Nick Pelling – a response

Nick Pelling’s account – a response

In a very entertaining and stylish review, Nick Pelling recently devoted space to my Voynich paper, so let me offer a response. I’ll address it to him, as I feel that is more courteous than hiding behind academic third persons!

Nick, for the record I love your blog. It’s the best Voynich discussion forum on the net, illuminated by your sharp and well-informed sense of humour, and vast knowledge of things V. To show that I bear no ill will, let me even publicise your book, though I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it yet.

Below I look at each of your objections in turn, but first let me address what I feel was your unfair reference to Edith Sherwood’s research (your point 7). I don’t feel it is right to attack someone personally in this way, particularly someone who has worked tirelessly for many years. You might disagree with her ideas, in which case engage with them, put up arguments and evidence, but I’m uneasy with this sort of blanket personal attack. I hope you find space to apologise and withdraw those remarks about her.

As for what you said about me personally, I can’t complain! You said I had a “big brain, linguistic experience and personal ambition”. When my son saw the bit about the big brain he called across the room, “Dad, they say you’ve got a big brain, but it’s no bigger than a peanut!!” So, with teenage kids around me, I’m used to direct and frank critique. 🙂  No problem with that.

However, I believe in general that it is best to stick to arguments and avoid personal attacks, so in my response here I have tried to confine myself to the ideas and evidence. I’m sorry if that makes a less exciting read – maybe people would prefer a shout and a tussle – but I feel that the cause of Voynich scholarship is best furthered through sober and  dispassionate analysis rather than passion and name-calling.

Let me take each of your objections in turn. (For those who don’t want to read it all, see the summary at the end).

Point 1: “Initial Words On Herbal Pages Should Be Names”. Errrm…

1.1   You say that it is reasonable to expect “unique-looking first word on each of the Voynich Manuscript’s herbal pages to be the name of the plant depicted on that page, because that is indeed how many medieval herbals were laid out.” Right so far.

1.2   You then jump to suggest that I am claiming that ALL the plant names will be there. This is not true. If you look again at pages 21-2 of my paper, it says explicitly that methodologically it is a good principle to look at the first words, to avoid the temptation to find any word anywhere.

In previous discussions of the VM we had too much speculation along the lines: ‘this word looks like cauliflower in Inuit, therefore the VM is Inuit’, which is unhelpful.  In methodological terms it is extremely important to avoid such speculations, which is why I focus strictly on the first words at this stage. I never claimed, as you seem to believe, that all the plant names will always be the first words. This is a crucial methodological point, and is essential to the analysis, and I apologise if it confused you.

1.3   This means that when you counted up the first letters of all the herbal pages in your blog and in the comments underneath, I’m sorry to say you were wasting your time. But in the process you make some highly misleading and false claims which also should be cleared up here. One of your readers, Al Dorman commented by saying:

“I actually have to disagree with your objection #1. The gallows letters are indeed at the beginning of many of the words for supposed herbal names, but is this really a big problem? His [Bax’s]  “oror” for juniper (page 15) has the gallows letter, but his “k” is NOT the same gallows letter.”

Al Dorman is absolutely correct. But in answering him you then offer a highly misleading statement :

“You and I both know that the gallows are probably different characters or tokens, but Bax is so anxious to prove that the various forms of [gallows]oror are the same word (“juniper”) that he concludes early on that all the gallows are just a single character.”.

This is completely false. I never said anywhere that the gallows characters are just a single character, and I don’t believe they are. I can’t understand where you got this impression from. It is simply false.

In my earlier paper (2012) I offered discussion that some of the gallows characters could be discourse markers, perhaps signalling the start of a page or something similar. Another possibility is that they are used in front of vowels in certain positions. Another is that they are determiners of some kind. We do not know if the more florid ones are separate signs or merely decorative versions of other signs. It is simply not possible to be sure until we have made more progress on decoding.

1.4 As I said, I do not believe that the first word on every page will necessarily be the name of the plant – only that that is methodologically the best place to start. However, in your comments underneath the blog you tell us that the symbol I identify as ‘K’ occurs as the first letter of the first word on 21 out of 115 of herbal pages in quires 1-8. By my calculation that is 18.3%.

For curiosity’s sake, I went to Gernot Katzer’s pages on herbs and spices and randomly looked at the Armenian page. (I’m not saying that the language is Armenian, though of course it could be. It was just a handy sample of a real language.)

Of the 77 Armenian names listed there, 15 out of 77 begin with a sound in the region of velar /k/. That’s 19%, around the same as your VM figures.

Perhaps this simply shows that the sound element in the region of /k/ is not uncommon in plant names in certain languages, or perhaps not.  As I said before, since as I am not saying that all the first words will necessarily be the plant names, I suppose it is really irrelevant. But it also shows that it is rash to jump to conclusions about statistics, and that it is not impossible that many of the V plants will begin with a sound in the region of /k/.

Point 2: “Bax’s proposed Voynichese alphabet has three letter R’s”

2.1 First, you use the word ‘alphabet’ here, and in my view this is a mistake. We do not know if the VM script is an alphabet. The evidence in my paper suggests that it has ‘abjad’ elements, to the extent that it misses out vowels, so it is risky to imply that it is alphabetic. See page 12 of my paper.

2.2 You say that “The Voynich Manuscript has a limited and compact alphabet, with roughly 18-22 characters occurring with particular frequency.” Again, I am uneasy in assuming it is an alphabet, but that aside, you imply that this gives too few signs to allow for ‘three letter Rs’.  This view is not supported by the evidence: in terms of sign count, the analysis lists 38 signs or clusters, with 22 common signs. This is quite enough for two signs for sounds in the region of /r/, especially if the script has the Abjad tendency I identified in my article, with fewer vowels.

Furthermore, there are also grounds for thinking that the signs we have identified in the VM might represent more underlying phonemes that we thought before. In a recent post on my website I have analysed the sequences of Voynich minims ii and iii.  By analogy with 15th century Latin scribal practice, and referring also to examples from the VM, I have suggested that what we have transcribed and counted as just 2 VM signs with more than one minim, might in fact represent as many as 13 different phonemes or groups. If we find that this is true, it would mean that the Voynich sign inventory could encode several more phonemes, which makes it quite large enough to accommodate two in the area of /r/.

