Thursday, May 16, 2019

No they didn't (part 2)



This was reported by Phys.org today:

https://phys.org/news/2019-05-bristol-academic-voynich-code-century-old.html

The article describes a paper by Gerard Cheshire which claims to have determined that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a proto-Romance language using an unfamiliar alphabet. This hypothetical language is presented as the precursor of modern Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. This would basically make the document a substitution cypher of Vulgar Latin.
Gerard Cheshire, The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, Romance Studies (2019). DOI: 10.1080/02639904.2019.1599566
Here's a link to the paper itself.

My response is, "not bloody likely". Here's why:

There is no single 'proto-Romance language' other than Latin. To be more precise, there's no such single language that is the common precursor of today's Romance languages. Each of today's Romance languages began as a pidgin-turned-creole of Latin mixed with the local languages of the conquered areas and further corrupted by time, much as English is a creole of Germanic and French influences on the aboriginal languages of Britain. 'Vulgar Latin' (a somewhat obsolete term used interchangeably with 'proto-Romance' by Cheshire) is not 'a language' either. It's a description of any of the many corrupt dialects spoken locally. And this makes the "lateral thinking" of Cheshire highly suspect, to put it kindly.

There was a tower in Babylon,
but it looked nothing like this.
And "proto-Romance" looked
nothing like the Voynich Manuscript.
Much like the Biblical account,
Latin fractured into many languages
spread far and wide.
What Cheshire does, which is linguistically -- well -- wrong, is to drag in a bunch of words from disparate localities, implying that they were all in the proto-language. Actually, the hypothetical proto-language itself would be a corruption of Latin. And that's what happened with Old French, Old Spanish, etc. Where Cheshire fails spectacularly is in implying that these changes were homogenous within the tatters of the Roman Empire. They weren't. They were localized, and became French, Spanish, etc. because of said localization. You just can't take a word of Romanian, a word of Castilian, and a word of French that resemble the letters you've decided to lay out in your two whole weeks of 'lateral thinking', put them all together in a sentence and claim that this represents a heretofore unknown common dead language.

Another problem with Cheshire's theory is that Latin did not die out. You read that right... Latin is not a dead language. It survived as a language of liturgy, scholarship, and official communication for centuries past the demise of the Roman empire. In fact, it survived well into the modern era. I myself took four years of Latin in high school, and it was within my lifetime that the Roman Catholic Church in America started using the vernacular instead of Latin in the rituals of the Mass. The differences between classical and late Latin works, as well as ecclesiastical Latin, are pronounced and recognizable. The point is, for the most part we know what happened to Latin. While the spoken vernacular diverged from written Latin, it did so according to linguistic rules.

Someone who has studied Latin generally doesn't have that much trouble recognizing its descendents. Even when corrupt, any reconstruction of a descendent should bridge the gap between Latin and the language that eventually arose from it in a particular area. With a knowledge of Latin you can generally work out any of the Romance languages. Such should be doubly simple when dealing with a vulgar Latin far closer to the classical source. But the Voynich does not appear to be a cipher of corrupt Latin.

Gerard Cheshire argues that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a common-but-forgotten language; using an alphabet that has no precursors, no descendents, and no other examples surviving as either manuscripts or inscriptions. I doubt the document was a plaintext intended to be read and impart homely advice, as Cheshire argues. The more likely conclusion is that the Voynich manuscript is indecipherable because it was intended to be. The illustrations, if intended to give homely advice, should be recognizable; however,  all of the drawings, even of plants, are fanciful in some way. Few are recognizable species. So the document may have been a sincere cipher; but it may have been a hoax (what today we'd call a "troll").

In fact, I'm not convinced that Cheshire's own document is not an elaborate troll itself. I have reasons.

The first is that he spent two weeks on his research. That's just about enough time to write the first draft of the paper itself. Another is that I can't find anything by Cheshire on Academia.edu on any subject other than the Voynich Manuscript. Yet another is that he uses terms such as 'tripthong' (normally used to describe sound) where one would expect 'trigraph' (descriptive of text). This isn't necessarily problematic; it's just weird. Another is the grandiose claims including the 'fact' that the Manuscript is the only example of a proto-Italic script, though we have no intermediate forms among the numerous contemporary documents. Another is the description of his paper as being 'peer-reviewed' with no mention of what the peers think of it. Any trash can be 'peer-reviewed': failing to mention its reception is just a common-literature way of giving it gravitas divorced from merit.

Another is this: remember that thing you can't do? Taking words from different languages and then hypothesizing a common language based on the differences (not the similarities)? Well, he does it. A lot. For instance:

Figure 33 (from Cheshire's paper)
Figure 33 shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The words describe different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery). These words survive in Catalan [tozos], Portuguese [orla], Portuguese [tolos], Romanian [noros], Catalan [or aus] and Portuguese [oleio]. The words orla la describe the mood of the woman on the left and may well be the root of the French phrase ‘oh là là’, which has a very similar sentiment.
Can't find the word locally? Then just cast the net wide. Grab any similar word out of any Mediterranean language. And the bit about ‘oh là là’ just reeks of trolling. For what it's worth, ‘oh là là’ is risque in English, but in French it's an interjection that can be widely applied.

Then there's this bit:

Figure 32. Detail from Folio 77 (from Cheshire's paper)

Figure 32 shows a diagrammatic representation of a miscarriage or abortion, as a baby swaddled in bandages and a mass of blood exiting a tube, accompanied by the words ‘omor néna’ (killed/dead baby). The word ‘omor’ survives in Romanian, where it means ‘to murder’. The word ‘néna’ survives in Spanish, where it now means ‘female baby’ [‘néne’ is male baby].
I'm calling bullshit. I happen to have a PDF copy of the Voynich Manuscript. Here's Folio 77:

Folio 77. Click to 'embiggen'

Yeah, I know. The Voynich Manuscript is filled with illustrations ranging from perfectly pedestrian plants to psychedelic fever dreams. And it contains a lot of drawings of fat naked women. You definitely get the feeling that the author wouldn't have shied away from showing an abortion if he or she had wanted to. And if that was the message, he or she probably wouldn't have hooked up the 'vagina' to four other vaginas by means of a common tube at the ends of which two naked humans were showering while some Dr. Seuss shit is going on beneath them. Not even given Medieval schematics such as the T&O maps of the world. But where's that "baby swaddled in bandages" we were promised? It's very much not there. Frankly, this looks to me a lot more like (left to right) Air, Water, Spirit, Fire, and Earth than what Cheshire is imagining.

I could drag through the rest of his paper, but that would be tedious. And I don't really want to accuse the guy of being a monumental troll, even though I don't discount it. I'd rather believe he was "not even wrong".

In any case, if you're interested, read his paper (the link's above), apply his alleged cipher to a few sentences of the Voynich Manuscript, and see if you get anything other than cherry picked wishful thinking and post-hoc reasoning applied to the accompanying drawings.

--==//oOo\\==--

UPDATES: This is an odd thing. Having now done a bit more digging, I found a blog post on this subject by Nick Pelling (who writes like a man after my own heart) written 10 Nov 2017. So why in the almost two years since have I found nothing else written by Cheshire? Curiouser and curiouser. In any event, Pelling tears this theory apart for the same reasons I do, and has some much better detail regarding linguistic analysis.

And it looks like Ars Technica's not convinced either.

Also, this blog post by JK Petersen is just delicious.

The University of Bristol has published a retraction of their news release.

And now Phys.org has deleted their embarrassing hype-filled article, too. My link to the original article still works, though.



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