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I am Stephen Bax, researching the Voynich manuscript

Feb 24th 2014 by Stephenbax • 64 Questions • 1091 Points

My short bio: Professor of Linguistics, University of Bedfordshire, UK - website: http://www.beds.ac.uk/crella/staff/stephen-bax

My Proof: See my webpage www.stephenbax.net profile page, with my photo and Reddit note.

Also see the New Scientist article on my work: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25105-mystery-voynich-manuscript-gets-preliminary-alphabet.html#.UwtxE_l_srV

and the BBC page:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-26198471

I can be here for an hour, but I'll also answer questions a bit later. Or send them to my website/blog.

Thanks for your interest.

THANKS EVERYONE. I'M SIGNING OFF NOW. BUT I'LL CHECK AGAIN FOR ANY MORE TOMORROW.

Q:

When I was a kid I was fascinated with the Voynich Manuscript, so I have some questions for you.

  • How does stress marks and other elements from forensic calligraphy (I don't think graphology is accurate enough) come in play in your research?

  • How does linguistic reverse enginnering work? Can you shed some light on it? Do you use some kind of correlation (i.e. the handwritten lowercase "e" and "l" are very similar), do you search for similar graphemes on ancient languages, do you group your findings by roots (Slavic roots, Latin root, etc)?

  • How do you interact with the manuscript? Do you work on digitalized copies, do they require you to keep it at special temperatures if you physically interact with it? Tell us more, please.

Thank you very much!

Edit: second question.

A:

I'm not a specialist in calligraphy, which is a handicap. So I depend on others. Reverse engineering - do you mean transcribing it all and looking at the transcript with a computer? Luckily others have done the work for us - see www.voynich.nu I work a lot with https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f1r/0.5/0.5/2.50

.. a fantastic site! I have never seen the actual manuscript yet :-(


Q:

Thank you! I mean reverse engineering as a way to understand the logic behind the language with no a priori knowledge. Speaking of it, what particular knowledge sources were you using when you discovered these words? How's a typical research day for a linguist?

A:

I do think that my approach is likely to get more results than computerised studies. My typical day - library study, coffee, library study, coffee.


Q:

What is your theory about its language and its purpose?

A:

Don't tell anyone OK? I think it is probably an invented script, probably by a small group trying to study and pass on knowledge, maybe in a region not far from Europe, e.g Turkey, Iran, Caucasus. I then think that for some reason - war? - the group died out. But not much proof ..... YET.


Q:

Any particular reason why you think it could be from Iran, Turkey or the Caucasus?

A:

Now that I have made some progress on the script, I am starting to get an idea of the underlying language and a few key things about it suggest to me a few possibilities. For example I don't see anything Semitic in it, and I know Semitic languages quite well. A few prefixes and suffixes are giving me some more clues. I think it is probably Indo-European, but still a lot more work to go.


Q:

Do you think it could be a Turkic language? Or some lost Indo-European language from the Caucasus, like Isaurian?

A:

Yes, and yes. Both on the agenda. Though Isaurians were probably too early;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isauria


Q:

Could it be... *gasp* the Muslim Illuminati?

EDIT: This is not a serious question.

A:

Yes EDIT: This is not a serious answer


Q:

Do you have an opinion on the theory that the VM might be a family's travelogue or teaching book of all the places they visited and things they learned along the way; such as the explorer Niccolo de Conti and his wife of India descent and their four children who traveled extensively throughout the east and Indonesia?

A:

I do find that interesting - where did you see that? But why wouldn't they just write in Italian?

That is a puzzle - why would anyone devise a new script if they already had one they could use?


Q:

I came up with the theory that it was Niccolo de Conti and his wife and children. I wrote and opinion paper to establish my reasoning and gave some internet links to back up my research. I also included pictures to show a few of the VM drawings of the women are native dancers of India in costume. Also the language is probably because of his wife. Her exact nationality was never really known in most of the historical documents I had access to. But she was from somewhere around the region or north India perhaps even in a border area that might account for the confusing language mix. She probably was the one who taught her children to read, write, etc. Perhaps the children were the authors. Ha-ha wouldn't that be strange. But the whole family were pretty much geniuses. Niccolo de Conte spoke about 8-10 languages himself. So anything is possible. They also had contact with the Chinese explorers who may have gone to the America's before Columbus and could account for the drawing of the sunflower.

A:

Thanks - I will look it up. But the key is to translate the language - then we will know if you are right!


