Multilinguish Episode 4: Unsolved Language Mysteries

Everyone loves a good mystery. In this episode of our podcast, we explore unsolved language mysteries that have stood the test of time.
language mysteries

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Is there anything as alluring as an unsolved mystery, a puzzle that various people have been working to decrypt for many years? In this episode of Multilinguish, we dig into three language mysteries that no one can seem to solve. From the mysterious Rongorongo glyphs of Easter Island to the language of the Zuni people in New Mexico to the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, linguistic puzzles abound — and we attempt to unpack them, one mystery at a time. Will these cases ever be cracked?

Part I: Unknown Languages And Mysterious Manuscripts

Producer David Doochin starts us off by explaining the mystery surrounding the Rongorongo language of Easter Island — a script made up of obscure glyphs that was discovered in the 1800s. Next, senior producer Steph Koyfman introduces us to the professor investigating the strange link between Japanese and the language of New Mexico’s Zuni people. Lastly, producer Thomas Moore Devlin walks us through the history of the Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated book from the 1500s, and the numerous attempts to translate the language it’s written in.

Part II: What We Learned This Week

In our roundtable segment, “What We Learned This Week,” the whole team gathers to share the fun and fascinating language facts we uncovered in our research. This week:

  • Dylan takes us behind the scenes of the U.S. Military’s intensive language program
  • Steph makes us hungry by describing the etymology of delicious New Orleans cuisine
  • Thomas continues the food theme by explaining the surprising relationship between turkey, the food, and Turkey, the country
  • Jen gives us some tips for navigating the large number of silent consonants in Danish

Show Notes

Check out what the Rongorongo glyphs look like on this site.

View a digital copy of the Voynich Manuscript at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

The Zuni Enigma: A Native American People’s Possible Japanese Connection
6 Lost Languages And Scripts That Have Not Yet Been Deciphered | Babbel Magazine 
Cracking The Secrets Of A Lost Language (Or Not) | Babbel Magazine

Episode Transcript

Jen: From the language app, Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m executive producer, Jen Jordan.

Jen: This week we bring you three unsolved language mysteries from obscure glyphs discovered on Easter Island, to a theory about an isolated New Mexican tribe that upends everything we’ve been taught about human migration. Finally, a book from the 1500s written in an un-translatable language with strange illustrations.

Jen: Later on in the episode, the whole team is back to share what they learned this week. First up, producers David Doochin, Steph Koyfman, and Thomas Moore Devlin each bring us an unsolved mystery. You’ll also hear producer Dylan Lyons chime in. Let’s get into it.

Jen: So we’ve got three unsolved mysteries regarding language today. The first one we’re going to get into comes from David.

David: I actually didn’t know much about Rongorongo before doing research and it’s actually really cool because there’s so much mystery still surrounding it.

David: Rongorongo is a script that comes from Easter Island, which is also known as Rapa Nui, with the same name given to the language of the people who lived there and who’ve lived there for centuries.

David: It’s thought that they settled the island in probably 1200, sometime around there. But the first Europeans came around the mid 1600s, and then eventually throughout the rest of 1700s, 1800s, came to the island. They essentially decimated the population, and there were Peruvian slave raids too.

David: So what we have today is a population that speaks some of the native language, Rapa Nui, but it’s taken a lot of different forms throughout time. It’s also kind of borrowed elements from Tahitian. A lot of the islanders speak Spanish. So that’s framing the context for why it’s really hard to figure out what this script means.

David: The script was found by, or uncovered by this French explorer named Eugène Eyraud, I think I’m saying that right. Eyraud? I don’t know, however the French would say it. But he came to the island in the mid-1800s and found this script, which was written on tablets of wood and some other artifacts made of stone.

David: It looked like it contained a bunch of glyphs, kind of like hieroglyphs that you’d see in ancient Egyptian. But he didn’t know how to read through it. Other linguists who have taken a look at it don’t really know what it means.

