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15th century manuscript decoded in a major linguistic breakthrough

Press Trust of India/London 15 May 19 | 12:46 PM

Scientists say they have decoded the Voynich manuscript, a mysterious medieval code whose purpose and meaning has eluded scholars for over a century.

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system.

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The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century.

By cracking the Voynich code, the researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programmes have failed.

It took Research Associate Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-Samogitian book dealer who purchased it in 1912.

In the journal Romance Studies, Cheshire describes how he successfully deciphered the manuscript's codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

"I experienced a series of 'eureka' moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript," Cheshire said.

He said "What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated."

"For example, the manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon -- an autonomous community in Spain," said Cheshire.

"It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics," he added.

The manuscript is written in proto-Romance -- ancestral to today's Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician.

"The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church and government. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now," Cheshire said.

The text uses an extinct language. Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and familiar symbols.

It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents.

All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants.

It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components.

It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin.

The next step is to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Cheshire acknowledges will take some time as it comprises more than 200 pages.

"Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content," he said.

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