Q:

Hey, Stephen! Two questions:

  • Do you hope to find something specific with the Voynich manuscript?
  • What do you think the future holds for Linguistics? I studied a bit in college, but all they talked about was the past, not future possibilities.
A:

Yes, I want to translate those strange 'bath' pages with naked ladies and green water. Good article on that recently:

http://www.actahort.org/chronica/pdf/ch5102.pdf

Really interesting part of the V manuscript.

Linguistics? Lots more people studying it and seeing how important it is!


Q:

Why did you decide to pursue this research? What makes this important to you?

A:

I studied Arabic and other oriental languages and I like different scripts. The Voynich looked to me at first like a form of Arabic, which is what attracted me, but I don't believe it is Arabic now.

Important? Well, interesting first of all, but I do feel the manuscript is important as it could shed light on some new things about wherever it was written.


Q:

Any theories yet, on what civilization may have written the manuscript?

A:

Yes, I am working on one theory which I think is exciting, because it seems to fit the evidence we have of the language, but my job now is to work hard to DISprove that theory, to find holes in it. I'm going to the British Library in London to look at an old manuscript, and a magnifying glass. I'm hopeful, but not wild


Q:

May I ask which language you're looking at for this? Unofficially of course..

A:

b x%789%$3 It's encoded so only you can see it :-)


Q:

Ah, ok, so, Swahili, then.

A:

Shhhh


Q:

I almost wonder, and I have millions of crazy ideas on this, if someone didn't try to copy chinese, egyptian, or some other script by using combinations of the latin alphabet. That would give you all sorts of repeating sequences, but they wouldn't make sense if the characters were representing ideograms and had all sorts of modifiers on them. Worse, if the person copying the symbols didn't know the language.

I don't think it was until the 18th century that they translated egyptian, but there were still many works out there that people could copy from. Not to mention all the wild scripts from South America. Mayan script replicated in the latin alphabet, not that'd be a nightmare.

A:

True, but the question is WHY would they do that?


Q:

What other words have you already (possibly) found with the letters you have?

A:

You mean ones I haven't published? I have had a few more suggested to me and I'm now working on them - other plants. Some really good ideas, but tough to prove them - it will take a long time for each word.

I'm looking at the Castor Oil plant at the moment!


Q:

Why did you choose to start from the plants, whose identification will always be questionable, instead of the zodiac, where the signs are clearly labled?

A:

The problem with the Zodiac pages is that only one of them, if I remember, seems to have the name of the sign in the Voynich script.

The rest have got names, but not in the V script. They seem to be in old French or similar - like Mars for March - but they were clearly added later, in a different ink.

So unfortunately that doesn't allow us a good entry into the sign system of the V language itself :-(


Q:

I've just finished watching your video: http://boingboing.net/2014/02/21/voynich-manuscript-partially-d.html

Brilliant work. My question is: have you been tempted to keep this secret until you have the whole thing worked out? Do you have a small select set of reliable friends to help with this? Or have you found it easy to be open? Strangely, I have a similar project I am working on and I find it hard to open up to the internet about it. Also, how long do you think it will be before we have the whole document translated?

A:

My kids say: you are right - he has no friends :-) I decided to put it on the Internet because I felt the time was right to get other people's views on it. If I worked for four more years and found it was baloney....... bad. But this way I can get feedback, and that is what has happened. Some positive, some not, but some REALLY useful leads.

How long - I reckon a minimum of four years. If we can identify the language it will STILL be a long time because it will be in an old and probably odd form of that language.


Q:

Were you able to completely translate the Voynich manuscript, what would be your next endeavor? Are there any other manuscripts left that remain as indecipherable as the VM that you might be interested in taking a crack at?

A:

Yes, I'm keen on the Linear A script from Crete. Linear B has already been deciphered as a form of Greek, but Linear A is still a mystery.

I did work on it a few years ago, but it doesn't have any pictures to help!

Any suggestions?


Q:

Not a clue. Well over my head I'm afraid but wish you good luck.

A:

Linear A http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_A

People have tired with computers, believe me...


Q:

At what time during your research did you have the insight that led to your partial decoding? When would you have abandoned your research on the manuscript? Did you expect not to have any results after so many years of work? (I'm mainly interested in knowing why would you take the risk to work on a subject where you have a high probability to fail)

A:

When I had worked out a few of the signs and then looked a page with a picture of a hellebore on it - according to people who knew about plants. I put my idea for the plant name into Google 'kaur' and the word 'hellebore' and bang! up came the word in a plant book. Then I felt I was really onto something.

