The Voynich Manuscript in the undergraduate curriculum

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[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.

LING 202 The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

Introduction to basic ideas of linguistics and cryptography through the study of the Voynich Manuscript (MS 408), a mysterious medieval manuscript held in the Beinecke Library. Review of major hypotheses about the manuscript, ranging from the fake, to code, to undeciphered language.



"The indecipherability of the Voynich manuscript" (9/11/19)

"Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19)


  1. MattF said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

    Could be quite edifying, particularly if the course shows honestly that the various analytical methods don’t work.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 4:25 pm

    Inspired by earlier posts here on the Voynich MS, I purchased "THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT,KENNEDY,CIPHER MYSTERY,ROGER BACON,MAGUS,SCRYER,1st H/B." for £10 on Ebay. Barely started on it, so not yet in a position to comment on its content.

  3. Chris Button said,

    October 10, 2019 @ 8:08 pm

    Interesting, although I do wonder if it wouldn't be more profitable to give a class on something that had been successfully deciphered instead?

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 11:06 am

    Why "instead"? The VM is a high-profile item housed in Yale's library system. It would be odd if they didn't occasionally give a course on it.

  5. Claire Bowern said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

    Thanks for the comments. The course is very varied (and draws students from across Yale College). We look at the physical book, the text, possible content and decipherment claims. One reason to study this manuscript, as opposed to something that's already been deciphered, as we also get to take about how claims get made, why they fail (and they all fail massively), and how they get taken up around the web. FOr linguistics, we talk about linguistic diversity (eg why languages might have been spoken in Medieval Europe), writing systems (e.g. is Voynich an alphabet), phonotactics, conlangs, ciphers and differences between ciphers and unknown natural languages, and the like.

  6. Jeffrey Punske said,

    October 11, 2019 @ 2:53 pm

    Inspired by Dr. Bowern, my colleague Dr. Haubenreich and I taught a course at SIU— “medieval manuscripts and secret languages” based primarily on the VM

  7. Charlotte Stinson said,

    October 12, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    I took Transformational Grammar at Yale in 1978 and thought it was such gobbledygook that it turned me off my intention to major in linguistics. Mixed feelings on hearing that even Chomsky agreed with me now. It was presented as gospel back then. #BornTooSoon.

  8. Rodger C said,

    October 13, 2019 @ 11:30 am

    thought it [Transformational Grammar] was such gobbledygook that it turned me off my intention to major in linguistics

    You're not the only one.

  9. Anthony said,

    October 13, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

    I took Transformational Grammar at Washington University in 1969 and that spurred me on to major in Linguistics (subsequently Ph.D, Chicago).

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