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

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