Give up? No, I was always fascinated by it... but I suppose if I got nothing I might give up and watch BB theory instead.


Q:

This is definitely my fav part of your video. Finding confirmation for the predicted word via Google search, very cool :)

A:

Yeah, I'm hoping Google will send me a cheque for all the publicity I'm giving them,


Q:

Have you tried using Google Translate?

A:

Um, no. I'm on it now.


Q:

What surprised you the most so far while decoding the voynich manuscript? Any crazy revelations yet?

A:

Yes, the quantity of non-European words which seem to be coming out... the pictures look so European. That needs explaining.


Q:

Do you think the manuscript could possible have been passed down to different locations which would explain the non European words and the European pictures? Such as date the ink from the writing to the ink from the pictures? Maybe it could have different dates and different compositions.

A:

Yes, or it could have been copied from other manuscripts.


Q:

I briefly took some classical japanese translation classes in college while studying for a (modern) japanese major and actually gave up because I was so frustrated. "What do you mean we still don't know what this character means???" Then I went on to easier things, like computer programming. I'm not kidding.

My question is, how do you deal with the frustration? If I don't have something to show for my work after a few days I feel like a failure, even if intellectually I know I'm far from it. It's something I've had to struggle with personally so I'd like to hear from someone who surely bangs their head against the wall more often than I do (that's a compliment).

A:

Yep, my wall has lots of headmarks, it's true But I am happy with small bits of progress - like today someone emailed me with a single name of a star in the manuscript, and it looked really convincing - so investigating that will keep me happy for days!


Q:

What is your response to those that accuse it as being a fake?

A:

I think the evidence is all against that. Who would write a massive thing like that for a fake? It has pages of script, not only pictures, which would not impress any buyer, so it is unlikely to be a fake in my view.


Q:

I appreciated your recent paper and YouTube video. You make a strong case that the VM has to do with the Mideast and the Silk Road; it's just that theories come along so fast, it's hard to keep up. We remember the recent theory that it could be from the New World.

My only question is, under your best guess, what is going on with the trippy imagery of ladies in pools, à la Minority Report precogs?

A:

Great recent article on this - with (I think) quite a sound argument about it:

http://www.actahort.org/chronica/pdf/ch5102.pdf


Q:

If you weren't working on the Voynich manuscript, what other projects would you be working on?

A:

Well, I'm interested in other unsolved scripts - Linear A (Crete) and also Rongo Rongo (Easter Island), but I've got to get the Voynich bug out of my system first. Only ten years to go!


Q:

wow, you're gona tackle Rongorongo? That's a tough one! Good luck!!

More seriously, do you have any other research subject or unsolved question, other than undeciphered scripts, you'd like to pursue?

A:

I would like to travel more! I want to see Iran, Afghanistan (not now), Armenia, Georgia, Samarkand....


Q:

What is the most out-there theory you've heard about the manuscript?

A:

Um. aliens. Anything which doesn't take into account the carbon dating of around 1430 (e.g. Aztec theories, Francis Bacon theories, my mother-in-law-did-it theories)


Q:

What book would you recommend on the manuscript, preferably one that has the manuscript replicated well?

A:

Two: www.voynich.nu - a website, not a book.

https://www.jasondavies.com - has the WHOLE thing in great detail. That man is a genius.


Q:

What's the most exciting thing about figuring out the start of decrypting the manuscript? The fact that no historian has managed it so far, the possible contents, the media buzz that's probably going to help fund your research for a while, etc.?

Are you planning on publishing a translation when you're done?

A:

Translation - yes, but with loads of help from a speaker of whatever language family it comes from! e.g. Turkic, Semitic, Indo-European

Exciting: when you crack a word and realise that it fits everything you have worked on for four months....


Q:

That's awesome! It's great to hear that this is so exciting down to single words! Seeing the translation of this (however far off it me be) will be amazing and will no doubt help color our knowledge of this period in even more.

And yes, translation! That's going to be the best! Even if it's a boring diatribe on plants, it's so important to recover as much data as we can about period time, that this offers a bounty of information.

A:

Yes, though I reckon that it will have some really interesting stuff - just from the pictures. I reckon it will be a major insight into the times.


Q:

Your work site says you have worked extensively in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia . . . Where is the best/your favorite place you have worked so far?

A:

I loved Syria - so sad it is being slowly demolished... also Morocco is great because they have preserved so much mediaeval stuff.


