I blame Professor Tolkien. Ever since reading his books (particularly Return of the King, with its enticing appendices), I have been fascinated with the construction of languages, and the way in which they truly create the backbone of a culture. After all, nothing’s worth anything if it can’t be communicated, right? My D&D campaign world of Eurychra (which I’ll be getting into soon — I know, I keep saying that) has a few faux naming languages, which borrow heavily from the likes of Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic and Welsh, but nothing close to Professor T.’s magnificent work. I am no philologist, but nonetheless have the bug. I’m the guy that sits and shuffles phonemes around, sounding them out to himself to see if the combinations are cool or not. Nerd much? Yes I do, thanks.
Anyways, I was mystified a few years back when I first read about the Voynich (so-named after Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased the script near Rome in 1912) Manuscript. Carbon-dated to have existed since the 15th century, the throughly illustrated codex appears to concern itself with subjects such as herbs, astronomy, biology, cosmology, and some alchemical and pharmaceutical elements. The only problem is that the writings that make up the bulk of the manuscript is of a hitherto unknown writing system. From its appearance, the script appears to be made up of nearly 30 “glyphs” or written phonemes (or basically, word-sounds — such as the word baker is made up of b/ay/k/ur, the combination of which forms bake + er, or “one who bakes”), but their precise nature and meaning have alluded many cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from World Wars I and II.
That is, possibly, until now. Enter one Dr. Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguistics for CRELLA (Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment) at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. His linguistic background is in the Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew languages, along with Akkadian, the early language of Iraq. Using a process similar to Champollion and Young — who managed to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs — Bax proposes to follow their approach with finding and isolating the construction of proper names (individuals or specific objects), and in breaking down these (as I sort of did with baker, above) to create a scheme of definitive sounds for the written symbols, recombining them in other orders to define more glyphs and their sounds, and provide further meaning.
Bax’s cursory passes with the Voynich Manuscript have involved identifying certain planet genera and the most plausible words used to name them, as well as identifying the Taurus constellation, and using these discoveries as a groundwork in defining what sounds the glyphs represent. Bax has made a video which outlines this process and his discoveries, which I present below:
I’m aware that to most people this will sound like so much drudgery, but to anyone as fascinated with the form and function of language as I am, it’s a thrilling expedition into an ancient tome of mystery. I cheer on Dr. Bax wholeheartedly, and hope to hear of more discoveries associated with the Voynich Manuscript soon.