2.3 You hint in your comment that the idea of having more than one sound in the region of /r/ is odd in a language. However, even Spanish has two phonemes in that area, a tap and a trill, one exemplified by the word ‘pero’ (= but) and the other by ‘perro’ (=dog).  Other languages too (e.g. Armenian) also have two sounds in the area of /r/, in many cases represented by different signs in the script.

In short, it is by no means impossible that the VM language could have two phonemes in the area of /r/, and two or more signs to represent them.

3. The Voynichese word “oror” = the Hebrew word “arar”, meaning ‘juniper’

3.1  First, the word I interpret as ‘oror’ does not equal  the Hebrew word “arar”, as you state. You have misread the text on page 14. The Hebrew word does not transcribe as ‘oror’, though it is related to the Arabic word which is closer. I argue that it might be a borrowing, but I also note possible objections to that argument.

3.2 You seem to be making the point that because ‘oror’ includes the sequence ‘or’, which appears elsewhere, and because ‘or’ is very frequent, therefore ‘oror’ could not be a word on its own. I can’t understand the logic of this. It seems such an odd argument I feel I must have misunderstood you. Just because the word ‘the’ is extremely common in English, it doesn’t mean that ‘theatre’, ‘thesaurus’ and ‘theocracy’ cannot exist as real words.  Apologies if I have misunderstood you, but as I see it, your objection is simply peculiar.

4. “Bax thinks that EVA “kydain” = ‘centaur’ – but has he not noticed “dain” everywhere?”

4.1 This objection seems to be the same as the one in point 3 above, and – if I have not misunderstood – it is equally odd and naïve. As with ‘oror’ above, you seem to be saying that because the VM uses the cluster EVA ‘aiin’ a lot, therefore it could not also occur in the word I transcribed to mean Centaur.

I’m confused, because your argument seems to be so odd  that I can’t believe that you could believe it. By this logic, if I am trying to decode the word ‘C*TERPILLAR’ in a manuscript, and I see the word CAT used a lot in other words, I would have to say to myself “ the word CAT appears a lot in this manuscript, therefore, um, this word cannot be CATERPILLAR”, which would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it?  Are you really saying that?

The point you seem to be making seems so odd that I wonder if I have misunderstood you? To summarise the obvious linguistic point: as with point 3 above, the fact that a cluster is used elsewhere in the manuscript has no bearing at all on whether or not the analysis of another word with that cluster in it is valid or not.

5. “doary” = Taurus. Oh, really?

5.1 Your first point seems to be that “many other people have suspected this word might represent ‘Taurus’”. That supports my analysis, instead of attacking it, surely? I’m pleased to be in good company!

5.2 You then make reference to “the late-medieval “-9″ style Tironian nota at its end, preceded by a letter that looks like “r””.You imply that the main reason people thought this word might represent Taurus is because of that last sign.

However, this is a serious misrepresentation of what those scholars said. The main reason people thought, and think, that the word might represent Taurus is nothing to do with Tironian nota. The reason is far more simple – the word sits beside a very obvious picture of seven stars which people justifiably consider to represent the Pleiades, which are in the constellation Taurus.

Early analysts then speculated that the  last symbol might represent “us”, but if you read my discussion of it on page 19 carefully, you will see that I do not analyse that sign as “us”.

(BTW I now believe that it is represents a definite article or a case ending of a word borrowed or derived from the Indo-European/Semitic/Persian version Taur(u).)

In short, this objection also seems to be without foundation. You seem to misrepresent what people have said and misunderstood my text.

6. Reading EVA “keerodal” as “coriander”.

6.1 You invite us to accept the view of “people who have been working with the Voynich Manuscript’s “Voynichese” language for a few years” (without referencing their work)…  “that this word is almost certainly a copying error by the Voynich Manuscript’s scribe”.

In lay terms, how on earth can you say it is ‘scribal error’ when we have no idea of the language we are reading?

In methodological terms, even when we know the language of the text. it is very sloppy practice in any manuscript analysis to explain things away by blaming ‘scribal error’ without careful analysis and argumentation. To do so when we have never before been able to read a single word of the script is simply unacceptable, bordering on the foolish. We have no idea if it is a scribal error or not.

6.2 The word we are talking about has been added as a marginal note above the main line of V text. If you are right that it contains a rare cluster in the VM, then it could be a borrowing transliterated from another language. That would explain both its position and also its unusual structure, and would put it in line with many similar transliteration glosses in mediaeval herbal.  So, I’m grateful to you for the information on the rarity of the cluster, as I feel it adds weight to the analysis. We could now deduce that the word might well be a borrowing from another language, transcribed into the V language so as to form a rare cluster to encode a sound pattern not common in that V language.

7. Relying on Edith Sherwood’s hopeful plant identifications.

7.1 I have already stated my view that it is grossly unfair to attack Sherwood’s work as you have. However, you also say that I ‘rely’ on her work, which is a bad misreading and misrepresentation of my paper.

I use her work, but I subject each analysis to pages and pages of discussion, bringing in many other views from different scholars and manuscripts. It is therefore not only unfair to Sherwood, but unfair on me, and a poor reading of my paper to suggest that this aspect of the paper was objectionable.


The main sense I get from your account is that in many places (e.g. in points 1 and 2), you have failed to read the paper carefully, and have then misrepresented what I said, then jumped to the wrong conclusions.

In addition (particularly in points 2, 3 and 4) you seem to be very muddled about some elementary aspects of language, about the nature of alphabets, about how phonemes work, about how sign inventories fit with sounds systems, and about how sign clusters can repeat across words.

In point 5 you misrepresent what other scholars did and said, although you cite no references. (Indeed your whole account has no supporting references whatsoever, which is disappointing) .

In point 6 you again cite unnamed authorities in a highly speculative claim that the Voynich scribe made a mistake.

In point 7 you attack Sherwood unfairly, and wrongly imply that I rely on her work, which is not true.

One positive: In point 6 you do offer some useful information about the rarity of the sign sequence,  which helps to explain the marginal note which I interpret as Coriander, so I’m grateful for that. 


I have tried hard in my response to be fair, and to stick to the facts, but you will probably see from my tone that I consider your account to be weak in most respects, and extremely weak in some. It seems to me that you have simply not engaged with the arguments carefully and in detail, and not understood some fairly elementary aspects of how languages and scripts work. Sorry to be so direct about it, but I feel it is important to be clear.

