Friday, 29 February 2008

Unreadable Chinese, revisited...

Back in 1991, sardonic linguist Jacques Guy concocted a deliberately false theory about the Voynich, "to demonstrate how the absurd can be dressed in sensible garb". His "Chinese Hypothesis" had Marco Polo bringing back two Chinese scholars to Venice, who wrote down their encyclopaedic knowledge into a book in some semi-improvised European script... you guessed it, Voynichese. He never believed his pet canard for a moment: it was a rhetorical gesture to the interpretative folly - which I call "the curse" - that surrounds the study of the manuscript.

But then in 1997, Brazilian computer science professor Jorge Stolfi pointed out that, actually, Voynichese as transcribed does share a lot of statistical properties with Mandarin Chinese texts. Though technically true, the problem is not its stats, but rather that the Voynich Manuscript is (with very little doubt) a fifteenth century European cultural artefact. Stats only indicate correlation, not causation: so all Stolfi's results really say is that the Voynich Manuscript transcription correlates moderately well with certain Mandarin Chinese transcriptions. But lifting the abstracted text out of its codicological and stylistical contexts can easily give rise to the kind of plucking fallacy Gordon Rugg's work suffers from. Is the statistical similarity Stolfi found in the texts themselves, or in the methodology used to design the two transcriptions? I suspect it may well be the latter: the map is not the territory.

So why am I so fascinated by the news that some indecipherable Chinese texts have recently been found? They don't look anything like Voynichese (and why should they?): but they do look like a pictographic script not entirely dissimilar to Chinese. Their finder, 38-year-old Zhou Yongle, suspects they might be written by the Tujia, a large ethnic minority in mainland China which has a spoken language but (as far as anyone knew) no written one. For what it's worth, Wikipedia asserts that Tujia is a Tibeto-Burman language with some similarities to Yi: but - come on - you'd have to be a pretty h4rdc0re linguist to know or care what that means.

No: what I find intriguing is that these texts do look precisely like the kind of cultural artefacts you would expect, with (real) Chinese annotations and marginalia. If Jacques wants a proper historical linguistic puzzle to get his teeth into, then this would surely be exactly the right kind of thing for him: honestly, where's the fun in devising a Sokal-like hoax at self-mystificating Voynichologists, when they're already more than capable of tying themselves in knots over essentially nothing?

Of course, we mustn't forget the possibility that Zhou Yongle may (for whatever reason) have faked these unreadable documents. You may not have heard of the huge "paper tiger" scandal in China recently over photos of the South Chinese Tiger, believed to have been faked by hunter Zhou Zhenglong; or indeed the whole issue of the 1421 (1418/1763) map hoaxery, as ably deconstructed by Geoff Wade et al. Were all three simply 'Made In China'? It's a good question...

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