David: What they’ve deduced is that so far, they have 26 artifacts that exist in museums throughout the world. None of them are actually on the islands themselves. But they’re carved with these glyphs that represent about 120 different things, from plants to wildlife, specifically a lot of fish.

David: There are human figures who are doing some actions. There are compound glyphs, which incorporate people, like a man but an action as well, like eating something.

David: They look pretty cool in terms of how … I don’t know how you rank glyphs as cool. But it’s-

Jen: What were they eating?

David: I don’t know. It was kind of just a man sitting with his hands up as if he was gonna put something in his mouth.

Jen: Like eating a bag of chips.

David: Like eating a bag of chips.

Thomas: Eating something like a sandwich. You don’t eat chips like that.

Jen: Give us some context. Easter Island is-

Dylan: Where is that again?

Jen: Yeah, where is that again?

Dylan: Pacific?

David: It’s in Polynesia, technically way west of Chile. So Easter Island now is part of Chile.

Dylan: Oh.

David: But I don’t know when it got incorporated. It’s easiest to get to from the western coast of South America. That’s the closest point.

David: But it’s one of the world’s most isolated, if not the world’s most isolated island. It’s like 1,200 miles away from the nearest civilization of 500 people at least. Then it’s many hundreds of miles away from the coast of South America. So it’s hard to get to.

Jen: But Easter Island is known for those gigantic statues, right?

Dylan: Yeah, I was thinking that.

Steph: I was thinking of the same-

Thomas: It’s like the thing from Night at the Museum, right?

David: Yes.

Thomas: Gum-Gum?

David: Yeah, Gum-Gum. They’re called Moai statues, they’re people. They’re actual human figures.

Jen: They’re massive.

Steph: There’s an emoji of-

Jen: Yeah.

Thomas: Oh.

Steph: There’s an emoji.

Jen: It’s this incredibly isolated place with these gigantic statues and this language. So theoretically, what would … it would’ve been indigenous language I’m assuming?

David: Right. So it would’ve been Rapa Nui, but the old version before it got morphed throughout time and absorbed elements of Tahitian like I said. A lot of Spanish elements as well.

David: So the problem is that the people living today who speak Rapa Nui speak a different version of it that wasn’t around in the mid 1500s or 1600s or even 1700s when this script was thought to be written.

Dylan: Oh, so they don’t know what it says.

David: So they don’t know what it says, yeah. Also, I mentioned that French explorer, Eugène Eyraud, who-

Jen: I can’t pronounce French words in this podcast.

David: I might be-

Jen: It’s upsetting.

David: Completely butchering it.

Steph: I’m gonna probably butcher some words later too, it’s okay.

David: He noted that even when he went in the mid 1800s, he noticed that the islanders living there treated these artifacts with, not disdain, but they really couldn’t care less about how they treated them. They would use them as fishing reeds and wrap fishing line around them. They would keep them in their house and put stuff on them. So it’s clear that they didn’t even know how to interpret what they said.

David: The idea is that this text is actually just proto writing, probably more decorative or meant to be a record of an oral narrative. If you’re telling a story and you want clues to help you along as you tell it, you can use this tablet. Or that’s why they inscribed them to be able to recount oral narratives. But it’s not supposed to be read or deciphered as if it were an actual language.

Steph: So it’s like cliffs notes.

David: Cliffs notes, yeah. A lot of sites that I’ve researched on refer to it as proto writing. But the idea is no one is living today who can actually decipher what it says and there’s probably never gonna be someone who’s born who can. Because the old language that’s from hundreds of years ago has changed so much to today.

David: But all we can do is map out what glyphs exist. We think that there are about 120 of them. Maybe try to figure out what they mean, the pictures are pretty obvious. I can show you. Actually let me. Here’s an overview of some of it.

Thomas: We’ll link to this.

Jen: Yeah, we’ll link to this because showing us is a bad-

Steph: Oh, wow. So they’re actually pictures. They’re not-

David: They’re actually pictures, yeah.