Furthermore, what is missing from your account, which is the biggest disappointment,  is any real analysis of the key arguments themselves. You content yourself with picking at a few minor issues here and there, but you do not engage with the key argument of the article, the step-by-step building up of the sound-sign system.

To take an example of what you could have done,  look closely again at the ‘Centaury’ discussion on page 25, and in particular at the VM page f2r itself.  Look at the first word of paragraph one and the first word of paragraph 2 in the VM page, which are identical except for added final letter of the first. How could we reasonably explain that word in that position if not as the probable name of the plant? To put it another way, what explanation do you offer for that repeated word in that position?

Then we see – this is a fact – that the first sign of that word matches the first sign of other words analysed as possible /k/ signs, the third matches the first sign in the ‘Taurus’ word, and so on and so on. What explanation do you offer for that? All coincidence?

A good critique would deal with each point I make with evidence from contemporary manuscripts, from different languages – and most importantly, would offer an alternative explanation of the words and patterns. That is what I hoped for, so you can see why I am disappointed by your posting.

I won’t repeat the argument again, but to my mind, if we look at the accumulation of evidence for these words and signs, even assuming that some might be wrong in certain details, the only conclusion which an unbiased and analytical reader could come to is that it is possible – I won’t put it stronger than that – that we are starting finally to crack the Voynich code in a tiny way.

I have received literally hundreds of comments from around the world which imply that many people, serious scholars of linguistics and plant science among them, accept my analysis as a possibility, even if they have doubts.  They seem to appreciate the fact that I insist again and again that my analysis is provisional and partial and makes no grand claims about authorship or provenance. Many of them have engaged with it positively, offering really insightful suggestions, books to look at, languages to consider, mistakes I made, things I should change and so on, and I am most grateful to them for their positive attempts to engage, and to push Voynich scholarship forward. They seem to feel, as I do, that at last the analysis offers a base from which to move forward to a fuller decoding and interpretation.

I’m sorry you are not persuaded, and I am sure that my discussion here will not convince you, but let’s agree to disagree, and let readers decide for themselves.


  1. Stephen: isn’t it about time you did a follow-up post to show everyone how much fruit your linguistic approach to the Voynich Manuscript has born?

    Or is that tree still bare?

    • Stephen Bax

      Hi Nick. I am indeed planning to summarise developments since my 2014 paper, so thanks for your interest. Many of these have been the fruit of other people’s hard work, not mine, and you can see them by searching through this website, for example by using the search box at the top right. I realise it might be hard for you to keep up with it all, so I’ll invite others to reply to your message to help you to see what is going on. Does anyone else want to help to bring Nick up to speed?

      In the meantime, I’d be interested to read an update on your own theories about the Voynich manuscript. What became of your theory about that Italian fellow whose name I forget? I’ve never come across anyone else supporting that idea, so I’m assuming that – if I may borrow your metaphor – your own tree was not merely barren, but positively plastic? Only teasing! 🙂

      Or what about your idea that the manuscript must be an encoded cipher? Of course that is possible, but looking back at Voynich discussions for more than twenty years I can’t see any actual evidence for the idea. Am I right to say that you have not succeeded in identifying even ONE enciphered word? If so, (sorry to tease again) is that a second fruitless Pelling tree? 🙂 You’ll soon have a mini plastic orchard! If you like, I can send you some plastic oranges for decoration? 🙂

      As always, I’d be happy to publish any evidence which supports your ideas on these pages. Evidence, not speculation. By contrast, am I still banned from your own blog? I haven’t looked at it for more than a year. Have I missed any exciting new developments?

      • Don’t worry about your trees, guys. Voynicha nymphofolia has never adapted to European soils ever since it was introduced in the 15th century. There have been attempts to make it grow a ram on f80v, but the thing came out with scales, a bent back and a flat head, looking more like some kind of reptile.

        It responds better to its native, warmer climates, where now it is unfortunately extinct. Recent attempts to reintroduce it to its native habitat have produced a pretty decent African elephant and two snakes with funny hats.

        I care for the nymphofolia, and would like to see it thrive again. It’s a shame that the finest minds in the business are focusing on trying to make it grow where it won’t.

        • Stephen Bax

          🙂 I hear it has also been liberally watered with speculation and rumour for many decades, which explains its raggedy leaves.

        • Koen,

          Many thanks for your post of April 15th., 2016

          Appreciating both Pelling’s work and Bax’s – while recognising the difficulties that both have encountered in their approach (as has every other vaguely balanced effort, including mine) I realise that the only people really, really sure of their opinions are the ones who built their theories from air and determined resistance to all alternatives, and need only air to keep them alive.

          I hope you won’t object if I add your “Voynicha nymphofolia” to my ‘well-said’ page.


      • Stephen Bax: before proposing my Filarete hypothesis in 2006, I thoroughly mined the literature in several different languages and published all my evidence openly across 200+ pages. Since then, I uncovered a document referring to an elegant herbal written in the vulgar tongue by Filarete, which surprised the Filarete specialists I showed it to. Hence the lack of progress since 2006 would seem to be a byproduct of my initial academic rigour, not of rigor mortis, let’s say.

        As far as your claim goes: the arguments you put forward in 2014 seemed to me to be flimsy, clumsy and self-contradictory. Moreover, they fell well short of the level of sophication I’m sure you would normally aim for in your writing.

        Hence I look forward to reading and reviewing any new evidence you produce to support (or even extend) your claim. Given that Google allocates four of its top ten hits for “Voynich” to pages promoting your claim, the onus of proof would now seem to be far more on you than on me.

        And yes, you (and indeed your plastic orchard) are still banned from my blog.

    • Bystander

      Honestly, even looking charitably at that as a typo, for somebody so immersed in the linguistic complexities of an ancient document, that just makes you look sloppy.

  2. to Mark Fincher – I hope that if you are considering publication that you will do it soon and that Stephen or someone else will advertise the book immediately it is published.

    Your reluctance to share online – recognising the risk of your work’s being cynically appropriated – is entirely understandable, too.

  3. Dr. Stephen Bax,

    I am not a linguistics expert, codebreaker, or (can you believe it) “serious scholar”, but the mystery here is fascinating to me. I found your work to be understandable and carefully explained which should count for something to readers (like me, at least) on the subject. Your care and patience is amazing!

