A recently published paper introducing an alleged solution of the Voynich manuscript has received many critical comments. The negative feedback has caused the university the paper author works for to retract a press release .

On Thursday morning I received an email from the German news magazine Der Spiegel. A journalist working for this publication wanted to ask me a few questions about a recently published alleged solution of the Voynich manuscript. To my regret, I didn’t read his mail until early Thursday afternoon, so my reply came too late. As the deadline for the next Der Spiegel issue was approaching, the journalist interviewed somebody else.

Meanwhile, the new issue of Der Spiegel has been published, but I can’t find an article about the Voynich manuscript in it. Perhaps, the editors had doubts whether this new Voynich solution claim was worth reporting about. If this was the case, they were probably right.

 

Another solution claim

The new alleged Voynich solution Der Spiegel asked me about was published by British Romance languages expert Gerard Cheshire from the University of Bristol in the scientific magazine Romance Studies. Many readers, including Norbert Biermann, Ralf Bülow, Claus Diem, Elonka Dunin, Karsten Hansky, Tobias Schrödel, Arnim von Schwedler, Wolfgang Wilhelm, Cliff, and Eberhard have made me aware of this work and the intensive press coverage.

Alleged Voynich manuscript solutions are far from unusual. At least 60 of them have been published over the last 100 years. I am not aware of a list containing all alleged Voynich solutions and I don’t think anybody will ever be interested in compiling one.

So far, none of the many solutions has been accepted by the Voynich community. The problem is that if one assumes a complicated encryption method (e.g., a MASC with homophones, polyphones, nulls, and abbreviations) and/or an exotic plaintext language (e.g., a lost Armenian dialect from the middle ages), it is always possible to “decrypt” text passages from the Voynich manuscript into something that sounds more or less meaningful. Two years ago, I suggested a method that can be used by Voynich solvers to test there solutions, but so far nobody dared to take this test.

This said, it comes as no surprise that Gerard Cheshire’s announcement that he has solved the Voynich manuscript did not necessarily set the Voynich world on fire. Nevertheless, it has led to many discussions – for instance on the Voynich maniscript mailing list (hosted by Richard SantaColoma).

It is at least note-worthy that Cheshire’s paper, unlike most other works of this kind, was published in a scientific magazine with peer-review. The bad news is that it was not a magazine typically read and reviewed by Voynich manuscript specialists – like Cryptologia. Perhaps, Cheshire preferred to hand in his work to a less renowned magazine because he expected the chances of being accepted to be higher.

Before publication, Cheshire had sent draft versions of his work to several Voynich manuscript experts (including me) in order to get feedback. I have to admit that I didn’t give any feedback because there are simply too many Voynich solutions and other works I am asked to comment on.

 

Experts publish critical comments

As mentioned, there are usually two levels of complexity that lie between the Voynich manusript text and the proposed plaintext: the (complicated and non-deterministic?) encryption method and the (exotic and not exactly defined?) language used. In this case, the encryption method appears to be trivial or non-existing, which means that the language is the critical point.

Cheshire claims that the Voynich manuscript is a kind of therapeutic reference book written by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, in a lost language known as proto-Romance. To my regret, my knowledge of proto-Romance isn’t the best. In general, I am an encryption expert, not a linguist. So, it is hard for me to judge the validity of Cheshire’s solution myself. Instead, I have to rely on the opinions of language experts.

Source: Schmeh

So far, most comments of language experts about Cheshire’s paper have been very negative. For instance, linguist Koen Gheuens has published a devastating critique of Cheshire’s work on his blog. Among other things, he writes: “The paper claimed that the language in the VM was proto-Italic. As a linguist, I know that such a thing is impossible – it is the equivalent of saying that Triceratops are still alive in some remote part of the world. […] The proto-Italic language was spoken before the Homeric poems were written, just to provide a comparison. By that time, it had already evolved to Old Latin, which is attested mostly in inscriptions. The earliest known author in any Romance language was Livius Andronicus , who lived in the 3rd century BCE, over half a millennium later than the extinction of the proto-Italic language. It is absolutely impossible for any large text in proto-Italic to have survived, even in transmission. Proto-Italic changed into languages like Latin. It would not have been understood anymore by the time we get the first Latin authors, and certainly not 2 millennia later, when the Voynich was written.”

