Artificial Intelligence May Have Cracked the Code of the Voynich Manuscript: Has Modern Technology Finally Solved a Medieval Mystery?

What is it about the Voynich Manuscript—that cryptic, illustrated 15th century text of unknown origin and meaning—that has so fascinated and obsessed scholars for centuries? Written in what appears to be an invented language, with bizarre illustrations of otherworldly botany, mysterious cosmology, and strange anatomy, the book resembles other proto-scientific texts of the time, except for the fact that it is totally indecipherable, “a certain riddle of the Sphinx,” as one alchemist described it. The 240-page enigma inspires attempt after attempt by cryptologists, linguists, and historians eager to understand its secrets—that is if it doesn’t turn out to be a too-clever Medieval joke.

One recent try, by Nicholas Gibbs, has perhaps not lived up to the hype. Another recent attempt by Stephen Bax, who wrote the short TED Ed lesson above, has also come in for its share of criticism. Given the investment of scholars since the 17th century in cracking the Voynich code, both of these efforts might justifiably be called quite optimistic. The Voynich may forever elude human understanding, though it was, presumably, created by human hands. Perhaps it will take a machine to finally solve the puzzle, an artificial brain that can process more data than the combined efforts of every scholar who has ever applied their talents to the text. Computer scientists at the University of Alberta think so and claim to have cracked the Voynich code with artificial intelligence (AI).

Computer science professor Greg Kondrak and graduate student Bradley Hauer began their project by feeding a computer program 400 different languages, taken from the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” While “they initially hypothesized that the Voynich manuscript was written in [ancient] Arabic,” reports Jennifer Pascoe, “it turned out that the most likely language was [ancient] Hebrew.” (Previous guesses, the CBC notes, “have ranged from a type of Latin to a derivation of Sino-Tibetan.”) The next step involved deciphering the manuscript’s code. Kondrak and Hauer discovered that “the letters in each word… had been reordered. Vowels had been dropped.” The theory seemed promising, but the pair were unable to find any Hebrew scholars who would look at their findings.

Without human expertise to guide them, they turned to another AI, whose results, we know, can be notoriously unreliable. Nonetheless, feeding the first sentence into Google translate yielded the following: “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people.” It’s at least grammatical, though Kondrak admits “it’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript.” Other analyses of the first section have turned up several other words, such as “farmer,” “light,” “air,” and “fire”—indeed the scientists have found 80 percent of the manuscript’s words in ancient Hebrew dictionaries. Figuring out how they fit together in a comprehensible syntax has proven much more difficult. Kondrak and Hauer admit these results are tentative, and may be wrong. Without corroboration from Hebrew experts, they are also unlikely to be taken very seriously by the scholarly community.

But the primary goal was not to translate the Voynich but to use it as a means of creating algorithms that could decipher ancient languages. “Importantly,” notes Gizmodo, “the researchers aren’t saying they’ve deciphered the entire Voynich manuscript,” far from it. But they might have discovered the keys that others may use to do so. Or they may—as have so many others—have been led down another blind alley, as one commenter at IFL Science suggests, sarcastically quoting the wise Bullwinkle Moose: “This time for sure!”

You can find the Voynich Manuscript scanned at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Copies can be purchased in book format as well.

Related Content:

An Animated Introduction to “the World’s Most Mysterious Book,” the 15th-Century Voynich Manuscript

Behold the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript: The 15th-Century Text That Linguists & Code-Breakers Can’t Understand

1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Use of Plants Now Digitized & Put Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Nikolai says:

    There is a key to cipher the Voynich manuscript. The manuscript was not written in Hebrew.
    The key to the cipher manuscript placed in the manuscript. It is placed throughout the text. Part of the key hints is placed on the sheet 14. With her help was able to translate a few dozen words that are completely relevant to the theme sections.
    The Voynich manuscript is not written with letters. It is written in signs. Characters replace the letters of the alphabet one of the ancient language. Moreover, in the text there are 2 levels of encryption. I figured out the key by which the first section could read the following words: hemp, wearing hemp; food, food (sheet 20 at the numbering on the Internet); to clean (gut), knowledge, perhaps the desire, to drink, sweet beverage (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to believe (sheet 107); to drink; six; flourishing; increasing; intense; peas; sweet drink, nectar, etc. Is just the short words, 2-3 sign. To translate words with more than 2-3 characters requires knowledge of this ancient language. The fact that some symbols represent two letters. In the end, the word consisting of three characters can fit up to six letters. Three letters are superfluous. In the end, you need six characters to define the semantic word of three letters. Of course, without knowledge of this language make it very difficult even with a dictionary.
    If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages showing the translated words.
    And most important. In the manuscript there is information about “the Holy Grail”.

  • Giuseppe BIANCHI says:

    normal intelligence is enough if you use it:

  • Валерий Дедух says: The Voynich manuscript. The golden house of Nero. Watch my video.

  • Alan McGregor says:

    What we read via the media is likely to not be the whole information available.
    It’s suggested that their was more than one ‘author’; the illustrations were be another at least. Handwriting ‘experts’ can say whether it was written by one, or maybe this person’s personality or mental health etc.
    A person like Da Vinchi could be playing a ‘trick’, but also as myself, on the autistic spectrum, it may just have been a personal ‘creation’, or amusement.
    I read of inappropriate comparisons with present languages, and the assumption that it is just one language and not a hybrid. It may be a personal language or of a small group. With parents that use more than one language, it could be a natural local hybrid.

    I find it strange though, that even as an artificial language with quite repetitive word forms, that there can’t be a correspondence between what is written and the illustrations.

    Perhaps there were mental health problems involved. Why are words repeated two or three times in succession?

  • M Lord says:

    Describes a reality in a different time and place

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