Steph: They’re more complex than a hieroglyphic would be, the ones you would think of from Egypt.

Dylan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). More like pictograms. Is that what they’re called?

David: Yeah.

Jen: The original emoji.

Steph: Sounds very official.

David: Yeah. So yes.

Steph: They are, they’re like emojis.

David: Another theory is that this script was invented in 1777, I believe. When the Spaniards were signing a treaty with the islanders, so that the islanders could cede some of the land to them. There was some sort of exchange of land or territory or sovereignty.

David: The islanders had never seen a western script written out with a paper and pen before. So they just came up with this glyphic system to represent … to be able to sign a document. Then it expanded a little bit from there.

David: But no one knows why these 26 tablets or artifacts carved with obsidian stones or I think even some shark tooth was used to carve them. No one knows what they were for. We can’t read them. We’ve not even sure if it’s a language to be parsed and read. So it means that we’ll probably just live on with these tablets, never really knowing the truth.

Jen: Interesting. Well, thank you, David.

David: Of course.

Dylan: Yeah.

Jen: Enlightening. We’ll post the pictures of the glyphs, pictograms, I don’t know what the technical term is.

David: They’re glyphs.

Jen: Glyphs.

David: Also maybe pictograms.

Jen: In the links with the episode, so everyone can see them, not just us.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: Steph, you’re gonna tell us about the Zuni people, right?

Steph: Yeah. Actually the word Zuni is a Spanish adaptation. Their tribal name is A:shiwi. Again, probably butchering that, I’m sorry to anyone listening.

Steph: The Zuni people are one of 19 Pueblo tribes that are currently living in modern-day New Mexico. But they are not like the other tribes around them. They actually existed in much more relative isolation and linguists believe that the integrity of their language has been preserved for at least 7,000 years.

David: Wow.

Jen: How have they been so isolated? Are they living in just a completely remote area? Or how does that work?

Steph: I’m not really sure. I think that the isolation shows up most strikingly in the language and in their religious customs.

Jen: Got it.

Steph: So the way that they worship their gods. There’s no clear, direct ties to any of the tribes around them.

Steph: The mystery part of this, it actually comes from one woman. It’s Professor Nancy Davis from the University of Chicago. She has been developing this theory since 1960 that the reason Zuni people are so different is because they actually came in contact with Japanese Buddhist monks in the 14th century.

Jen: Oh, wow.

Steph: This is kind of a disruptive theory because it would disprove the commonly held theory that we’ve accepted about when human migration happened and when people came to the Americas and all of that.

Jen: Yeah, how would that have … that would completely disrupt. In the 1400s?

Steph: The 1300s.

Jen: 1300s.

Steph: I think it’s the 14th century.

Dylan: I didn’t even know there were Japanese monks in what is now America at that point.

Steph: Well, I don’t think that that’s a thing that a lot of other people think either.

Dylan: Yeah, it’s … so this is kind of just her explanation.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: Well, that’s why it’s so disruptive because I was like, wait, is there a huge gap in my knowledge of my country? Apparently that’s … maybe we just don’t know.

David: Maybe they met in the middle of Easter Island. They’re like-

Jen: Yeah.

David: Did a little get together and traded some secrets, learned each other’s languages.

Thomas: And they wrote it all down.

David: They wrote it all down.

Steph: Yeah.

David: Something those Rapa Nui never thought to do.

Dylan: So-

Steph: They ate some sandwiches and drew pictures about it.

David: Had some tea.

Dylan: What makes her think it’s Japanese related?

Steph: The basis of her theory is that there were some really beyond coincidental similarities in their language and their religion and their blood type.

Steph: You could look at some of the … some people would say that these are false cognates, but she focused on similarities. For instance the word for priest is shawani in Japanese. But it’s shiwani in Zuni. Then the word for clan is kwe in Japanese and kwai in Zuni. Again-

Dylan: Sounds similar.

Steph: Pronunciation might be off, but you get the picture.