Koen even accuses Cheshire of dubious practices. He writes: “Additionally, his PhD is in a completely unrelated field, but his manner of communication strongly implied that it was in linguistics. […] A peculiar episode took place on Nick Pelling’s site, where in the comments only one person, one Rick Sheeger, defended Cheshire’s ‘work’. Sheeger was soon discovered to be a pseudonym employed by Cheshire himself.”

Here and here are other critical statements about Cheshire’s paper.

On May 15th, the University of Bristol published a press release about Cheshire’s alleged success. A day later, they retracted it and replaced it with a comment that ends with the following statement: “Following media coverage, concerns have been raised about the validity of this research from academics in the fields of linguistics and medieval studies. We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned.”


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Kommentare (17)

  1. #1 Marc
    19. Mai 2019

    It’s written in turkish 🙂

  2. #2 Yusuf
    Moers
    19. Mai 2019

    Hallo,
    es ist auf keinen fall Türkisch.
    Ich kenne jemand der die lösung hat, aber er weiss nicht wohin damit. Es ist fantastisch was da drin steht.
    Er braucht dringend hilfe. Der ist jetzt mit anderen ungelöste sachen beschäftigt. Ein Genie?..

  3. #3 Richard SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    20. Mai 2019

    It was a fascinating to watch this story unfold over the last two years.

    Dr. Cheshire had contacted me back in 2017, asking for my opinion about his solution proposal. To make it clear, I am not a linguist, and only an amateur cryptologist, at best. But it was nonetheless apparent, even to me, that the system and lexicon that was being proposed had far to many levels of choice, starting with the very characters used as substitutions.

    It is not repeatable, and it produces no real meaning on its own.

    I showed him that from his system, I could, anyone could, come up with an almost infinite number of “plain text” sentences. Well others, linked above, have explained this problem, with his proposal, far better than me. But the point is, now that there is all this publicity surrounding this incident, it turns out that Cheshire had approached a large number of others, at the same time, and each one gave him very similar verdicts to the one I had.

    The point being, he had run this past a great many experts and amateurs in the fields of linguistics, cryptography, and those very knowledgeable in the Voynich itself, was almost universally shown to be wrong. In effect, he “manually” ran his work through his own impromptu “peer review”, and it failed.

    My largest question is, then, how did this pass scientific, journalistic, peer review? Is it a problem with the peer review process as a whole, or is it an isolated oversight? I’ve been looking into the process, and won’t go into what I have found… but suffice it to say, my opinion of the world of “peer review” is now one of great skepticism.

  4. #4 Koen Gheuens
    http://herculeaf.wordpress.com
    20. Mai 2019

    Hi Klaus

    Note that the Homeric poems situation applied on Cheshire’s 2017 paper, in which he wrote about proto-Italic. In his current paper he writes about proto-Romance, which is less ancient but was still dead as a dinosaur by 1450 – so I guess it doesn’t really matter.

    I share Rich’s concernes about academic peer review. You can look op TandF’s peer review criteria and they look pretty standard. This paper should not only lot have passed peer review, it should have been shot down by the editor even *before* peer review. It should not even have been allowed on the chopping block.

    What went wrong? Last week I mailed the editor and he replied as follows:

    “I am currently looking further into the article and so will not be able to provide any comment at present.”

    So… wait and see? Or are they just leaving it there and welcoming the ridiculous spike in clicks this whole thing generates?

  5. #5 Narga
    20. Mai 2019

    @Richard: Thanks for the additional information! Interesting that he chose to publish his work with all the critical feedback from the experts, including the people on Nick Pelling’s blog. But then again, maybe he just wanted a paper published to have a reward for his invested time and didn’t expect or even want the media hype.

  6. #6 Narga
    20. Mai 2019

    I just noticed that Rick Sheeger (the only positively responding person to the “solution” on Nick’s blog) if expanded to Richard Sheeger is actually an anagram of Gerard Cheshire 🙂

  7. #7 Klaus Schmeh
    20. Mai 2019

    Alexander Ulyanenkov via Facebook:
    Hi, Klaus. The method you proposed to verify is offered solution works or not is not right one. Simply because of if the symbol is single root word – the selection of symbols you offered may consist a real message (the example I already sent you). I suggest to modify the method.

  8. #8 Klaus Schmeh
    20. Mai 2019

    @Alexander: Do you think that a sequence of randomly chosen words can produce a meaningful message. This sounds unlikely to me.

