Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Wasn’t a Hoax, Study Suggests

voynich manuscript

Marcelo Montemurro and his colleague Damián Zanette have discovered that the language of the Voynich Manuscript statistically adheres to linguistic rules. via Live Science

The unreadable Voynich manuscript has eluded linguists and cryptographers since it was discovered by an antique book dealer in 1912.

Carbon-dated to the early 15th century, the book is written in an unknown language that has never been found anywhere else and it is full of equally puzzling drawings; besides depictions of the Zodiac signs, none of the illustrations are immediately recognizable as symbols or objects from the real world (much to the excitement of ancient alien conspiracy theorists).

The text’s nonsensical nature has led some to dismiss the Voynich manuscript as a Renaissance-era hoax. But researchers who revisited the book say the words in its folios are organized with the telltale characteristics of a real language.

Marcelo Montemurro, a physicist at the University of Manchester, and his colleague Damián Zanette didn’t exactly crack the Voynich code in their recent study published in the journal PLOS One. They did however find that “Voynichese” statistically adheres to linguistic rules.

Mainly, Montemurro and Zanette say the manuscript follows Zipf’s law, which holds that the most frequently occurring word in natural languages will appear about twice as much as the second most common word and three times as much as the third most common word and so on. Random symbolic sequences don’t show the same pattern as strongly, the researchers say.

“While the mystery of origins and meaning of the text still remain to be solved, the accumulated evidence about organization at different levels, limits severely the scope of the hoax hypothesis and suggests the presence of a genuine linguistic structure,” Montemurro and Zanette concluded.

Some academics brushed off the findings, saying they’re still convinced the manuscript is simply a hoax, not a lost language or an undecipherable code.

“It’s been accepted for decades that the statistical properties of Voynichese are similar, but not identical, to those of real languages,” Gordon Rugg, a researcher from Keele University, told the BBC. “I don’t think there’s much chance that the Voynich manuscript is simply an unidentified language, because there are too many features in its text that are very different from anything found in any real language.”

Rugg added that there are features that in the text that are inconsistent with most secret codes, such as the separation of words, which would in theory make it easier to crack.

  • VoxMagi

    Language creation isn’t unheard of…and certainly isn’t rare. More than a few geniuses have created isolated examples of new languages (not just Tolkien). I’ve always found the Voynich Manuscript fascinating, but I’ve never suspected it of being anything but the surviving work of a very gifted and creative person. Not a hoax, or a matter of alien intervention, but just a curious happenstance of the kind that periodically come about…except that the key to the language is lost to us. I hope they decode it someday…I’d love to see what the mind behind that language wanted to express.

    • Monkey See Monkey Do

      These books also seem to make a commentary on how the key to the origins of all language is lost.

  • Anarchy Pony

    I like xkcd’s take on it.

    • VoxMagi

      LO EFFIN L! This is twice as funny when you know that I DM on Wednesdays :-) Brilliant!

  • atlanticus

    Is Elvish a “hoax”? Klingon? (I don’t know either, so correct me if I’m making an inaccurate assumption here…)

    Why can’t it simply be for fun?

    • flipdog

      I agree. What’s with the need to put everything out of the ordinary into convenient, explanation-shaped boxes? Can we not just enjoy something for what it is?

      • Andrew

        Explanations can help us know what something is.

        • flipdog

          well, yes. Except when they are partial, misguided, malicious or just plain wrong – the danger then is that an open road for wondering looks instead like a dead end. But I suppose that depends on the person, as with everything – no one is forced to accept them, after all.

          Not that I’m against explanations per se, they have their uses. At the age of 42, I’m trying to re-visit the child like sense of wonder of how awesome everything is, sometimes to good effect. It gets easier with fewer boxes around.

          • Monkey See Monkey Do

            I wouldn’t worry too much considering the more you know the more you don’t know.

          • Andrew

            I know a lot of students in the English classes I used to take felt that an analysis of a poem or story somehow destroyed it. I always felt the opposite, that, if the work was a good one, analysis enlarged it and gave it more life.

  • Trevor Smith


    Anyone who thinks the Voynich Manuscript is cool should also take a look at the codex seraphinianus.

  • lifobryan

    While we’re on the subject of an arcane volume of disputed authenticity, filled with fantastic accounts of strange flora, crypto-creatures, human-animal hybrids, objects that defy physical laws, along with coded & potentially nonexistent language, has anyone ever read this one?

  • Joe Nolan

    Nice post, here. I was planning one myself, but you beat me to it. Well done!

  • Rus Archer

    does that mean THIS = hoax?