A mysterious manuscript written in a so-far indecipherable language, which some believe was fabricated centuries ago, may actually contain a message, according to a new analysis of the text.
The so-called "Voynich manuscript" surfaced in 1912 after it was bought from Jesuit priests in Italy by antique bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, according to Yale University's Beinecke Library, where the book is currently housed. Since then, the beautifully illustrated book has been dated back to Central Europe in the 16th century or late 15th century. The unusual writing that fills its pages continues to stymie experts who have been unable to translate it into any recognizable language.
Though some have given up and labeled the manuscript a sophisticated hoax, researchers including Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist from the University of Manchester, believe they have found a linguistic structure that proves the text is more than just gibberish.
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"The text is unique, there are no similar works and all attempts to decode any possible message in the text have failed. It's not easy to dismiss the manuscript as simple nonsensical gibberish, as it shows a significant [linguistic] structure," Montemurro told the BBC.
Montemurro and his colleague Damián H. Zanette used methods from information theory to analyze the entire manuscript and found a complex textual organization similar to other known languages, according to their new study, published recently in PLOS One. They also extracted "significant semantic word-networks" that, they believe, hint at the manuscript's legitimacy.
Comprised of 104 folios, the Voynich manuscript has presented daunting challenges for any Voynichese researcher -- even the dozens who attended the Voynich 100 Conference in Frascati, Italy, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Wilfrid Voynich's purchase. Depending on whom you talk to, the text is comprised of between 19 and 40 alphabetic symbols and illustrations of more than 100 unidentified plants, as well as astrological charts, naked women and medicinal herbs and roots.
Tablet Magazine described the drawings of humans as "primitive, even crude," and said the plants have a "frustrating and titillating feeling of familiarity."
In 2004, psychologist Gordon Rugg published his own extensive paper on the mystery, concluding that the book was nothing more than an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a medieval scholar. Rugg posited that the scholar may have been trying to fool contemporary monarchs in exchange for a monetary finder's fee.
Rugg told the BBC that he is not convinced by Montemurro's recent research.
"The findings aren't anything new," Rugg said. "It's been accepted for decades that the statistical properties of Voynichese are similar, but not identical, to those of real languages."
There are also those who believe they have already deciphered the manuscript. In 2011, Finnish businessman and self-styled prophet Viekko Latvala said he had decoded the book after God told him the cypher, according to Fox News.
Nevertheless, Montemurro stands firmly behind his research.
"After this study, any new support for the hoax hypothesis should address the emergence of this sophisticated structure explicitly," he told the BBC. "So far, this has not been done. ... There must be a story behind it, which we may never know."