Steph: Then there’s also … so both Zuni and Japanese place the verb at the end of the sentence. But as far as I understand, that’s not terribly uncommon. But it’s just another thing that she pointed out.

Dylan: And blood type was similar?

Steph: Yeah. So they both have a high occurrence of type B blood, which is super common in East Asia, but not among Native Americans.

Dylan: Interesting.

Jen: That’s the part that’s interesting to me, is I guess it’s possible to have differences in blood type in different people. But all of those things together-

Dylan: It is odd.

Jen: Are interesting.

Dylan: Yeah.

Steph: She also noted that they had similarities in tooth shape and skull configuration and this kidney ailment that they both apparently were susceptible to.

Jen: Very interesting.

Dylan: She dug deep.

Steph: Yeah. I mean there haven’t been any DNA tests to prove it either way.

Thomas: Wait, how’d she find out about the same dental?

Steph: Tooth shape.

Thomas: Tooth shape?

Steph: Well, I think she was an anthropology student.

Thomas: Okay.

Steph: So that’s kind of like you know-

Thomas: I guess.

Jen: That’s something you study in anthropology.

Steph: Yeah.

David: But isn’t that getting into the realm of phrenology, which is like a super-

Thomas: That was my thought.

Jen: But phrenology is like when someone’s living and you feel their skull to tell them things about themselves.

Steph: How smart they are.

Jen: Yeah.

Steph: I think it’s different if you’re comparing …

Jen: I think anthropologists and people who actually look at skeletons are doing it much more scientifically.

David: People who look at skeletons. I want that to be my-

Steph: I forgot the word that-

David: I want that to be my job title.

Thomas: Skeletologist.

Steph: Yeah. I forgot what the actual word was.

Dylan: My skull feels pretty great right now. Anyway.

Jen: I have a very bumpy head actually. I don’t know what that says about me.

Thomas: It says nothing.

David: So in terms of language isolationism, did anyone draw conclusions between Zuni and Basque? ‘Cause you know Basque is in the northeast region of northeast Spain.

David: But it’s completely separated linguistically from all of its neighbors and no one can really … I mean there are some theories about where it’s come from. But no definitive answer. It seems like it’s just a very similar situation.

Steph: I think it’s a similar situation. I think ultimately, the jury’s still out on this. She proposes a very interesting, compelling theory, but I think most people think that more evidence is needed.

Dylan: So yeah, I was gonna say are other researchers on board? Or they’re skeptical?

Steph: I think there’s a lot of skeptical people. I mean her anthropology professor when she first wrote her master’s thesis comparing the languages, apparently took one look at the first paragraph and said, “Go back to Alaska and do something respectable.”

Jen: Oh, my god.

Dylan: Wow.

Steph: Yeah.

Dylan: That is …

Steph: But you know-

Dylan: Harsh words.

Steph: She didn’t let that deter her. She spent the next 30 years researching this and ultimately published a book on it.

Dylan: All right.

Steph: So.

Thomas: I love really sassy academic people. Because to everyone else it just sounds like, “Oh, that’s an interesting theory.” But then in there it’s just like, “You stupid person.”

Dylan: Go back to Alaska.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: Cool.

Dylan: That is very interesting.

Jen: That’s really interesting.

Steph: Yeah. So do you wanna hear what her theory actually is though?

Jen: Yeah.

Dylan: Oh, yeah.

Steph: It’s super cool. She thinks that Japan was subject to all these natural disasters and earthquakes in the 11th and 12th century. So Japanese sailors were leaving the country in a wave of migration at that time.

Steph: She honed in on the last group to set sail, which was around the year 1350. This particular group was led by a group of Buddhist monks who were in search of the center of the universe. Which in Buddhism, it’s the middle world.

Dylan: Huh.

David: Middle earth.

Steph: They ended up washing up on the shores of California instead.

Jen: Can you imagine making a trip across the Pacific Ocean?