  9. #9 Thomas
    21. Mai 2019

    Though this isn’t impossible, the likelihood that eight randomly chosen words form a meaningful phrase should be sufficiently low.

  10. #10 Skeptik
    Bad Soden
    21. Mai 2019

    Das Voynich Konvolut kommt mir als ehemaliger Mitarbeiter einer Werbeagentur irgendwie bekannt vor. So ähnlich konnten Storyboards oder Vorstudien für ein Druckerzeugnis aussehen. Die Abbildungen eher flüchtig und flott und der – eventuell noch nicht geschriebene Text – wurde als “Blindtext” ohne irgendeine Bedeutung schon mal vom Grafiker eingesetzt.

    https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/esp_ciencia_manuscrito07b.htm

    Auf den Seiten 33v und 34r gut zu sehen der eher spielerische Umgang mit dem Text. Dies fand ich in einem anderen Forum:
    https://www.geschichtsforum.de/attachments/upload_2019-5-21_19-25-8-png.18182/
    Wiederholungen ein und derselben Buchstabenfolgen.

    Die Frage ist doch auch, wer gab damals viel Geld aus für ein eher dilettantisches Machwerk? Da konnte man doch schon einen hohen Anspruch der Käufer oder Auftragsgeber an die Qualität eines solchen Werkes voraussetzen. – Also eher die Wunschvorstellung eines Herausgebers und grobe Vorlage für eine Schreibstube.

  11. #11 Klaus Schmeh
    21. Mai 2019

    Interview given by Gert Brantner about Cheshire’s solution.

  12. #12 CR Cohen
    Wilmington
    23. Mai 2019

    Not until the 17th century was Old Permic, aka Abur, superseded by the Cyrillic script from which it was loosely adapted. I say “loosely” because Old Permic is called a “highly idiosyncratic adaptation” of Cyrillic and Greek, with Komi “Tamga” signs. Interestingly, since not many persons knew it, Old Permic was also used as cryptographic writing for the Russian language.
    https://voynichbirths.blogspot.com/

  13. #13 Richard SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    27. Mai 2019

    If any German speakers have the time, could someone translate and transcribe Gert Brantner’s radio interview about the Cheshire attempt? It is linked by Klaus, above, but here it is again:

    https://ondemand-mp3.dradio.de/file/dradio/2019/05/20/voynich_manuskript_ist_das_mysterioese_dokument_endlich_drk_20190520_1419_8338e716.mp3?fbclid=IwAR3jwU3Kv6VLNS8EacAa4F4BkbxhudR9GjwREqNol3wIvzFLWNhydTFz-K0

  14. #14 Charlotte Auer
    28. Mai 2019

    @Richard

    I don’t have the time to translate and to transcribe the Brantner Interview for you, but I can assure you that you don’t miss any deep insight in the Cheshire case. Only a very few words about the obvious failure in historical linguistics (timeline, proto-romance etc.) and then nothing but some presentation of Brantner himself and his Ninja forum. Nothing new, nothing I would waste my time for. Sorry.

  15. #15 Gert Brantner
    Berlin
    1. Juni 2019

    @Charlotte
    Yes I am of the same opinion, it’s not worthwile for VMS researches. The original recording of 25 minutes got cut to 8 minutes, so a lot disappeared, alas also some names. After all, the show has a framing of pop culture, so the host was not interested in an in depht commentary. By the way, it is not “my” forum, I just voiced the obvious idea and helped setting it up. As for my role, I got asked why I am into this since 10 years, which, you may agree, is a kind of hard question.

  16. #16 Charlotte Auer
    3. Juni 2019

    @Gert
    Ich wollte Ihr Interview ganz gewiss in keiner Weise schmälern, aber in Bezug auf Cheshire ist da ja wirklich nichts zu erfahren, was eine Transkription und Übersetzung lohnen würde. Außerdem könnten Sie das ohnehin viel besser als ich.

    Schade, dass Interviews immer wieder mal bis auf ein paar Schlagworte so zusammen geschnitten werden, dass die eigentlichen Aussagen auf der Strecke bleiben.

  17. #17 Gert Brantner
    Berlin - Neukölln
    6. Juni 2019

    @Charlotte
    Danke für das Verständnis! Wenn ich einmal wieder mehr Zeit zur Verfügung habe, kontaktiere ich Sie wegen der Übersetzung, über die wir einmal gesprochen haben.