Category Archive 'Philology'

21 Jun 2021

Voynich Manuscript Deciphered?

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Gerard E. Cheshire, in a new paper on “Voicing the Voynich: The Pronuncial Writing System and Graeco-Iberian Language of MS408 (Ischia/Voynich),” claims to have identified the language Yale’s Voynich Manuscript is written in, and proposes a methodology for readers to employ and join in to help compete its decipherment.

This paper provides more precise guidance and instruction with regard to the palaeographic method in translating manuscript MS408 (Ischia, Voynich). Manuscripts of antiquity typically require palaeographic interpretive techniques for the purpose of translation, because they include idiomatic abbreviations, unusual calligraphy, exotic language, unique letter symbols and so on, making them a challenge to read. Therefore, it is necessary to learn and understand the associated peculiarities of the MS408 language and writing system in order to arrive at reasonable translations.

This process requires historical and linguistic research, so that initial translation possibilities can be progressively honed by a process of elimination until the semantics and syntax are workable. This scientific approach ensures that the emergent translations are sufficiently refined to be as close a match as possible to the intended meaning of the text. Due to the mutable nature of palaeographic analysis, there is often room for continued adjustment in translation, so accuracy relies on reprocessing the text time and time again, until new passes offer no further improvement. Thus, by repetition of the procedure the translation becomes more and more precise by degrees: i.e. as near to 100% accuracy as possible.

Initially the language was thought to be an anachronistic or outdated form of proto-Romance, but further research has revealed the language to be the Medieval Iberian variant of Romance known as Galician-Portuguese (G-P), with the inclusion of some Latin, Greek and occasional Arabic. The writing system is phonetic but is heavily abbreviated with enclitics, clitics and plosives, so that silent and junctural consonants and vowels have often become omitted altogether. Thus, the text was written in direct imitation of speech rather than obeying rules of
spelling, grammar and punctuation – thus, it is a pronuncial writing system. In addition, Latin stock words and phrases are abbreviated to initial letters.

As the writing system is pronuncial the consistency seen in its idiosyncratic spelling, from one page to the next, suggests that all of the text was written by the same hand, simply because two or more authors would have arrived at two or more spelling methods, unless there was some agreement, or the scribes were being dictated to. As the text does seem to differ in style, this is a possible explanation, although individuals can and do vary in their handwriting from day to day.

Whichever explanation is correct, the author, or authors, of the manuscript evidently devised a unique writing system, which may have been due to absence of formal education, due to cultural isolation, or it may have been deliberate to keep the information away from male eyes, as it would have been deemed embarrassing due to courtly etiquette, because the contents largely refer to private womanly matters relating to seduction, impregnation, gestation, contraception, abortion, childbirth, gynaecology, paediatrics, medicines, astrology, supernatural beliefs, treatments, therapies, ageing, beautification, illness and death.

Ischia was home to a Greek diaspora population with its own Basilian Orthodox monastery and nunnery in the early 15th century, when the island and its citadel, Castello Aragonese, were appropriated by Alfonso V, of the Crown of Aragon, during his campaign to conquer nearby Naples. Thus, the Iberian language of the newcomers was mixed with the Graeco language of the islanders, resulting in the manuscript language, best described as Graeco-Iberian Romance.

Despite its close geographical proximity to Italy, the island of Ischia had been culturally discrete for centuries when the manuscript was written, and therefore had little linguistic commonality with the contemporaneous Neapolitan culture. The manuscript dates quite precisely because a narrative map within the manuscript describes and illustrates the rescue of islanders from Vulcano and Lipari, with a flotilla of ships from Ischia, following a volcanic eruption that began on the February 4th, 1444, and created the Vulcanello peninsula. The map lies between
Portfolios 86 and 87. …

This paper presents reworked and updated translations of the first lines of the manuscript plant pages 1-10 (Portfolios 2a-6b), so that the reader can see how the translation process is conducted and to encourage the reader to continue translating the pages, by employing deeper knowledge of the writing system, the language and historical botanical information, to arrive at the most cogent translations, based on semantics (meaning) and syntax (structure).

An algorithmic approach is first employed, whereby possible words are listed according to the priority array queue of Galician-Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Arabic. Due to their linguistic stem and cultural assimilation, similar words are also often found in other Iberian Romance languages: Valencian, Catalan, Occitan, Asturian, Aragonese. Many variants are also found in other Romance languages: Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Corsican, Sardinian, Istriot, Ladin, Venetian,
Friulian, French, Romanian, Aromanian.

Cross-reference with historical botanical and medicinal information is then employed to arrive at the most logical semantics and syntax, so that the most likely translations are preserved, and the least likely translations are eliminated. By running sentences through this process a number of times, the translations are gradually perfected.

