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Cracking the Voynich Code

The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years

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One of Friedman’s most important publications focused on the role of statistics in cryptoanalysis. In Voynich scholarship, all are in agreement that statistics matter. The difference between these analyses lies less in the statistics themselves and more in their analysis. Most experts concur that there is a syllable structure to be found, as well as the reccurrence of prefixes and suffixes. Jorge Stolfi, a professor of computer science at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, composed a grammar for Voynichese and concluded that it behaves like a natural language, more so than like a code, as many others believe. “I am a bit of an outlier,” he told me on the phone. “I think there is a linguistic message.” The statistics, he elaborates, point to an Asian language like Chinese, short words with tonal structures. His theory is that someone went to the Far East and phonetically transcribed something he heard or read. “It is not unusual at that time to make up an alphabet to record a foreign language,” he said. Stolfi presented at the 2012 Voynich 100 Conference, and his research has made a deep impact on some. René Zandbergen, one of the conference’s organizers, considers it to be one of the biggest inroads in recent attempts to solve the mystery of the manuscript.

Voynich Manuscript

But the existence of a pattern does not necessarily mean that Voynichese is a natural language. There is a bit of a logical fallacy at play in assuming that just because the cipher is not random, that it is therefore linguistic. Indeed, the non-randomness of syllable distribution is exactly what one would expect from a hoax, according analysts like Andreas Schinner. When I asked Schinner, a theoretical physicist, how he got involved with the Voynich Manuscript, he replied, “At first I was just fascinated by the sometimes ridiculous, often tragic-comical efforts of the VMS enthusiasts. I never expected to find out something useful myself. But as often, things are found by someone, who does not really search, rather than someone, who is too enthusiastic.”

What Schinner found was that, contrary to Stolfi’s analysis of the statistics of Voynichese, the language did not operate as other natural languages do. “You can see any text as a long string of symbols,” Schinner explained. “Then you can ask several statistical questions: How are symbols and symbol groups (substrings) distributed, how are they correlated?” Schinner did just that to the Voynich and found “that the Voynich Manuscript ‘language’ is very different from human writings, even from ‘exotic’ languages like Chinese. In fact, the results better fit to a ‘stochastic process’ (a sequence of correlated random events).” In an article in Cryptologia, he concluded that the Voynich contains no encrypted message at all.

But why would someone create such a document? Schinner thinks the most probable reason for creating such a hoax would be for the purpose of selling it. “However,” he added in our email correspondence, “I like the idea that it might have been created as an artwork.”

Another Voynich scholar, Gordon Rugg, also believes that the statistical analysis reveals the manuscript to be a hoax. Rugg is a psychologist by training who studies how humans interact with technology. He specializes in locating the bugs in human reasoning. “In all fields, humans make the same mistakes,” Rugg said over the phone. “We make faulty assumptions that are totally plausible,” especially in research areas where different disciplines overlap. For example, many disciplines rely on statistics, yet many experts in those fields do not understand statistics, resulting in mistakes. Other sorts of errors occur precisely where intuitive knowledge is used. People make category errors, or they default to the most common option, or they fall prey to the dreaded yet ubiquitous confirmation bias, testing only for evidence consistent with their hypothesis.

Rugg’s aim is twofold—to analyze the errors in expert reasoning, but also to generate models that represent knowledge to help correct those errors and convey more accurately the complex units of different fields. To this end, he has designed among other things a computer program called “Search Visualizer” (a version is free online) that generates a visual representation of a text, revealing structural properties and patterns that were previously invisible, even to experts. Rugg calls his process the “Verifier” approach, for verifying expert reasoning. If you want to solve a problem, the theory goes, look at how experts who have failed to do so have worked. You will soon find an error whose correction yields results—or, you will if you are Gordon Rugg.

There is a playfulness to Rugg’s manner that masks the rigor of his thought process. It is the manner that accompanies people willing to consider all options, those few who truly apply the scientific method to their own thought patterns. He originally became interested in the Voynich Manuscript as a hobby—“like a crossword puzzle”—and then as a good way to show students how to narrow down a research question and utilize the scientific method. His teaching style is patient, tireless; I got a taste of it as he took me again and again through the intricacies of the Verifier approach. He thanked me repeatedly for “making him think about what he is doing in new ways,” despite the fact that it was mostly the old ways that I kept badgering him for more of.

Too weird to be a language, but too complex to be a hoax

Like Andreas Schinner, who called the Voynich Manuscript a “precious mirror to human reasoning,” Rugg sees approaches to decoding the Voynich as illustrative of the kinds of typical errors in reasoning that humans make, especially when using technology, and especially when cross-utilizing information from different disciplines. Rugg found himself wanting to tackle Alzheimer’s, a famously opaque and cross-disciplinary problem, but he needed a test case. The Voynich was perfect.