  4. Diane

    what puzzles me is that with no-one able to read the text, and few if any able to read the imagery, yet we find it constantly assumed that the work as a whole (not just the materials and means of inscription) will or *must* conform to the type of a medieval Mediterranean text. Most Voynich authors even limit their horizons to the white male, Latin-educated, fairly wealthy and not un-famous historical personages of mainland Europe!

    Honestly, if the same slap-dash, story-telling habit had infected provenancing of the Book of Kells, we’d still be hearing fantasies from one that it must have been written in Turkey, because the frontispiece resembles a Turkey carpet, while another argued it was written in Egypt, or perhaps the Balkans, while yet another asserted it donated by aliens, quoting in proof that chap who described it as “the work of angels”.

    Though Mr. Pelling and I do not have membership in a mutual admiration society (some private difficulties over small things such as the definition and range of parallel hatching, and metaphor or mnemonic versus encoding), nonetheless Mr. Pelling has been deeply and intelligently interested in the Voynich manuscript for about a decade and a half, so when he voices an opinion about the reliability of Sherwood’s offerings (or indeed mine, or your own), these are words from one of the ‘Grand Old Men’ and one of the g.o.m.’s who have actually contributed deeply original study to the subject, rather than (say) filching, or even just nicely arranging and sorting the matter in other sources and mailing list exchanges. It’s all valuable, no doubt about that. But from my point of view, Mr. Pelling’s site is the only one where it is possible for contributors to engage in depth not only with the author’s views, but with each other’s.

    On the language front, it has always amused me to note that while people will suppose the pictures are little more than poor efforts at realism, failed photographs, yet they assume that the copyist worked from an exemplar which was written as neat as modern print.

    What would happen, for example, if a Latin-educated scribe tried to make sense of (i.e. copy) some hand-written 13thC Hebrew (for example). Even if the Hebrew script were carefully written, in block, I doubt he’d get it right. (see for example the effort at micrographic writing on petals of the flower on folio 9v – expert assessment tells me that it looks like no true Hebrew style.. spacing and stroke order etc. – but it does look like an ignorant person’s laudable effort to precisely reproduce the content of an originally Aramaic or Hebrew inscription.

    I’d really like to see what Voynicheros would produce if asked to copy that 13thC cursive Hebrew from the Spanish school, which informs Maimonides signature… how many distinctions between letters might they fail to recognise, and for how many produce something more like the alphabet to which they were more accustomed?

    Number crunching, like code-breaking, expects the matter to match some desired level of perfection – or at least of regularity in what others might call ‘error’.

    Same with linguistics, perhaps?

    • Alan Hughes

      In reply to Diane, I thought that Stephen’s riposte was deadly for Pelling. Stephen took Pelling’s article apart forensically, bit by bit and left it in tatters, but he was still careful not to attack him personally. I do think that Pelling was too rude to Edith Sherwood in a personal way and I don’t think that is polite. It is also clear that his knowledge of language and linguistics is pretty weak.

      Although Pelling’s site is entertaining, I find him too defensive of an indefensible theory, and too quick to attack other people. Look at his post on why the Voynich is a cipher – the argument is very weak as many of the commenters said:

      When lots of people attacked his argument, he got all babyish and said “it would help me a lot if people bothered to read even a little bit about medieval writing culture before sniping at my arguments.” As if he is the only one who knows anything about old manuscripts! Really embarrassing.

      Sorry, but that is not a good attitude. We should stick to arguments and ideas, not get personal or over-defensive of one theory.

      • Mr. Hughes,
        My post was not about Nick Pelling, but about this field of ‘research’ and the way it proceeds no-where much because the supposed object of investigation becomes so rapidly and so easily forgotten in the determination to create and then argue for one or another theory espoused about it.

        So ingrained is that habit that I encountered real difficulty in explaining to some members of the mailing list some years ago that the reason my comments on the manuscript never began by “stating my theory” is that my habit is not to spend time in seeking validation for some ‘original opinion’ but to form an opinion as a result of research into the object or topic itself.

        How can I know what I think until I know what it has to say?

  5. bdid1dr

    Is B-408 an easier reference to the overworked “Voynich” name for that manuscript? I am so tired of references to the ‘code’ in that manuscript. Not one word is in code. My some twenty-odd translations are consistent to the Latin-ized Nahuatl terminology/vocabulary. Get yourselves a copy of Fermin Herrera’s magnificent and concise “Nahuatl-English English-Nahuatl (Aztec) dictionary.

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks, but where are the translations? More important, where is the detailed analysis and explanation of how they were obtained?

      So many people have claimed to have translations, but unless we can see their methodology and full rationale it is impossible to accept them.

  6. xplor

    A few questions. Can someone with a background in historical linguistics tell if the Voynich is PIE ?
    Can you identify the word for water? It reads like an okey dokey language, so it should be easy peasy to decipher it.

    • Stephen Bax

      Yes, I do think that someone with a background in PIE could help with the identification. I am due to give a talk on the script and language in which I want to set out some key elements of the language which could help others to deduce which language it might be:

      I do feel that there are several possible Indo-European elements, but I will explain these more in my talk.

      Easy peasy?! Deceptively so, I think, but we are gradually getting more and more clues.

  7. Ricardo Alcafuz

    “let the readers decide for themselves”

    Ok, reading Mr. Stephen Bax I see a method, an interesting starting point, an honest and reasonable proposition, why not explore where it leads to?

    On the contrary, reading Mr. Nick Pelling I see pride, personal attacks and very little reasoning.

    So, my vote is for Mr. Stephen Bax.

    Best Regards.

  8. Hi–

    (Whoops, I just noticed I misspelled my website address. Corrected now.)

    Glen said the VMs was at Cambridge, but never offered any evidence for any of his claims.

    I don’t think the archive at voynichmonkeys goes back that far, though, so I don’t know where you could look up the conversations.

    ?? I didn’t “cherry-pick”; I commented on the examples Nick used. And I do have consistent values for the letters as used in the labels. Some of your values are the same as mine.

    I’ve got more on my VMs blog, if you’re interested.

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks. I’ll look up your ideas. I did not mean to imply anything about your translation, as I have never seen it, but I can’t see any evidence for the language being English, and I have studied and taught Middle English for many years.

      But thanks in any case. Maybe you will have more comments when you have read the paper itself.