Q:

Why do you think the first letters on every paragraph in the plant section are chosen from a set of just four? F,P,K and T?

A:

Well, there are a few more, but in general you are right. I suspect that some of those signs might be 'discourse markers' signalling things about the text - e.g. they might show the start of a section. That is a common reason why mediaeval manuscripts had a 'showy' initial letter. Someone emailed me today suggesting they might be case markers 'like in Russian' but I don't know if that is a possibility. Sounds intriguing though.. You saw it on Reddit first!


Q:

Care to elaborate about 'like in Russian'? I didn't get it, and I have some (although not fluent) knowledge of this language.

Can it be that these letters denote the purpose of the paragraph? Somewhat like the "Q: and A:" in a modern FAQ or the type of the paragraph. Like description, uses, history....

A:

Ha! Maybe. The person meant that the first letter in Russian sometime indicates the grammatical case of the word. I don't know if that is true.


Q:

Nope. Here is a simple table with the cases in Russian. They are always at the end of the word. http://issuu.com/atanas/docs/original/1?e=0

A:

Bang goes that one then! Thanks. It didn't sound likely, though I do like the idea of them being some sort of marker... maybe not of case


Q:

Did you contact the people of The Journal of Voynich Studies ?

A:

Good question - I haven't had any contact with them and when I looked at the pages it seems to be like a message list of some sort, not a journal, so I am confused about who they are.

Any information would be welcome.....


Q:

Could you tell us a little bit about the process you use to decipher the manuscript and how your typical day researching the book might go. How did you manage to identify 14 letters/signs and their sound values?

A:

Firstly, I can only work in the evenings and weekends.... I can't neglect my students! The first thing is to find a plant which seems to be recognisable, and then to research it in old herbal manuscripts. I have access to a few online. Once I find one and it is a convincing match, I look for names in various languages which might fit what I think might be the Voynich word. But that takes hours of library study. I'm working on Ricinis Communis now, which is the source of Castor oil.


Q:

How much progress have you made translating the manuscript? What's the subject matter?

A:

I worked on it for two years (part time) and have managed to identify 14 letters/signs with their sound values. Slow work! They are used in a total of ten words - one is Taurus and the others are names of plants. So lots to do still :-)


Q:

That sounds like a ton more progress than any other attempt to translate it! I'm sure you'll get the whole done eventually, I look forward to hearing about it!

A:

Thanks


Q:

Thanks very much for posting the YouTube explaining your research. You did a really great job of making your line of reasoning easy to follow. I noticed that you focus mostly on the herbal sections of the manuscript, using the names of the plants depicted to start identifying the letters. Do you think a similar method would bear fruit by looking at the constellations in the astrological portions of the manuscript, or is there a reason the herbs work better?

A:

The problem with the star pages is that it is very tough to identify a particular name to latch onto. At least the plants have usually one plant per page. For example I looked at a page of stars and picked out some possibilities, but to be honest that is a rather random way of doing it.


Q:

Did you have any failed ideas before you hit on your successful one?

A:

Yes, very many. Loads of false starts. Every day!


Q:

What is your opinion on Nick Pelling's criticism of your work over at Cypher Mysteries?

Do you consider any of his arguments valid? Will you write an answer on your website?

Good luck with your further work and thanks for the AMA.

A:

I've done it already:

http://stephenbax.net/?p=275


Q:

First off, thank you for tackling this :)

My question has always been, regarding the VM at least, how did we only find one remaining piece of this language and culture? I by no means think that the VM is a hoax but that wonder just haunts me sometimes.

A:

Yes, me too. It is very odd. We have things like the Phaistos disk: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc

which are unique examples of - apparently - a language system, but usually with very little data. With V we have masses and masses of text - but none anywhere else. That is why it bugs so many of us!


Q:

I would love to get involved. Is there anything that I can do to help?

A:

Hard to say..... it depends on your background and interests. Stars? Plants? Semi-nak....... um, linguistics?


Q:

Enjoyed your video -- thank you for positing it on YouTube! 1) Do you think the illustrations are original to the manuscript, or could they have been added later? 2) You mention there being evidence of multiple authors -- is there evidence of multiple illustrators? 3) I'm very curious about the somewhat unrealistic portrayals of the plants, and wonder if you think that may be drawn based on descriptions (perhaps in the manuscript) by someone naive? Thanks! Sorry for the mass of questions!

