The Voynich Manuscript isn’t written in a real language

That article you’re currently reading on someone who has translated the Voynich Manuscript? It’s probably wrong.

I hate to be so blunt about it, but nearly every expert at deciphering languages has tried their hand at it, and they’ve pretty much all been wrong for one reason or another. This leaves us with a few conclusions: either the Voynich Manuscript is so well coded that it will be impossible to translate anyway, or it’s actually just a hoax, or it’s something like an elaborate art piece. My guess is that it’s the latter of the three.

With so much attention being paid to one object and so many people over the years working on it, if it hasn’t been translated by now, it’s probably not a real language. This is especially important because, with the Voynich Manuscript, we have a whole book (it’s even downloadable as a publicly available PDF from Yale!). Most languages that are still untranslated today (like Linear A) are unknown because we don’t have enough of the language left to accurately translate it. We have a lot of Voynich text, people have spent years looking at it, and it has stumped expert linguists and codebreakers ever since it was found. The evidence all points toward it most likely being a fake language.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love a linguistic mystery as much as the next person, but I also have to follow where the evidence leads, and right now it’s leading toward the idea that there isn’t any real language in the manuscript. It’s a little disappointing, to be sure, but that’s reality for you.

All that being said, I still have a question I’d like to explore: why are we so interested in the Voynich Manuscript? On the surface, I think it’s because we love a good mystery. Languages are part of people, cultures, and nations, so an unknown language implies an unknown people. It’s the same reason we might be interested in Atlantis being a real place or alien abduction stories. All of those imply a whole group of people we know nothing about. Differences are fascinating, so we like to speculate on them. All of that is wrapped up in the Voynich Manuscript, but I think there’s a little more going on as well.

The Voynich Manuscript looks like it should mean something. The text is handwritten on well-preserved vellum. The whole thing is illustrated with bizarre drawings and zodiac symbols. It has a strange mix of religious, occult, and naturalistic imagery. Taken together, the whole thing is strange, and when we look at it, the lack of meaning is somewhat infuriating. After all, why would somebody go through all the trouble to make something as spectacular and fantastical as the Voynich Manuscript just for it to be a fake? The answer is actually so humdrum that I don’t think a lot of people like to acknowledge it. Basically, it’s art. Not to insult the artists, but that is a bit of an underwhelming answer for something as strange as the VM. That said, that’s probably the best answer for what the manuscript actually is.

We actually have two contemporary examples of what I’m thinking about here. The first is Asemic writing. Asemic writing is an art form that is made to look like writing but actually has no semantic content. It’s a postmodernist art form that’s supposed to make you feel disoriented and search for meaning even where there is none to be found. Just because it is postmodern though, doesn’t mean something like this couldn’t have been thought of before. It’s worth keeping in mind that fifteenth century Europe was not all that different linguistically from what it’s like today. There are still multiple different languages confined to a very small space, and that was just as true at the time.

The writer of the Voynich Manuscript would have been keenly aware of linguistic differences and the disorienting effect of not knowing what was being spoken. I tend to think that it was written, at least initially, to reflect that feeling of disorientation. The writer might not have had the postmodern senses that we have now, but the differences between languages would have been familiar. The manuscript probably developed from the initial idea into the elaborate artifact that we have today, but my working theory is that it was originally conceived as an art piece.

The other piece of evidence I would put forward is that we actually have a contemporary example of pretty much the same thing. The Codex Seraphinianus, published in 1981 and written by Italian artist Luigi Serafini, is an illustrated encyclopedia of a fictional universe. It also shares this important detail with the VM: it’s written in a language that doesn’t exist. Once again, this exists as an art piece. It means something in the artistic interpretation sense of the word, but the language itself isn’t real.

I’ll leave it up to the artists to get into the technicalities of what makes a good piece of art, but I will say that good art should hold your attention. A good book, poem, painting, play, etc. will stick with you for a while. The Voynich Manuscript is a good piece of art, and it has stuck with people for years and years. It’s even stuck with me. I get a lot of enjoyment from reading stuff about it, even when that stuff is wrong. I just think we should just stop pretending that it’s a real language at this point.

-PWC

Things I would guess

There are things, I would guess,
We can afford to let wait.
Maybe a bill goes a little late,
Or we don’t say yes to all the plans.
Just maybe we know what’s going on;
Know that most of our chances are gone;
Gone right out of our hands.
There are things that can wait
But our hour isn’t one.
When everything’s said and done,
Maybe we’ll burn down the State.

-PWC

I think we’re all tired of hearing how bad Millennials are

Really

It’s probably about time we stopped with the whole “Millennials are bad at stuff” thing, and there may be a way that we Millennials could kill it. Kind of like how we’re killing off other unnecessary industries. 