  9. Hi–

    I have not paid much attention to the Herbal section of the VMs, preferring to work with the Astro section, so I have not yet read your paper (just read the comments about it).

    Glen Claston claimed the VMs is written in English, and as that is the only language I know, have gone with that.

    “doary”, in my work, translates as “Alcion”, modern “Alcyone”. By looking at a number of old star maps, I found that in many cases that star name was used, instead of “Pleiades”.

    “oror” translates as “lili” or “lily” when it appears by a lily leaf on f112.

    I have found the alphabet to be 22 letters: the 20-letter Latin alphabet plus “k”. EVA q is a special case. Philip Neal’s letter substitution rules are the rest of the puzzle. Since he has shown that the gallows all substitute for each other, it’s perfectly reasonable for there to be three letters used for “R”, although I have only found two so far.

    Rich SantaColoma has shown that vellum was NOT expensive at the time, and that it was not necessarily used five minutes after creation; he has many examples of unused vellum that is hundreds of years old.

    At this point I’m into my 12th year studying the VMs, and it remains as fascinating now as it did at first.

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks – I can’t understand the suggestion that “Glen Claston claimed the VMs is written in English, and as that is the only language I know, have gone with that.” I haven’t seen Claston’s suggestion, but I would be amazed if the underlying language is English. All the evidence I have seen goes strongly against it.

      You also say that ““oror” translates as “lili” or “lily” when it appears by a lily leaf on f112” but the whole point of my article is that we need to build up a consistent systematic picture of each sign, cross referencing to a number of words and images, not cherrypick here and there. That is what I was trying to do.

      I do agree, however, that the manuscript manages to retain its fascination – and mystery!

  10. Thanks for posting a reply to my blog post.

    Having said that, I think that the substance of most of my objections still eludes you, probably because I tried to shoehorn them all into a single roughly 1000-word post, when a 1000-word post on each individual point would have been more useful.

    I’ll try to be clearer in future.

    Oh, and for the record I have no antipathy towards Edith Sherwood herself whatsoever. Sure, I don’t have much confidence in her historical research methodology, but that’s another matter.

    • Stephen Bax

      Ok, thanks, I see that.
      But there is P L E N T Y of space here, and I don’t charge a penny :-), so I’d very much welcome “a 1000-word post on each individual point”, especially if it has solid and reasoned supporting evidence and references. I know that it would help to further the debate, so you are welcome, whenever you are ready.

    • Jess W.

      I know this is an old post, but I hate the way you came to the site, read his retort, and then just didn’t contribute anything nor apologize at all. All the while you still sounded like an egotistical ******* [edited] with passive aggressive tendencies. Seems as if you’re mad that he called you out on your (incredibly lame) assessment of Mr. Bax’s work and now you have nothing really to say to him than just act like a ****** [edited].

      I’m not a scholar, I only have a university degree, but it doesn’t take a paragon of knowledge to realize that you’re just a **** [edited]. Punishing him further like a **** [edited] on his own site just proves it.

      Sigh, keep up the good work Stephen; I feel as though you’re one of the few who really has the potential to get any real progress done. I hope eventually you’ll be able to pierce the enigma that is the Voynich Manuscript.

      • Stephen Bax

        Thanks for your support Jess. I am a firm believer in free speech, but forgive me for editing out some words which might make people blush 🙂

  11. Neticis

    About words starting wit K and different R’s.
    In Latvian encyclopedia articles with K- have quite large part of all volumes.
    Also, in Latvian there are two different R’s, one of which was dropped in writing only at Soviet times.

  12. alia

    Not sure if this is the best place to leave this comment, but did any of the people you talked to about plant identification suggest that the “coriander” might be yarrow or another relative? It’s in the same family, and the leaves and flowers especially look more like the manuscript picture than coriander. Really, there are so many plants in that family that are used for culinary or medicinal purposes that look similar that I don’t think Sherwood’s identification is very convincing.

    Also, I highly doubt that the “cotton” is cotton. Too many petals (that don’t overlap at all), no central spike of pistil and stamens. Something in Asteraceae is much more likely.

    • Stephen Bax

      Hi Alia, and thanks. The problem is that when identifying a Voynich plant, it is not as simple as just saying how far it resembles a plant as we see it today. It is important also to consider how it was seen in mediaeval times in different parts of the world, for example by examining mediaeval herbals. That can also help with naming.

      For example, hellebore in ancient times was classified into two main classes, black and white, a classification which went unquestioned for hundreds of years across a wide geographical area, In old herbals they were very often placed side by side. Now, however, we would not even class the ‘white’ one as a hellebore at all, but as Veratrum alba. So although I take your point that we need constantly to question attributions (e.g. for coriander), we need to consider a lot more than mere resemblance alone.

  13. RJ

    Stephan (if I may)–thanks for the detailed discussion on your blog. I too currently remain a skeptic of your approach, but I sincerely wish you success with it. I can tell from reading your post that you are a conscientious and thoughtful scholar who refuses to accept most of the Voynich orthodoxies–perhaps so much the better for getting this thing solved. I spent several years trying to crack it using much the same methods (even the same constellation), though I never was able to make more than a few words seem to fit. I’m a Slavic language specialist, though I spent some time looking at Roma dialects, which in fact include loan-words from Armenian (the Roma showed up in Prague at nearly the exact time of the VMs C14 dating, and I was wondering if it was a writing system invented, then lost, for one of these dialects). I too spent some time on an abjad system, but came up against the sheer repetitiveness of the text. Out of curiosity, do you have any way of explaining away the issue of entropy, which is lower in the VMs than in virtually all languages written in alphabet systems, let alone an abjad (which has even higher entropy)? This seemed to be the sticking point of my own abandoned approach. (I’ve since left Voynichology). Best of luck!

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks for your question. To be honest, I don’t see the point of calculating statistics when we still haven’t properly been able to ‘parse’ the raw data. I prefer to tackle it in a bottom up way… but let’s see which approach bears more fruit.

  14. neo

    what do you think of this claim

    Related to the Nahuatl language

    In 2014, Arthur O. Tucker and Rexford H. Talbert published a paper claiming a positive identification of 37 plants, 6 animals, and 1 mineral referenced in the manuscript to plant drawings in the Badianus manuscript, a fifteenth century Aztec herbal.[50] They argue that these were from Colonial New Spain and represented the Nahuatl language, and date the manuscript to between 1521 (the date of the Conquest) to ca. 1576, in contradiction of radiocarbon dating evidence of the vellum and many other elements of the manuscript.