Rugg began by analyzing the reasoning used by the experts who had as yet failed to decipher the manuscript. He found that the prevailing notion, that the manuscript represents an encoded message, was based on a certain analytic, namely, that it was too weird to be a language, but too complex to be a hoax; therefore, the reasoning went, it must be a code. Because the idea of a hoax was so easily discarded, it flashed like a red light for Rugg, who proceeded to teach himself Voynichese (“I can now write Voynichese faster than I can write English,” he told me) and to investigate how hard it would be to create the manuscript from scratch. Using a simple table and grille (a chart of letters, and a square paper with two boxes cut out), Rugg was able to recreate the Voynich Manuscript in a manner of months, syllable structure, drawings, and all.

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The article has ZERO Jewish content. Not evena reference, remote or otherwise. Why’s it here?

Ater a while you figure out you have to scan these articles before wasting your time.

We think that a community of textual scholars trying to decipher a baffling manuscript is a set-up that has very clear parallels in Jewish life: Some people would say that IS Jewish life. So we don’t think it’s an accident, as the article relates, that the leading member of the interpretive community in question, William F. Friedman, is Jewish. If you want to read an article about specifically Jewish texts, you can find one here:

ajweberman says:

It says “Drink Ovaltine”

Habbgun says:

Actually I enjoyed this article and I hope Tablet has more articles like this one. The Voynich is famous among code crackers as one of the great challenges in either proving it a hoax, proving it at least legitimate or solving it all together. Documents are sometimes encoded wrong as well so that it may be legit but unsolvable for that reason.

I prefer this kind of article to pop culture articles even if the pop culture is by someone Jewish. If a rapper is Jewish it doesn’t mean that rap is worth writing about either but when they do no one complains. At least give something inherently interesting to many others a chance.

James Jones says:

Actually, Mrs. Friedman’s first name was Elizebeth. David Kahn, in _The Codebreakers_, mentions that her mother intentionally misspelled the name so that nobody would ever call her daughter “Liza”.

As a non-Jew but a reader of this site I thought the article was excellent.

dennisfisher says:

To draw out your nasty side?

TakuanSoho says:

While I can sympathize with the idea that this could be a forgery (forgers are quite an ingenious lot, and one would be wise to never doubt their ability), the length of the work would make me pause before accepting that conclusion. The same effect of this forgery could been accomplished in half the pages, so one has to marvel at the diligence of said forger. Another factor in its favor is that if the forger was its discoverer Wilfrid Voynich, I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have directly attributed it to John Dee, rather than Kircher. From a marketing point of view, I think such an association would have greater retail value than tying it to Kircher. Dee was also a famous cryptographer and had ties with the Emperor Rudolf. Pairing Dee with Roger Bacon would be a great combination as well.

TakuanSoho says:

While I can sympathize with the idea that this could be a forgery (forgers are quite an ingenious lot, and one would be wise to never doubt their ability), the length of the work would make me pause before accepting that conclusion. The same effect of this forgery could been accomplished in half the pages, so one has to marvel at the diligence of said forger. Another factor in its favor is that if the forger was its discoverer Wilfrid Voynich, I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have directly attributed it to John Dee, rather than Kircher. From a marketing point of view, I think such an association would have greater retail value than tying it to Kircher. Dee was also a famous cryptographer and had ties with the Emperor Rudolf. Pairing Dee with Roger Bacon would be a great combination as well.

Adrian Hope says:

MPG may have a point. I don’t see a strong connection to Jewish culture but I’m really glad you published the article. It’s by far the best on the subject that I’ve ever read and I’ve read quite a few.

Grigalem says:

Jean Shepherd – Little Orphan Annie code.

One of my favorite stories of all time!

Grigalem says:

You ARE correct, but you are boorish to point it out.

Anyway, the author is Jewish.