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: From Japan? I can’t. And I like boats and I think I would absolutely lose my mind.

Steph: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dylan: I also like the idea that California’s the center of the universe.

Steph: Yeah.

Dylan: Californians may think so.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: We should cut that out just because people from California will pick that up.

Steph: Sounds like a Beatles song. I don’t know.

Dylan: Wow.

Steph: Yeah.

Dylan: That’s quite a theory. I mean …

Jen: Nobody has … I’m guessing because it would require a lot of resources, both academic and otherwise, to disprove it. But has anybody actively tried to show reasons why she might be flawed? Or is it just picking apart? This seems unlikely to be the biggest.

Steph: As far as I know, I don’t think that there’s been … I don’t think anyone else has spent 30 years researching the fact that she’s wrong. I don’t think that there’s been an equal effort to disprove the theory.

Steph: But I think some of the common arguments against it, like I said before, is that the word similarities are false cognates.

Steph: Then some people have also pointed out that Japanese have 20% occurrence of B blood and then the Zuni have six percent. I’m not a biologist, so I don’t really know if that’s a big deal or not. But maybe it’s not enough of a link to really matter.

Jen: Yeah. I wonder if DNA testing would show anything interesting or if it would be too difficult to try to find equivalency.

Steph: Yeah. Well, then the other interesting thing that she pointed out is they had these similarities in their religious cosmology. Both cultures had a lot of ocean symbolism. Then you think about the Zuni people in New Mexico and where does that come from?

Jen: That’s interesting, yeah.

Steph: Then also she found echoes of the Chinese yin and yang cosmology.

Jen: What’s that?

Steph: The dark and-

Jen: Is that a symbol? The yin to the yang?

Dylan: Yeah, the black and white.

Steph: There’s always dark existing within light and light existing within dark. So I think she found a similar sort of-

Dylan: Interesting they have Eastern religion influences. The ocean thing is definitely weird ’cause they’re in the middle of the desert.

Jen: Yeah, theoretically you never see the ocean in New Mexico. So that’s a very interesting concept. Anything else you wanted to add?

Steph: That’s it.

Jen: No, that’s super interesting. Thanks, Steph.

Steph: Yeah, no problem.

Jen: Then, Thomas?

Thomas: All right. I bring to you today the Voynich Manuscript. I don’t actually have a physical version, but let’s pretend that I do. So let’s take it on out. Whomp noise as it lands on the table in front of me.

Jen: Your visual aids are amazing.

Dylan: Dramatic.

Jen: You’re referencing on a podcast. That’s fantastic.

Thomas: Absolutely. The Voynich Manuscript. It is a 234-page tome that’s filled with this weird language that no one can decipher and it’s just these symbols. So that right away is the mystery.

Thomas: But I think what makes it even more interesting is not necessarily the language, but the drawings. Because they’re really weird. So as we page through this fictional book, you can just see it’s kind of like a combination of astrology and herbology. There’s also just a bunch of naked people in a hot tub together.

Dylan: Oh.

Thomas: Drawings. It’s just …

Dylan: Sounds like a good time all around.

Thomas: Yeah, it’s a great time. You can look at it and basically the one thing that everyone kind of agrees on, is that it has to do with medicine. That’s kind of like, all right, we’ve got that.

Jen: Because I remember the pictures you showed us before. We’ll obviously post these so everyone can see. They’re very colorful and there’s a lot of, like you said, people, but also plants-

Dylan: Plants. Lots of plants.

Jen: And herbs. But I didn’t realize there was a hot tub picture, I missed that.

Dylan: Yeah, I didn’t see that. I want to see the hot tub. I’m not sure what medicine that is.

Steph: I think ancient mysterious cultures had a lot more fun than we give them credit for.

Jen: I think it’s probably more likely it was like a hot spring thing.

Dylan: Yeah.

Thomas: Maybe.

Jen: Giving them too much credit.

Thomas: Looks like a hot tub. Well, maybe I’m just-

Jen: Anyway.