Every month or so, there’s an article that says something like this: “Millennials are terrible at [thing] compared to [previous generation].” The latest one that I saw came from the New York Post and had to do with DIY skills and home repair. These articles pretty much get pretty much the same reaction every time, and it goes a little something like this: the publication points out a difference between the generations, the Millennials get angry about it, and they share it around to make fun of it, which causes it to get spread around even more. Here’s the real talk for you: that is exactly what those publications want. 

The grim truth of the matter is that traditional media is not doing well right now. The switch from print to digital media has been especially unkind to smaller, local news publications, and even larger organizations have felt some of the sting. This creates a new problem for media companies. In order to stay relevant, they need to compete in digital spaces. In order to do that, they need clicks. To get clicks, they do what everyone else does on the internet. They write the kind of garbage they know will get spread around.

To simplify it quite a lot, there’s a lot of money in advertising, but advertisers will only put ads in online places where there’s enough traffic to justify it. So clicks mean traffic is going to the website, traffic means the advertisers are happy, and when the advertisers are happy, the publication is making a profit. Again, that’s vastly oversimplified, but the basic truth is that no one cares whether you’ve shared or clicked on something in anger or in agreement. All that matters is that you clicked. 

To circle back to those “Millennials are terrible at things” articles, the reason they get written and published is that they are going to get clicks and shares and the people who write them know that. That’s the whole point. If I’m being really cynical about it, that’s the ONLY reason that kind of drivel gets published at all. 

So here’s my advice on the whole thing: if we really want the Millennials-are-terrible style of clickbait to not be written anymore, what we should really do is stop responding to it. Like a lot of the mildly obnoxious stuff that’s out there, responding to it fuels the fire, but ignoring it can make it go away. When publications start to realize that they are no longer getting clicks and shares on that kind of article, they’ll probably stop writing them.

But that’s just my two cents on the topic.

-PWC

Millennials’ skills in making stone tools are pathetic compared to previous generations

A new study from the University of Michigan discovered that compared to previous generations, Millennials are terrible at making stone tools.

“The results were disturbing,” wrote one professor who took the lead on the interdisciplinary study. “Not a single one of our participants was able to knap a knife from flint or even make a single arrowhead. This represents a significant departure from a skill that would have been necessary for previous generations.”

The study went on to theorize that if they were transported back in time to the Paleolithic Age, it would be unlikely that a single Millennial would survive. While no one can be sure why Millennials have departed from making stone tools, several conservative pundits have blamed everything from left-leaning universities to the decline of the hunter-gatherer, nomadic, nuclear family structure. 

Whatever the cause, the truth is out there now. Compared to previous generations, Millennials are just not equipped to handle making stone tools anymore. This amazing skill of previous generations just seems to be gone with the current generation, and one has to wonder whether or not the mammoth hunting industry will be the next to fall to Millennials’ wanton lack of capability.

A concurrent study tried to examine Gen Z’s abilities at making stone tools, but the researchers could not get the participants to stop dabbing and doing Fortnite dances. The study remains inconclusive.

At the time of writing, the team was doing further research to find out if blaming social media or smartphones for Millennials’ lack of stone-craft made for a better headline.

***

In case anyone doesn’t get it, this is meant to be satire. Cheers!

-PWC.

Glossolalia: a broken sonnet form

The words to speak the truth are hard to find
When there’s a space between the symbol
and the sign which it is trying to describe.
The signifier doesn’t show the sign.

What words we have will break beyond repair.
What words we have will fall down to the ground.
And me, a man of unclean lips, I’ll praise
And raise my broken words into the air

But who would lend an ear to hear the sound
Of shattered voices scattered by the wind
That sends them faltering in harmony
Into the air—into the sky to drown?

We try to speak aloud but fail each day.
Our empty words will only fade away.

 

Hey, it’s national poetry month. Take a break and read a poem!

-PWC

National Poetry Month 2019

Milosz

April is National Poetry Month, and this year I’m trying to write a little more. Of course, you can’t really write poetry without reading some of it, so I’ve also been revisiting an old favorite of mine: Czesław Miłosz.

Miłosz is a Nobel Prize-winning poet, originally from Poland, who survived the events of the second world war. A lot of his poetry deals with themes of morality and faith, but having seen the rise of 20th century totalitarian regimes, his work also deals with history and politics. Overall, he’s a complex writer, but one that’s well worth the read.

If you’re looking for something to read for this year’s poetry month, The Poetry Foundation has a few of his poems on their website. I’d also highly recommend the book that I used as the cover image on this post. Miłosz has a lot of great work, and pretty much all of it is worth reading.

Just a fair warning: if you’re looking for a cheerier read, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. Miłosz saw a lot of the worst things that happened in the 20th century, and he spent a good portion of his life in exile from his own country. The government of Poland even banned his writing for several years. His work is definitely a little more on the grim side of poetry, but if that’s your thing, you’ll probably appreciate his work.

Happy National Poetry Month!

-PWC

The last American folk hero: A short story

Let it never be said that I don’t try creative writing. I wrote some of this last year, but I only just now got it to a point where I felt like sharing. I hope you enjoy!