TomJV says:

Kudos for Batya Ungar-Sargon; she really has a knack for this sort of story – I also really enjoyed her article “The Mystery Stone”.

ajweberman says:

he does not get enough credit in A Christmas Story

韓国ドラマ 人気 says:

韓国ドラマ 人気私は助けるためにあなたのシェアは最高です、ありがとうございました!

stevemeikle says:

A Hoax? Probably. Does it matter? Probably not. One thing it is not is a Book containing All Wisdom. Looking for such a tome is indeed a futile task. The Hebrew Scriptures have enough wisdom in them for our purposes, but not All Wisdom, for the Almighty is not interested in indulging our gratuitous curiosity

Grigalem says:

Is it THAT hard to stay on topic? Is Christmas Story about a code? The rest of us are talking about codes. See the article.

ajweberman says:

Jean Shepard told a story about how he got a secret decoder ring after sending in wrappers from Ovaltine. He used the ring to decode a message on a program sponsored by Ovaltine. The message turned out to be D-R-I-N-K OVALTINE

disqus_kn8M0X6333 says:


disqus_kn8M0X6333 says:


josef zlatodej says:

Voynich manuscript is written and encrypted in the Czech language. From the beginning to the end. The manuscript began Anna Hlohovská. Wife of John II. of Rosenberg. The last entry in the manuscript Petr Vok of Rosenberg. Instructions for decryption is written on multiple sides of the manuscript. It is on the first page and the last page. Instructions are written in Czech language. As a whole manuscript. The manuscript describes the Czech history. Secret information of the Rosenbergs. Very delicate and secret information. ( I have translated many pages of the manuscript.)

Manuscript : describes life Jan Hus, life Jan of Lazy ( Czech alchemist), Rudolf II. ( Czech king), Anna of Regendorf, Tadeas of Hájek, Tycho de Brahe. And others. Describes the murder of a young Czech king Ladislaus.

Otherwise, I found this.

Habdank Michael Voynich manuscript deciphered .( The manuscript is written : Translated handwriting can only Jew. ( It is written on the last page).

josef zlatodej says:

Rosette ( page 86v Voynich Manuscript).

How to watch the big parchment. Rosette in the upper right corner.

Is written in the Czech language. Turn rosette. ( otoč rozetou).

When you turn the wheel to the left. Then connect the torso figure. Then omit the upper rosettes. A connecting leg figures. The name of the figure is written. Curled sentence. ( A spiral). The figure ( human) is woman. The woman waving hand on you. Hand movement is phased. ( phasing)( on several parts).

Figur holds in his hands. Two attributes Rosenbergs. Water and monkey. The rosette is also drawn fish. ( draw fish). The fish has two large eyes. A big smile. The castle is called Rosenberg.( as owner).

The castle is not preserved. He was destroyed. Remained only the tower.

The importance of great parchment, described in mine pages.

rsreenija says:

The Tablet Longform newsletter highlights the bestlongform pieces from Tablet magazine. Sign up here to receive occasional bulletins about fiction, features, profiles, and more.

A mysterious manuscript has plagued historians, mathematicians, linguists, physicists, cryptologists, curators, art historians, programmers, and lay enthusiasts alike since an antiquarian and book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich first began to mention it in his correspondence in 1912. Voynich maintained that it was the work of a 13th-century English philosopher, Roger Bacon. Written in an unknown script and replete with pictures and diagrams, and now residing at the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Voynich Manuscript has become a beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels.

rsreenija says:

Search for:

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rsreenija says:

The manuscript is a small book—23 x 16 centimeters (about the size of a small volume of Penguin Classics)—of around 240 pages. It is written in a code made up of an alphabet of between 20 and 30 characters, depending on the transcription. Most of the pages also bear illustrations: large-leafed plants, long tubes, astrological charts, a few goats, and many, many naked ladies bathing in pools and holding hands. Compared to the careful and sophisticated nature of the calligraphy, the drawings are primitive, even crude, a child’s assessment of the female form. (One of the women looks vaguely annoyed, her hands inserted into two pipes, a small beard sprouting from her chin.) The plants, like the language—dubbed “Voynichese”—give off a frustrating and titillating feeling of familiarity, one recorded by experts, many of whom concur when asked how they got hooked on the Voynich: “It just looked so easy,” they say.

rsreenija says:

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Historically, Hyderabad was known for its pearl and diamond trading centres. Industrialisation brought major Indian manufacturing, research, and financial institutions to the city, such as the Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, theNational Geophysical Research Institute, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the National Mineral Development Corporation. The formation of an information technology (IT) Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by the state agencies attracted global and Indian companies to set up operations in the city. The emergence of pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries during the 1990s earned it the titles of “India’s pharmaceutical capital” and the “Genome Valley of India”. The Telugu film industry is based in Hyderabad.

lumiss says:

Most interesting read! Thank you!

Linda says:

Question. Anyone know why the manuscript talks about algea as a healing agent?

tricia says:

Hi – there’s some micrography on folio 9v.

Charles says:

I am currently deciphering the manuscript. If what I have uncovered so far is any indication of what I think, this manuscript is better left undisclosed.

The Voynich Manuscript is solved!


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Cracking the Voynich Code

The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years