    • Stephen Bax

      I think your last line raises a key problem with that interpretation:

      “in contradiction of radiocarbon dating evidence of the vellum and many other elements of the manuscript.”

      • neo

        strictly speaking the 1426 radio carbon dating was only for the vellum – paint can be added at an unknown later date.

        Some of the Badianus manuscript herbal drawings matches very closely to Voynich.

        The other issue is that while the Badianus manuscript was dated between 1521 and 1576, the author of Voynich may have been in contact with similar group of Aztec herbalists predating Badianus. evidence is similar plants.

      • Charles L. Sykes

        Three (3) comments.
        (1) Tucker & Talbert subscribe to the position taken by Edith Sherwood, that the carbon dating establishes when the animal was killed (i.e. vellum created), not when it was used. This is in an obscure sentence on page 77, reference #37.

        (2) The possibility of Arabic is mentioned on page 16 of M. E. D’Imperio’s The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma: “Italy. Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt. Bibliographical Consultant to H. P. Kraus (owner of the manuscript between 1962 and 1969). suggested in a letter to John Tiltman dated I November. 1963 that Italy was a likely country of origin. He states. “While both paleographically and historically speaking. Italy is as likely a place of origin as any other country of Europe. there is no evidence that the manuscript must have been made in Venice, or elsewhere in Northern Italy. The possibility that it comes from Central or Southern Italy is still open. and this could very well mean exposure to the Arab world,’ He proposes that Arabic should be considered as a candidate for the underlying language.”

        (3) Thank you so much for this. I’m new to this, teaching a lightweight class on ciphers as a general education elective and we are using Singh’s book as the text, so this fits perfectly.

        • Stephen Bax

          Thanks – my doubt about the vellum is: why would such an expensive object be kept for more than 100 years without use?
          Also, until we can find a match with the language that is claimed – i.e. Nahuatl – then we must be sceptical. I understand that leading experts on that language have said they can see nothing of the language in the VM.

          As for Arabic, I don’t believe the underlying language is straight Arabic, for a number of reasons. I aim to set these out in another paper very soon.

          • neo

            strictly speaking Tucker et al are botanists, and are approaching Voynich through botany.


            As botanists though it seems like his approach mirrors yours

            “Names as keys to decipher lost languages

            The most fruitful, logical approach to initially decipher ancient languages has been the identification of proper names. Thomas Young (1773-1829) and Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) first decrypted Egyptian hieroglyphics with the names of pharaohs that were found in cartouches, coupled with a study of Coptic (the later Egyptian language that used primarily Greek script). ”

            And then identifies the species of the plants

          • Hugo

            I’m sorry for the lack of citations in this response, while my field was once history of science I’ve been away from it for a long while and don’t have easy access to the materials.

            It is my memory that vellum was often scraped and re-written on due to the high value of the physical vellum over the meta-physical value of the words written on it. I would not argue that the carbon dating of the vellum is indicative of the date at which the manuscript was written. Though without a date from the ink/paint that was used it is probably useless to worry about the specificity of the date that the manuscript was written.

            I’m not arguing for the Aztec connection, that seems like a stretch to me but, you should see if someone still in the field of history (i.e. not me) can confirm what I’ve said about the use of vellum during this period.

          • Hi Stephen: I just came across this portion of your blog, a year later. Or maybe I saw it and forgot… in any case, I may as well address this, as various ideas about vellum use have been proposed, but not explored, in the past. This has led to an inaccurate picture of the reality of the history of vellum cost, and use. You wrote:

            “Thanks – my doubt about the vellum is: why would such an expensive object be kept for more than 100 years without use?”

            While there were certain periods of time and locations when and where the cost of vellum was high enough to warrant its reuse, for the most part this was not the case. In one listed case of vellum cost, I was able to compute the cost of the amount used in the Voynich at only a few shillings. And this is borne out in the many examples I found in which vellum and parchment was used for mundane purposes, such as sketch materials for artists to practice on.

            As for length of time it may have remained blank, I found many examples of vellum remaining blank for up to over 300 years… and that was enough to make an 88 page “Voynich”. And until 2007 one book dealer had a couple of dozen unused sheets of 16th century vellum. But there are many examples:




            I believe the Voynich is a modern hoax, by Voynich, made about 1908 to 1910. In 1908 Voynich bought the Libraria Franceschini, which at the time contained a bottomless, 40 year collection of over a half a million items.


            The fact that vellum and parchment (it was recently determined the Voynich is bovine, not sheep) is known to have sometimes sat for centuries, and was for much of that time not all that expensive, combined with Wilfrid arguably sitting on a mountain of “who knows what?”, means that these old ideas of high cost and low availability alone, exonerating him, should be put to rest.

            • Stephen Bax

              Thanks Rich. I’m interested that it was identified as bovine. Where was that stated, do you know?
              Personally I feel there are simply too many elements linked to past centuries, such as handwriting, imagery, etcetera, to allow us to consider it a modern fake. Everything I see in it fits a 15th century date, aligned with the carbon dating, so personally I don’t see a benefit in working on a ‘modern hoax’ theory, but who knows?

  15. Garcol Euphrates


  16. Hollo.
    It’s me, sorry. Colleague write crap. You will never be able to translate Voynich manuscript.
    Why ? Because it is encrypted and written in Czech language. The manuscript is used complex substitution cipher. Instructions for decryption is written on multiple sides of the manuscript. Instructions are written in Czech language. As a whole manuscript. The manuscript describes the Czech history. Secret information. I have translated many pages of the manuscript.

    • Stephen Bax

      Great, that is excellent news. Could you please tell is where we can find the translation?

      • Certainly sir collegue. Everything is a manuscript describing on his blog.
        Habdank Voynich ( Jew) himself in his letter he writes. Manuscript = Czech book.
        And at the same time writes the encrypted gematria ( substituce).
        Also it says instructions for decryption. The instructions are the same as on page 116 of the manuscript. ( page 116 = instructions for decription).

        Pelling is good, but it does not have a chance.

      • Name

        Looked at the links provided by Josef Zlatoděj prof. The main problem is that Josef Zlatoděj prof. is as secretive as the author of the VM. He knows how to decode the VM but wouldn’t tell anybody so that they cannot steal his findings.

