600 year old mystery code cracked by Bedfordshire Professor
Solving cryptic codes is something integral to the clandestine worlds of crime and the shady world of spying for centuries. Not all codes where used for nefarious purposes. Some were used for assignations or to protect early alchemists, medical practitioners, or scientists from accusations of witchcraft.
It was against this background the Voynich, a code which has remained obscure since the 15th century.
AN award-winning professor from the University of Bedfordshire, Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics, has cracked the code of a 600 year old manuscript, deemed as ‘the most mysterious’ document in the world. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912. Radiocarbon dating on the manuscript's vellum dated it between 1404 and 1438.. In addition, the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago found that the paints in the manuscript were of materials to be expected from that period of European history. The first confirmed owner was an obscure alchemist, Georg Baresch 1585–1662, who never cracked the cipher. It eventually made its way to the Yale Library, where Professor Bax worked on it.
The world-renowned manuscript is full of illustrations of exotic plants, stars, and mysterious human figures, as well as many pages written in an unknown text. Professor Gonzalo Rubio, expert in ancient languages at Pennsylvania State University, stated that "the things we know as 'grammatical markers' – things that occur commonly at the beginning or end of words, such as 's' or 'd' in our language, and that are used to express grammar, never appear in the middle of 'words' in the Voynich manuscript. That's unheard of for any Indo-European, Hungarian or Finnish language." Many researchers have commented upon the highly regular structure of the words.
Some words occur in only certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so labels attached to the illustrations. There are practically no words with fewer than two letters or more than ten.There are instances where the same common word appears up to three times in a row. Words that differ by only one letter also repeat with unusual frequency, causing single-substitution alphabet decipherings to yield babble-like text. In 1962, cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman described such attempts as "doomed to utter frustration". Up until now the 15th century cryptic work has baffled scholars, cryptographers and codebreakers who have failed to read a single letter of the script or any word of the text. Some have suggested it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Cathars, or even aliens.
The professional linguist cracked the code of the Voynich manuscript using an analytical approach. Professor Bax however has begun to unlock the mystery meanings of the Voynich manuscript using his wide knowledge of mediaeval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arabic. Using careful linguistic analysis he is working on the script letter by letter.
“I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script,” explained Professor Bax.
“The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at mediaeval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.”
Among the words he has identified is the term for Taurus, alongside a picture of seven stars which seem to be the Pleiades, and also the word KANTAIRON alongside a picture of the plant Centaury, a known mediaeval herb, as well as a number of other plants.
Although Professor Bax’s decoding is still only partial, it has generated a lot of excitement in the world of codebreaking and linguistics because it could prove a crucial breakthrough for an eventual full decipherment.
“My aim in reporting on my findings at this stage is to encourage other linguists to work with me to decode the whole script using the same approach, though it still won’t be easy. That way we can finally understand what the mysterious authors were trying to tell us,” he added.
“But already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.”
Find out more about his work at the University's Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment (CRELLA) and also on his personal website www.stephenbax.net
The University has a number of places available in Clearing for our English Language and Linguistics courses for a September 2016 start.
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