Thomas: Imposing my ideas.

David: Is this like a … I’m so sorry.

Jen: No. It’s okay, David.

David: Very academic theory coming out. Maybe hot tub time machine. It’s like they took a time machine and it’s based on a true story and they went back in time to when the Voynich Manuscript was written.

David: The people who wrote it were like, “Wow, we saw this hot tub from the future. We need to document this.” That’s what they did.

Dylan: Go back to Alaska and do something respectable.

Jen: So when do they think the Voynich Manuscript was created?

Thomas: Let’s take a hot tub time machine back to the early 15th century, which is based on carbon dating this manuscript. We can know that is when this paper appears to be. Also believed that based on the markings, it’s from Italy.

Thomas: The first any hard evidence is that when this was found there was a letter in it from August 19th, 1665, written by Johannes Marcus, Marcy, maybe. Which said that the book, the manuscript, was sold to the holy Roman emperor Rudolph the Second for money.

Thomas: So that kind of places it there. Then also the letter said it was written by Roger Bacon, which was later disproven. Also that throws an extra weirdness to it.

Thomas: But eventually the manuscript was added to a collection of papers that belonged to a Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher. So between 1670 and 1912, no one really knows what was going on.

Thomas: But it was eventually found in this group of papers that were being sold by the Jesuits. It was purchased by Wilfred Michael Voynich and therefore it’s his name that gets attached to it because it’s the Voynich Manuscript.

Jen: Interesting.

Thomas: He found it, he opened it up, and he’s like, “What is this?”

Jen: Seems like a good read.

Thomas: I mean that’s the question that we’re still going.

Dylan: Seems like a good reason to name it after him.

Thomas: Yeah, I have to imagine that if it weren’t for the drawings, it’d kind of just be, “Eh, I don’t care that much.”

David: Could it just be doodles? Someone was just having fun one day? Or they were bored in class?

Thomas: I mean possibly.

Jen: There’s actually writing though too.

Thomas: Yeah. So that’s the language, it’s called Voynichese right now. Unlike the other mystery languages that we’ve talked about here, this is not a language done by a culture.

Thomas: This manuscript is that there’s no other evidence of it anywhere in the world. So it’s that fact that kind of … immediately after it was found in 1912, it caught on a lot of attention.

Thomas: People just started … people immediately claimed to have solved it. Then it was later found out, “Oh, no, you didn’t. You just made some assumptions.” That’s kind of the pattern that’s been going on ever since.

Thomas: People have devoted their entire lives. There is one person who spent 40 years studying this, off and on. He did other stuff. But like-

Dylan: Good.

Steph: It’s like the white whale.

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen: So wait, when did Voynich acquire this?

Thomas: 1912.

Jen: Okay. So theoretically since he acquired it, people have been more intrigued by it, even though it was lost in history for 100s of years?

Thomas: Yeah. Because it was lost and it just popped up, some people thought that it might be a hoax. Which-

Jen: I mean, seems legit.

Thomas: It could be. Also the letter seems so weird. But it’s believed not to be a hoax because first of all, the carbon dating did say that it should be from the early 15th century.

Jen: At least the paper is, right?

Thomas: Yeah. But at the same time, there’s another analysis of the language itself. So basically the frequency that the characters show up in the language seem to mirror how a real language would work.

Thomas: There’s this thing called Zipf’s Law, which is used to forecast … If you take the English language, some letters are used more than others. It’s like A is used a lot. Z is used a lot less.

Thomas: Using this law, it can be applied to pretty much any language, it can be applied to any language where it’s basically there will be a grouping of, like I said, use a lot and then letters used less.

Thomas: It’s incredibly hard to fake that without knowing Zipf’s Law, which they wouldn’t know in the 15th century if it’s a hoax from then.

Jen: I mean it’s basically just Scrabble.

Thomas: Yeah.

Steph: Maybe someone had a Scrabble tile and they’re just mixing them up.