        • Stephen Bax

          He is not the only one to have claimed to decode the VM but not to tell us what it means!

    • I have carefully looked at the Voynich Manuscript for 5 years and there are no instructions of such nature on the sides of MS-408. I agree the manuscript does contain sensitive information, but of kingdoms and the Papacy during the Renaissance in Italy.

      Josef if you want attention deliver the goods!

  17. royheselden

    “The Pleiades companions of Artemis, were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione” (Wikipedia) .. are these not depicted in the seven nymphs-a-bathing sketch in addition to the “star chart” representation.

  18. Michael Zakaria

    Professor Bax,

    I had an allergic reaction to Pelling’s response the moment I read objections #3 and #4 as well… it gave me the impression that he did not give your work a proper perusal–or if he did, he did not understand it.

    Something that occurred to me after reading your paper: is it possible the language of this text is a creole? In your paper, you argue the language is likely non-European, ‘but is more likely to be Near Eastern, Caucasian or Asian.’ Conceding for a moment that we are working with a small sample of words, I nevertheless could not help but think of Maltese. Could this be an archaic creole, or possibly a variant of Latinized Siculo-Arabic (a la modern Maltese), or at least some hybrid language from Arab-Norman Sicily and its surrounding area spoken by diaspora communities of expelled Sicilian Muslims (e.g., in places like Lucero)?

    • Stephen Bax

      Well, it’s not impossible, of course, but it is not so easy to demonstrate it. But, I have considered it!

  19. Veronica

    Hello – you are free to ignore any and all who simply turn around and ‘calling themselves experts’ will make sure they rip to bits any ideas that upset their own applecart !! Every field is now being shown for what it is to the general public(me too) via the internet, becos ‘they’ (those who want to be the experts) cannot abide the idea of a new theory getting in their personal way. All of us are discovering vast areas of new knowledge and loving every minute of the discovery – GO Stephen, I am watching this subject with great interest. You are yet another pioneer – and as such we are with you. Without new ideas we are all doomed.

    • Stephen Bax

      Thanks – one thing I love about the Voynich manuscript is that no-one can own it. It is still available for all to comment, all to have their opinions and their ideas, and to enjoy it.

      Same about the internet, as you say. It allows everyone, not just the supposed ‘experts’, to look at things and have their views.

      You are also right that some people get very defensive about Voynich, and try to stop others putting forward any view that doesn’t fit their own. That is sad, but again I agree with you that the internet helps to overcome that kind of behaviour!.

  20. Marke Fincher

    Stephen, you say, “that we are starting finally to crack the Voynich code in a tiny way”. Sorry but I don’t think you are.

    “in a tiny way” – that is inherently the crux of the matter here, and essentially why your findings are on shaky ground. I’m afraid you are joining an established club of individuals that have ‘decoded’ a small set of isolated and individual “words” of Voynichese with simplistic systems, always conspicuously failing to decode anything connected or bigger than one word and usually with no explanation for why that might be the case, and failing to see their discoveries in the necessary mathematical context of how easy it is to force a mapping from such small pieces coded text onto a ‘translated’ word in some known language or other.

    if you were a codebreaker you would be intimately acquainted with false positive decryptions and less liable to be deceived by them.

    Until such time as someone can produce a decoding of a whole line of Voynichese text (or several words connected in a meaningful construction) – there is no progress beyond Newbold, Levitov et al, just fools gold.

    • Stephen Bax

      In one way you are absolutely right, that my decoding is provisional and partial – very small I would say – but then I was the very first to say that, in the title of my paper, so we agree there.

      However, you miss one or two key points of what I was trying to do. I agree that if we chose any words at all we would be sure to produce a false positive. But I did not choose any words at all. I started with the illustrations, identified the plants through long library hours, compared them with a wide range of mediaeval texts, and then looked only at words which were highly constrained, in most cases the first words of herbal pages.

      You then say that sometimes people offer ‘no explanation for why that might be the case’ – but my paper is around 18,000 words of ‘explaining why they might be the case’. Then by a process of comparison and elimination I tried to build up a scheme of sound-letter correspondences. So I suggest that you haven’t described my approach very fully or fairly.

      Secondly, you say “if you were a codebreaker”, by which I assume you are? Can you tell me how much success a codebreaking approach to the VM has had in the last 100 years? The plain, bald, sorry answer is: none.

      The reason, in my view, is that (some) people have been obsessed with top-down codebreaking approaches, working on a script about which we know too little, making assumptions which are often without foundation, and at the same time neglecting to work on the tough bottom-up slog.

      Now, the script could still be a form of ‘code’, but I’m prepared to bet that we will only find that out by adopting an approach such as I have outlined.

      On one thing we can almost agree. You say “Until such time as someone can produce a decoding of a whole line of Voynichese text (or several words connected in a meaningful construction) – there is no progress”… I agree with you, except I would say ‘little’ rather than ‘no’ progress’.

      The question however, is how to get there. For me the only answer is to proceed as I have suggested.

      But maybe you have another idea? In which case I wish you every success with it, and look forward to your results.

      • Marke Fincher

        But having deduced your scheme of sound-letter correspondences that would surely enable you to phonetically read the entire work or at least the whole page or paragraph in which one of your identified words was found?

        And from knowing the correct vocalization of so many Voynichese words to then identify the language (in Champollion style) and eventually acquire the ability to read the meaning. Obviously though if you (or anyone else) had been able to do any of that they would be publishing a much bigger and irrefutable set of findings which would put an end to the Mystery of the Voynich Mystery once and for all, and make the publisher very famous!

        So why is that not the case?

        As an observer I would say the simplest “Ockhams Razor” explanation for why that didn’t happen is because all attempts to follow the proposed method to a greater success came to dead end. Because sadly the same is true for a fair number of researchers before you who have produced tentative readings for a small set of isolated words of the manuscript and hoped it was the start of unravelling the whole thing.

        Producing anything vaguely coherent from even a single line of Voynichese has alluded every sane and brilliant mind that ever tried.
        But forced false monoalphabetic mappings to known languages can be made up to about 18 letters, so anything smaller than that needs a lot of backup, and a lot of skepticism.