A:

1) Yes, sure. The script sometimes goes around them 2) I don't know, to be honest 3) Yes, but SOME are very good. Some might be copied, which was common in those times.


Q:

Were you able to discover a seqence of words, a sentence Or are your discovered words scattered across the pages?

A:

I worked mainly on the FIRST word of the pages with plants on them, because in mediaeval herbal manuscripts that is usually where the names are found.That was an important part of the procedure. NOT random words.


Q:

I downloaded the manuscript for the pictures (I draw in a similar style apparently). Keep up the great work! Nothing to ask, just impressed by anyone who would have the knowledge to try and translate the manuscript.

A:

Thanks


Q:

كيف حالك؟

A:

AlHamdu Lilla, shukran jazeelan!


Q:

I saw on a TV show that a hallmark of handwritten manuscripts is that the words lack spacing in between them, but it seems that there are spaces with V M. What gives?

A:

No, many manuscripts from the time have spaces between words. It depends on the place they were written.


Q:

If you were given a choice between one hundred million dollars and the fully translated Voynich manuscript, which one would you choose?

Also, obligatory xkcd comic

A:

Um, the cash... but I might spend then 100,000 of it on a long holiday in the Bahamas working on the V manuscript...


Q:

I love the RPG sourcebook theory.

A:

I love the theory that it is a long recipe for vegetable soup...


A:

That's the translation I haven't published yet :-)


Q:

Thank you! Now all I have to do is decode the Voynich manuscript. Easy peasy.

A:

Gokdody s daiin!


Q:

If you were to choose: you solve the VMS tonight and live on, or time-travel to meet the guy who is writing it (no coming back), which do you choose? :)

A:

Number one, because I like BB theory too much.


Q:

Is the entire manuscript all still in one piece? Are you studying the original or do you have copies of every page? Is/will the original be in a museum where the public can view it? Thanks for doing this ama!

A:

It is all in Yale Library, but you can see it all at:

https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f1r/0.5/0.5/2.50


Q:

At that point of your research, what type of finding will you accept as a disproval of what you've found so far. That is, per the principles of the scientific method, can you give an example of a refutal of your hypothesis.

Best of luck, and I also wish you strength of will to continue cracking this bastard! I so hope you're right (but still that doesn't stop me from doubting, as is my duty as a follower of science :)

A:

Yes, and can I be cautious with you, as a fellow follower of science? It's never proven till it's proven.

I suspect the only thing which would count as a dis-proval would be an analysis which convincingly fits more of the data, i.e. which decodes more words better.


Q:

Hey Stephen. I'm late to the party, but I wanted to say congratulations and that I really enjoyed reading your paper. It was easy to follow for a someone with no linguistics background and your excitement filtered through. Is there anything that interested amateurs can do to help crack it further?

A:

Well, research on plants... and looking at old manuscripts? Doesn't sound fun, I admit. Sorry, but if you like that sort of thing.... I do!


Q:

I very much enjoyed your video about your investigative process and I think it's very promising. I'd love to lend my mind to the effort, is there any formal way folks like me can help you crowdsource further discoveries? Specifically, which plants are we most certain we can identify?

A:

Hard to say, but I've had some great suggestions from people this last week, and some really good ideas. The key is not only to spot the plant, but also to find what it could have been used for in 15th century medicine.

For example, someone told me today that cotton seeds were used in mediaeval Persia for male fertility, which might explain why the picture I thought could be cotton would NOT show the fluffy cotton - because they were interested only in the seed. That is interesting...


Q:

How did you first learn of the Voynich Manuscript?

A:

I heard a radio programme in around March 2012 about John Dee, the Elizabethan magus and scholar, and looked him up on Wikipedia! There was a link to the V manuscript. He was thought to have owned it, but most people don't think so now.


Q:

I understand you aren't even finished with this endeavor yet, but do you have any plans about what you might like to undertake next?

A:

See another posting! Barbados? Linear A is fascinating


Q:

What is your favourite color and why?

A:

Purple, because it goes with my eyes.


Q:

The VM is a very interesting piece of history, especially in relation to John Dee (a spurious relationship we now know). Have you come across any occult (alchemical, etc.) indications within the text itself?

Thanks for taking the time!

A:

Not directly. I'm fascinated in the planetary and star stuff, though. Someone was trying to set out a grand theory of something... dying to know what. But no, nothing seriously occult, not like the great Ripley scrolls:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ripley_scroll#The_.27Ripley_Scrowle.27