I’m not at all certain that he’s right, but his paper is intriguing.


Older description from Yale’s Beinecke Library:

Written in Central Europe at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century, the origin, language, and date of the Voynich Manuscript –named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912– are still being debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text. Described as a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.

Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, oand 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.

21 Jan 2015

Reading the Herculaneum Papyrus Scrolls

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The only library surviving from Classical Antiquity is that found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.

1,785 papyrus scrolls were found, packed carefully in cases and ready to be moved to safety, which were nonetheless overtaken by a 1,000 °C (1,830 °F) cloud of hot gas and rocks emanating from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The scrolls were charred black, but preserved under 20-25 meters (22-27 yards) of hardened volcanic ash.

New techniques apparently are beginning to permit scholars to read the scrolls.

io9 quotes a recently published paper in Nature Communications:

In recent years, new imaging techniques have been developed to read the texts without unwrapping the rolls. Until now, specialists have been unable to view the carbon-based ink of these papyri, even when they could penetrate the different layers of their spiral structure. Here for the first time, we show that X-ray phase-contrast tomography can reveal various letters hidden inside the precious papyri without unrolling them. This attempt opens up new opportunities to read many Herculaneum papyri, which are still rolled up, thus enhancing our knowledge of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.

Smithsonian reports what has been discovered so far, no lost plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus, no poems of Sappho, no treatises of Plato or Dialogues of Aristotles, instead they’ve found lots of Philodemus.

Most of the scrolls that have been unwrapped so far are Epicurean philosophical texts written by Philodemus—prose and poetry that had been lost to modern scholars until the library was found. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a school of thought in the third century B.C. that promoted pleasure as the main goal of life, but in the form of living modestly, foregoing fear of the afterlife and learning about the natural world. Born in the first century B.C. in what is now Jordan, Philodemus studied at the Epicurean school in Athens and became a prominent teacher and interpreter of the philosopher’s ideas.

Modern scholars debate whether the scrolls were part of Philodemus’ personal collection dating to his time period, or whether they were mostly copies made in the first century A.D. Figuring out their exact origins will be no small feat—in addition to the volcano, mechanical or chemical techniques for opening the scrolls did their share of damage, sometimes breaking the delicate objects into fragments or destroying them outright.

13 Sep 2012

Palimpsest Hunt Is On In Sinai Monasteries

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Most readers probably remember the Archimedes Palimpsest, the discovery of the survival of seven treatises by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, including his The Method which solved several problems using methods anticipating the Integral Calculus developed by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz in the 17th Century, in a palimpsest used to record a 13th century Byzantine prayerbook.

Palimpsests are pages of manuscripts or scrolls from which earlier writings have been scraped away, so that the parchment could be reused to record a different text. This medieval form of recycling inadvertently makes the recovery of the eliminated earlier texts possible when modern sophisticated methods of imaging are used.

The Washington Post recently reported that a team, headed by Michael Toth, a former DOD imaging expert, is working systematically on a project which is examining the very large collection of manuscripts preserved over the centuries in the Greek Orthodox monasteries of the Sinai.

The more prominent legible words are 1,200 years old and are interesting enough, but they are not what the scientists are here for. The team is really after the overwritten text from centuries earlier, last seen by the person who scraped it away to recycle the precious animal-skin parchment.

Such erased texts are known as palimpsests, and until their pages enter the imaging room, no one alive now or, in many cases for more than a millennium, can say for sure what has been hidden. The work is tedious, like carefully brushing away sand at a traditional archaeology dig, but the promise of what can be found is a powerful motivator.

This is Toth and his colleagues’ most ambitious project to date, and it is just one component of a major transformation under way in the desert. The team is working within the stone walls of the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai — St. Catherine’s for short.

For 17 centuries, the Greek Orthodox Christian monks here have protected an unparalleled trove of manuscripts. Now the monastery is in a multimillion-dollar push to physically and digitally protect its treasures and make them easily accessible, in most cases for the first time, to scholars around the world.

In the process, the monks will establish a model for the preservation of irreplaceable ancient manuscripts in a world where more and more of them are threatened by the chaos of war and revolution.

Read the whole thing.

The possibilities are fascinating. We know of countless lost classical works which we moderns would love to get our hands on, poems by Sappho, plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles, the dialogues of Aristotle and the treatises of Plato, that might very possibly have seemed of indifferent interest to Eastern churchmen of the Dark Ages and which could easily have been selected to be scraped away and overwritten with some, at the time seemingly more pertinent, religious text.

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