Archive for Decipherment

Scripts at risk

Andrea Valentino has an intriguing article in BBC Future (1/21/20):  "The alphabets at risk of extinction:   It isn't just languages that are endangered: dozens of alphabets around the world are at risk. And they could have even more to tell us."

Usually, when we worry about languages going extinct, we are thinking about their spoken forms, but we are less often concerned about their written manifestations.  As Valentino puts it,

This might have something to do with the artificiality of alphabets. Language is innate to all humans, but scripts have to be invented and actively learned. This has happened rarely. Even by the middle of the 19th Century, only 10% of adults knew how to write, and there are only about 140 scripts in use today.

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The Voynich Manuscript in the undergraduate curriculum

[This is a guest post by J.W. Brewer]

Among the courses available to Yale undergraduates this fall semester is the one whose description I've cut and pasted below.  It's taught by Prof. Claire Bowern.  I can't recall anything quite like this offered in the department when I was an undergraduate major way back in the 1980's, but a) using an interesting-sounding controversy that outsiders may have heard of to draw them into the discipline is maybe a good outreach strategy; and b) at least some of the then-current Chomskyan doctrine covered in a syntax class I took with Larry Horn is apparently no longer believed by anyone (Chomskyans included) and is perhaps in hindsight now in the same class of theory as some of the more fanciful interpretations of the Voynich MS.

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The indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript

Less than half a year ago, we were treated to yet another among countless claims for the decipherment of the mysterious Voynich manuscript (henceforth "Vm"):  "Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19).  I was skeptical then and am even more skeptical now after having read this article:

Peter Bakker, "The Voynich manuscript: the decipherment of ms. 408", Lingoblog (9/10/19)

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Cryptic, allusive messages from Hong Kong's wealthiest tycoon

People have been wondering when Hong Kong's magnates would speak out on the prolonged protests in their city.  Finally one has.  That's Li Ka-shing, the richest of them all:  "HK Billionaire Li Ka-Shing Breaks Silence Over Protests" (8/15/19 newscast on YouTube).  He took out full page advertisements (both seem to be on the front page) in two of Hong Kong's most influential financial newspapers:  Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal.  Here's the first:

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Voynich code cracked?

Since high school, the Voynich manuscript is something that I have puzzled over from time to time.  What language and script is it written in?  What's it about?  Although no one has been able to read the manuscript since Wilfrid Voynich, the PolishSamogitian bibliophile and book dealer first brought it to light more than a century ago, the evocative illustrations and mysteries swirling around it have led to many fruitless attempts at decipherment.

Now a British academic (in Journal of Romance Studies) declares that it was a manual for nuns written in unencrypted proto-Romance:

"Bristol academic cracks Voynich code, solving century-old mystery of medieval text", University of Bristol (May 15, 2019).

A University of Bristol academic has succeeded where countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed—by cracking the code of the 'world's most mysterious text', the Voynich manuscript.

Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars for over a century, it took Research Associate Dr. Gerard Cheshire two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document.

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