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

Robots writing

 

Not a robot

Sometimes spam comments lead to some interesting thoughts.

I’m not a particularly frequent blogger on this site. I would sure like to be, but I have other things that are often a constraint on time, and since that’s the case, my blog writing tends to be a little on the slow side. I could probably update more, but I once tried to blog every day for a month. I quickly found that the quality of what I was writing was in steep decline as I tried to keep up with that pace, so since then, I’ve been a consistent writer, but a fairly slow one.

The only trouble with that stance (if you keep a blog like I do) is that you’ll eventually run into the kind of spam comment that goes something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed you don’t update frequently. Here’s some advice/software program/educational tool/etc. that you can buy from me!” Usually, they aren’t even that clear. I got one of those recently, and it was for a tool that helps writers produce articles. The interesting part is that it’s essentially an AI writer for blog posts. As someone who is fascinated by both the English language and technology, this had me intrigued.

Essentially, the “tool” is an automatic thesaurus. I had to find a free version since I wasn’t about to pay $50 dollars to satisfy my own curiosity, but the one that I found allowed me to type into one box, submit what I typed, and change small bits of the text. For Example, I took the first paragraph of this piece as the input, and here’s what I got back after submitting it:

I’m not an especially visit blogger on this webpage. I might beyond any doubt want to be, yet I have different things that are frequently a limitation on time, and since that is the situation, my blog composing has a tendency to be a little on the moderate side. I could likely refresh all the more, yet I once endeavored to blog each day for multi month. I rapidly found that the nature of what I was composing was in soak decay as I attempted to stay aware of that pace, so from that point forward, I’ve been a predictable author, however a genuinely moderate one.

Hmm. Perhaps the paid version is better than the free one, but I sincerely doubt it. Here’s the thing: first, writing advice is always and will always be to use the words you know. If you have a limited vocabulary, reading more and reading with a dictionary can help. Second, no bot, no AI, and no writing tool is going to get results that anyone wants. Human language is incredibly complex and far too nuanced for any technology, so these kinds of “re-writing” tools are just going to make any piece of writing worse than it would already be.

The sad part is that these tools are marketed toward freelance writers a lot of the time. Sometimes writers get paid by the word, so I can imagine it would be tempting to use something like this as a way to lengthen a piece and get a slightly bigger paycheck. The thing is, someone is going to read the piece later, so even if there are a few more words, there is going to be some editor somewhere that will read it and realize it doesn’t make any sense. My piece of advice? Stay away from tools like this, write on your own, and work on finding your own voice.

-PWC

National poetry month 2018

It’s the middle of National Poetry Month, and, if you’re like me, that means you’ve been reading a whole lot of poetry. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new thing for me. I’m usually reading a whole lot of poetry; however, I had a thought a while I was in the middle of this poetry cram: perhaps instead of trying to get as much poetry into my day as I possibly could, it might be a good idea to take a deeper dive into a single poem. To that end, starting this second half of National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to try to actually memorize an entire piece. While I’m doing this, I also thought I would make a bit of a case for memorization as opposed to cramming when it comes to poetry.

First, poetry is not the same genre as prose, and because of this, it requires a different reading tactic. If you sit down with a good book, you could easily keep reading forward for hours and get the gist of the story. Poetry doesn’t work that way. A lot of the time, reading a poem requires more than one read in order to really understand what the piece is going for, and even after two readings, there are still going to be things that get missed along the way. Basically, a poem invites the reader to take things a little slower and really appreciate what the words and the language are doing. The best way to see what a writer was going for with the language (especially if you can’t hear them actually reading the piece) is to memorize it. This doesn’t put the poem in your own words, but it does put it in your own voice and allows you to get at that deep appreciation of how the words are being used.

Another thing to consider is ownership. No, you won’t ever completely own a poem unless you’ve written one yourself and never show it to anyone else; however, with memorization, there’s a way that you let a piece become a part of you: a piece of the way that your mind works. If you have some poetry memorized, lines will come into your head, sometimes when they aren’t appropriate, but more often than not when they are completely applicable to whatever your situation happens to be. Further, a memorized poem can’t be taken away from you. Your book might get lost, stolen, left on a bus, etc., but if you have something committed to memory, the book doesn’t matter as much. The piece that you know will always be with you.

There are some other benefits as well: memorization is also good for your cognitive functioning, and the more you do it the easier it gets to do. While those are good to know, I think they’re mostly just gravy. All the good stuff is the experience of the poem that you can really only get through memorization.

Memorization is a long and difficult process, and it can be fairly hard to do. That being said, I’d still suggest giving it a try. It’s, arguably, the best way to enjoy a poem, and the best way to really understand a piece. If you’re thinking of committing something to memory for National Poetry Month, I have two pieces of advice: start with something small, and start with something that rhymes. Sonnets are great for this. Fourteen lines and a really regular rhyme scheme make memorization really easy, so if this is something you want to try, that’s where I would suggest starting.

Happy National Poetry Month!

-PWC