-PWC

Original illustration by Peter W. Carrillo

Seven feet tall some say he stood. With shoulders bigger than anyone had the rights to have. His real name was Hubert but we all called him Sam for short. To this day, I don’t know why. They say he walked into the lumber camp one day with his own ax. One big enough to cut down trees in a single blow and with a handle all carved into what looked like runes and sigils. He was there, supposedly to ask for work, but he didn’t really have to ask. He was almost given the job before he came in the door.

You see, there was a huge old tree there in the forest way out beyond where the lumber camps were. We’d had a hiker come out and tell us about it, and you can bet the bosses were just salivating to have it down. They sent teams of folks out there to try to cut the thing down, but try as they might, hardly anything left a dent in the bark. All our tools would break when we hit the thing, and it just refused to go down. So for years, it became a test for all of us. Each year, a strong worker would grab an ax, say he was going to fell the tree, and head out there. Of course, a whole crew of people went along to see because we all thought, maybe. Maybe this time, that old tree would go down.

And of course, the same thing happened every time. The strong man would get everyone’s attention, make a huge speech, and the crew would cheer him on. He’d take a few practice swings with an ax, and you could feel the energy crackling like a wildfire. The tree would, as always, stand dark and silent dwarfing the challenger who dared to swing his ax in defiance of the old powers. Then the moment would come. The stroke would fall. The ax would break to the sound of disappointed groans from everyone gathered there, and another challenger would walk away defeated by the old tree. Whatever that thing was made of, the bosses started to see it as a personal challenge, and they started to think that if someone could get it down, they could make a fortune.

And so, their greedy eyes turned to Sam, to his size, and to his strange ax, and they gave him the job almost before he walked in the door. Of course, they were smart enough, so instead of sending him right out to the old tree, they tested him first and put him to work with a crew. The first day, the crew that went with Sam felled more trees than we had in a week of being out there. The second day, they did the same. And it wasn’t just Sam that did the work. Those around him seemed to be so inspired, they did the work of two people when he was there.

We damn near cleared a whole forest that year (replanting, of course. Regulations and all), and the lumber company was starting to make a fortune. The bosses were getting fat, the workers were getting strong, and it seemed like we were undefeatable the whole second half of the year after Sam came along. He just had something about him. Seemed invincible. A natural born leader. And somehow he was just a worker like the rest of us.

Eventually, the time came to really test Sam’s mettle. It was late in January, and that time up in the mountains, things started to get cold. Snow fell. Enough to chill you and to get everything soggy, but never enough to really slow anything down. That January, the bosses called Sam into their office to give him a nice long talk. I don’t know what they said to him, but he walked out an hour later with his face set like iron. All of us knew something big was about to go down.

The next day, Sam was the first one in, but he wasn’t going to go out with the crew. Instead, he took his strange ax and got himself a sharpening stone. We had some standard-issue stones we all used, but like everything else with Sam, his was different. Bigger looking, and it had a strange mark on it too. He spent the day sharpening that ax on that stone. Every time he slid the stone along the blade, sparks would fly, and it looked like Sam was gonna burn down the whole camp. Fortunately, everything was so wet and sodden that nothing caught fire, and the sparks winked out as they hit the ground.

By the time Sam left that day, the ax was polished like a mirror and sharp enough to draw blood if you ran a thumb along it. Trust me, one of the men tried. He got stitches in addition to an almighty berating by Sam who started the process again the next day to make sure the blade was still as sharp as can be. When the ax was ready to go, Sam told all of us to never touch it and that he’d be back in the morning to fell that big old tree.

And so we gathered there, before the dawn, on the coldest day of that winter so far. We were expecting something big, but a feeling of apprehension ran through everyone like an electrified coil. Something was gonna happen, but to a man, none of us knew what. Then Sam walked in looking for all the world like an executioner. His face was grim, his eyes were cold, and he didn’t greet a single man there with a smile. Instead, he only said three words that were as much a warning as anything else. “I’m going alone.” With that he picked up his ax, the blade still shining in the cold morning light, and he walked out.

None of us knew what to make of that, but not a one of us was about to follow him. Whatever path he was heading down, none but he could walk it. We all just sort of stood around the camp in the cold waiting silently to see what would happen. Turns out we didn’t need to see anything. We could hear the whole thing.

The first crack was loud as a cannon. An almighty boom that echoed around the hills. The second was a thunderclap that broke over everyone and made the men shudder and wince. The third was the distinctive sound of splintering wood, but it was amplified so loud that it brought boulders rolling down the hills and caused a minor landslide. The sound echoed around for a long time after that, and eventually blew away on the wind. Everyone in the camp stood dumbfounded for a minute just looking around at the hills and at each other. Then we all started to run. Command or no, we had to see what Sam had done.

When we got to the old tree, we saw that it was down. Toppled from a broken stump in three blows. The shining head of an ax was embedded in the tree. We found pieces of a carved wooden handle around the stump. None of us ever saw Sam again.