The Voynich Manuscript: Finally Cracked?

[Image courtesy of BBC.com.]

A year and a half ago, I introduced my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers to the Voynich Manuscript, a cryptologic curiosity unlike anything else we’ve seen before. Discovered over a hundred years ago but believed to date back to the fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript is a hand-written book that has baffled linguists and puzzlers for decades.

The writing, which reads from right to left, has yet to be identified. It’s unclear if this is some sort of sophisticated code, an unknown or lost language which was then encoded, an invented language, an example of glossolalia (a written equivalent of speaking in tongues), or simply an elaborate hoax.

The only known copy of the text resides in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, although Yale has printed replica texts.

From the Yale University website:

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” the world’s most mysterious book. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome. The book’s language has eluded decipherment, and its elaborate illustrations remain as baffling as they are beautiful.

[One of several fold-out pages in the manuscript.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

But computer scientists at the University of Alberta believe they’ve finally unraveled some of the mysteries behind the Voynich Manuscript.

They designed an artificial intelligence program with the intent of figuring out the language in the manuscript. The AI analyzed versions of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 400 different languages in order to establish different linguistic patterns to compare against the text of the Voynich Manuscript.

And according to the AI, the text was most likely written in Hebrew.

Now that they had a language to work with, they needed to begin deciphering precisely how that language was encrypted.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org.]

There have been many theories regarding what form of encryption was employed in the Voynich Manuscript. Some investigators theorized that vowels had been removed from the words in the text in order to obscure their meaning further, while others have suggested writing that has been mirrored or otherwise written backwards. Anagrams and other forms of word manipulation are a common theory, and the University of Alberta team went with a variation on the anagram idea.

They theorized that the encoded words were alphagrams, anagrams where the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order. (For instance, if VOYNICH was encoded this way, it would read CHINOVY.)

Turning loose the AI once again under these parameters, they found that 80% of the words in the Voynich text could be anagrammed into Hebrew words. They managed to cobble together a possible opening sentence for the text:

“She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.”

Is it clunky? Sure. But it’s also a partial translation that has held up to some scrutiny, which is better than most amateur AND professional attempts to crack the Voynich Manuscript have done.

The team is currently hoping to team up with experts in ancient Hebrew and continue the process, but until then, they’re excited to apply their AI to other ancient manuscripts to see what it uncovers.

Although we are a long way from calling the Voynich mystery solved, this is a very intriguing step forward for cryptographers and codebreaking enthusiasts everywhere.


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