Dr Marcelo Montemurro from the University of Manchester and Dr Damian Zanette from the Centro Atómico Bariloche e Instituto Balseiro, Argentina, claim to have found linguistic patterns in the world’s most mysterious book, the Voynich manuscript.
Named after the antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich who owned it since 1912 until his death in 1930, the Voynich manuscript is a small book 23.5 x 16.2 cm of about 240 pages. It is written in a language that even the best cryptographers have been unable to decode. Nearly every page of the book contains scientific and botanical drawings in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.
The manuscript’s ownership history can be traced back to the 17th century, but carbon dating of its vellum and stylistic analysis of its illustrations suggest that it was written around the second half of the 15th century.
“The codex belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (1576-1612) who purchased it for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of Roger Bacon. It is very likely that Emperor Rudolph acquired the manuscript from the English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608). Dee apparently owned the manuscript along with a number of other Roger Bacon manuscripts,” said in the description from the Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where the manuscript has been on deposit since 1969.
Its text was written from left to right with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs. The text consists of over 170 thousands glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. An alphabet with 20 – 30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text – the exceptions are a few rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.
Some previous studies have suggested that the Voynich manuscript was a forgery intended as a hoax.
“The text is unique, there are no similar works and all attempts to decode any possible message in the text have failed. It’s not easy to dismiss the manuscript as simple nonsensical gibberish, as it shows a significant structure,” Dr Montemurro told BBC News.
The scientists used statistical methods from information theory that identify content-bearing words without any prior knowledge of the language under analysis.
“In our analysis, we used an information-theoretical measure that quantifies the amount of information that the distribution of words bears about the sections where they appear in the text. Words that are uniformly scattered contribute little or no information, since their distribution cannot tag any specific section of the text. On the contrary, words that appear only in certain contextual domains contribute much information, because their distribution identifies those specific sections,” Dr Montemurro and Dr Zanette wrote in a paper published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
“The semantic networks we obtained clearly show that related words tend to share structure similarities. This also happens to a certain degree in real languages,” Dr Montemurro explained. “It unlikely that these features were simply ‘incorporated’ into the text to make a hoax more realistic, as most of the required academic knowledge of these structures did not exist at the time the Voynich manuscript was created.”
Dr Montemurro and his colleague argue that the hoax hypothesis cannot possibly explain the semantic patterns they have discovered.
“We compared the patterns of use of the most informative words in the text and found that some of them bear strong relationships in their use. Interestingly, the network of relationships that we obtained showed that related words share similar morphological patterns, either in their prefixes or suffixes. This fact suggests that any underlying code or language in the Voynich manuscript has a strong connection between morphology and semantics, recalling scripts where – as in the cases of Chinese and hierographical Ancient Egyptian – the graphical form of words directly derives from their meaning,” the researchers wrote.
“After this study, any new support for the hoax hypothesis should address the emergence of this sophisticated structure explicitly. So far, this has not been done,” Dr Montemurro told BBC.
“There must be a story behind it, which we may never know.”
Bibliographic information: Montemurro MA, Zanette DH. 2013. Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis. PLoS ONE 8 (6): e66344; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066344