        As you said yourself, people tend to bring assumptions and bias to this problem and that is just wasting your time. It has to be bottom up slogging and digging, following the evidence and the extraordinary qualities the VMS actually has (exposed by analysis) rather than trying to impose our pre-thinking onto it, which we have seen before just lead to delusion. People tend to see what they want to see in the Voynich text.

        In a sense, is it not your assumption that there ARE sound-letter correspondences to be found in the first place?

        • Stephen Bax

          Yes, in many ways you are right – but see the following:

          “that would surely enable you to phonetically read the entire work or at least the whole page or paragraph in which one of your identified words was found”
          Only when we have the whole set, of course.

          “So why is that not the case?”
          Patience, patience!

          “As an observer I would say the simplest “Ockhams Razor” explanation for why that didn’t happen is because all attempts to follow the proposed method to a greater success came to dead end. Because sadly the same is true for a fair number of researchers before you who have produced tentative readings for a small set of isolated words of the manuscript and hoped it was the start of unravelling the whole thing”

          Why be so defeatist about it? I would argue that they did NOT do it the way I did it and chose random words from here and there. That is not what I did , as you can see from the paper.

          “anything smaller than that needs a lot of backup, and a lot of skepticism.”

          That is why my paper is avowedly provisional and partial. But I myself am cautious, as we all should be.

          In summary. you are right to be cautious, but this exercise has generated a huge number of useful ideas and feedback, which I am now working on, and that was my aim. It may not lead to a solution, but I would just say… let’s work on it and see if we can take it somewhere!

          • Marke Fincher

            Well, I don’t mean to be ‘defeatist’, in fact I want to encourage anyone who has the tenacity to do real VMS research… but essentially you are following a path which in crucial respects is the same as others, and in danger of falling into the same traps.
            i.e. (1) guess at possible plant image identification, (2) think of possible labels for said plant, (3) try to map those labels onto a Voynichese word on the same page (ideally in a ‘significant’ position).

            So far so good… looking for a ‘crib’ in the text is a codebreaking staple, but if you get an apparent partial finding from a crib you move immediately to validate it further by applying the configuration suggested by the crib to the surrounding text (or other text). If you get gibberish then your crib was a false guess, or your system model is wrong, or both.

            And the trouble with single word or small cribs is they will throw up false positives, and it is more than possible to construct a false mapping that yields a desired result. That brings a real risk of “confirmation bias”.

            Such findings are very tempting (and exciting), and in 2 decades of my own VMS analysis I have been there myself and fallen several times.

            When you find something new you have to immediately be your own worst critic and ask “is this above the threshold of significance?”, and to ruthlessly test your finding against that.

            In this particular case words for “coriander” in various languages could all easily be forced onto paragraph initial words of many documents which have absolutely nothing at all to do with coriander, and clearly that would be spurious. That doesn’t dismiss your reading as false…but it does show that such mappings are on their own below the threshold of significance.

            I hope you are genuinely onto the right thing (or a near miss of it) and wish you every further success and wait with baited breath to hear news of that coming.

            Something I ‘know’ from my own analysis is that ‘words’ in VMS are not connected at all in the way of natural languages, and are connected in other ways most UNnatural to language. This is one reason why people have not been able to translate anything more than isolated words so far. There are also rules about symbol placement which do not occur in written or spoken language. I hope to publish some of this stuff at some point, but at a point where others cant just cynically appropriate my hard work for themselves, and there are people out there who will do that.

    • Marke Fincher,

      You maybe unaware of my work of the Voynich Manuscript. I believe the Voynich is of the Italian alphabet introduced as anagrams combined with a shift code as a dual layer encryption method. I will post images of my cipher, Folio 68r and as-well as my url for your inspection. I’m an amateur with out credentials in the field of cryptology. Yet after 5 years I believe I have made some serious break through s which has yet turn the heads of Academia, but none the less with major sales of my first book, “The Code Unchopped”. In my new book, “Voynich Manuscript The Code Unchopped Volume II”, new findings of great value to the Voynich Community can be found with a Voynich font type set.

      I have yet try a shift code, but with all the luck I have had with my cipher I believe there is one! That is why I can’t seem to decode some words or whole paragraphs that make logical sense as I have done in many other Folios.

      Have a look at this:

  21. bdid1dr

    Prof. Bax, Pelling, SantaColoma, Vogt, Job, Menno, O’Donovan, Sherwood, Zandbergen, Fallicara, and Occinegra: I have yet to receive any feedback from any of you in regard to my tri-step mode of translating some 25 folios in Boenicke manuscript 408. Could it be my lack of credentials? My university studies were pre-med, and were interfered with, twice, by disastrous interruptions beyond my control. Several times over the past year I’ve mentioned that I was able to introduce the City Clerk (San Jose California) and that City’s Attorney to the computer ‘words in text’ system of filing and records management, which was still ‘in the works’ so to speak. I was also able to relocate some 40 boxes of material which had been transferred to the records storage warehouse — without any notation of their origins or even file numbers. I still regret the consequences of my meticulous work. The City promptly began ’eminent domain’ seizure of some 20 small homes — so the City could expand the airport and re-name it San Jose International Airport.

    • To be honest, it doesn’t exactly help your credentials if you keep referring to Beinecke as “Boenicke”.

  22. Robert Hicks

    “let the readers decide for themselves”

    With apologies to your readers, most of whom ended up here after clicking links on the BBC or Daily Mail websites, what position are most of them in to judge your claims? Nick Pelling is probably the world’s foremost expert on the manuscript. Every one of his objections is valid. There has not yet been ONE serious scholar of the VMS who has found your ‘findings’ valid. Plenty of armchair experts, perhaps, or people who like their “Big Book Of Mysteries”, but nobody with any credentials.

    • Stephen Bax

      Robert, firstly, if you support some of Nick’s objections, why don’t you tell us which ones, and give us argument and evidence?

      It is far more convincing to offer evidence rather than just say he is an ‘expert’, surely?

    • Patrick Murphy

      While I appreciate your automatic deference to Mr. Pelling, saying “every one of his objections is valid” after reading (?) the above is both lazy and at least in doubt, if not blatantly untrue.

      Moreover, what “credentials” for “serious scholars” you are looking for I am hard-pressed to recognize. One might think a university professor of linguistics holding a PhD could be afforded a modicum of such expertise in language analysis, but then again, I hold one too and my brasher students sound just like you. But hey, apology accepted.

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