – we’ll see what the result is. This is a bank application maintained by young Java programmers of middling ability. What the fuck are category theoretical notions going to accomplish there ?

    In the wise words of Josh Billings quoted in another thread:

    # “It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so.” #

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Our illustrious host recently put it in a way even closer to my heart: “Knock that shit off, people”.

  29. John Cowan says

    Well, Maybe/Option is actually pretty good, a lot better than nulls.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    Of course. The Java class is called Optional. Don’t need a monoid medal to understand it.

    Category theory makes sense only if you know at least two different kinds of mathematics fairly well, and can get the hang of a third kind – category theory – that identifies common ideas in the other two and helps you to understand them better.

    Programming a bank app in Java does not require mathematical knowledge of any kind. In particular it does not require any knowledge of formal type theory. Apart from that, “closures” be damned, Church-free “lambdas” are a treat in Java. We had ’em 20 years ago in Smalltalk. Notational convenience.

  31. John Cowan says

    You might like my preliminary proposal for a context (functor/idiom/monad) library for Scheme. It’s as free of what Quine called mathematosis as I could possibly make it.

  32. David Marjanović says

    What do you do, then? Take up a collection in your classes?

    I don’t teach either, for lack of opportunity. (Filled in for an absent colleague twice ever.)

    It’s not clear to me how academics stay alive who are not full professors. There must be research projects with budgets for the researchers.

    That’s common. “Visiting Researcher” just means i’m not paid by my institution; I already had that title when I came here with Humboldt Foundation funding in 2012. That ended in 2014; I kept living off my savings* till a bit over a year ago, and since then my parents have been funding me while I apply for everything (i.e. less than 10 positions or grants per year in total) and publish to get my CV marketable.**

    * Mostly resulting from the Humboldt grant, which was not actually much by comparison to other grants, but was designed for much more expensive sciences than mine. Molecular biologists may need to buy electrophoresis gel every week, for like 80 € per milliliter.
    ** Most of what I’ve been wanting to do builds on a huge paper that only came out this year, after about 10 years of work and of arguing with one reviewer. That has created large gaps in my publication timeline.

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