Thomas: It is kind of. On a side note, not necessarily Zipf’s Law itself. But they’re trying to redo Scrabble now because the actual points don’t go to how frequently the letters are used. Some people are like-

Dylan: Scrabble’s linguistically inaccurate.

Thomas: Exactly.

Jen: I love Scrabble.

Dylan: Throw it away.

Jen: No.

Thomas: But that’s not relevant to here.

Jen: Sorry, that was my insane … I’m just gonna keep throwing insane theories out at you and you can keep-

Thomas: That’s great.

Jen: Disproving them during the course of this episode.

Thomas: So the manuscript was introduced to the world in the early 20th century. Right away there was this guy named William Romaine Newbold who said that he’d found it and people were like, “Great.” But then there was an article written a little bit later by Speculum and it was like, “This is total nonsense.”

Thomas: For Newbold to have been right, basically the person who wrote it would have to have had the ability to see into the future 500 years. Because it forecasted things that had not happened yet.

Thomas: So Voynich Manuscript is great. It has a cult following. If you look up Voynich Manuscript you can find a lot of websites devoted to people solving it. They all look like they were built in the early 2000s.

Jen: Of course.

Thomas: There’s interactive portions and the comments sections are filled with hate. Because it’s almost like people don’t want it to be solved.

Thomas: Because as soon as anyone does claim to have solved it, immediately people are like, “Actually that makes no sense at all, you utter fool and moron. Didn’t you consider this aspect?”

Dylan: Oh, gosh.

Jen: So like everything on the internet.

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen: But also, once you solve it, it becomes less interesting, right?

Thomas: Yeah. But that doesn’t stop people from trying.

Jen: That’s true.

Thomas: I’ll talk about two of the most recent theories that were popular but then didn’t pan out necessarily.

Thomas: There’s this one by this guy named Nicholas Gibbs and this got a lot of attention, it was published in the Times literary supplement over in England.

Jen: When was this?

Thomas: This was in September 2017. Where he said the language was based on a Latin shorthand and that the entire manuscript was based on this woman’s health text from the 15th century.

Thomas: Which he didn’t really translate any of it and people were like, “This doesn’t actually make sense because all of the grammar of the Latin would have to be clearly incorrect.”

Thomas: Also, the idea that it was based on a woman’s health text had been discussed before. So basically everyone was like, “This seems both wrong and also half of this we already kind of thought. So shush.”

Thomas: The other theory is more exciting because we’ve been working on this for 100 years now. I say we, I’ve just been following along for my life.

Dylan: For 100 years.

Thomas: But the main thing that you think, “Oh, well, now we have high-powered computers, why can’t we just get this to attack it?”

Dylan: Right.

Jen: Get the robots to do it.

Thomas: Yeah. We love robots. So there was this paper published in 2016 by a computer scientist, Greg Kondrak, and his student, Bradley Hauer. This gained a lot of traction in the media in 2018 for some reason.

Thomas: But what they decided to do was to take Voynichese and think of it as a substitution cipher. So think back when you’re eating your bowl of cereal and the decoder ring would fall out and you could use the decoder ring and every letter would correspond to a different letter.

Jen: Okay.

Dylan: I didn’t eat that cereal, but sure.

Jen: You didn’t have decoder rings?

Thomas: Well, think of … I’m specifically making reference to A Christmas Story.

Jen: Right.

Dylan: Yes, I do remember that.

Thomas: Where he locks himself in the bathroom and it says drink your Ovaltine.

Dylan: Ovaltine, yeah.

Thomas: Or something.

Jen: Yeah, brands making contact, it’s the worst.

Thomas: Anyway. So they thought it was something like that. Where this person wanted to make this encoded text and so it’s based on a real language they said.

Thomas: So all they had to do to solve it was basically compare this language and see how it compared to … I think they ran it against 380 languages.

Jen: Just 380?

Thomas: Yeah, just 380. There are 7,000 in existence today that are still living, and that’s not counting the ones in the 15th. But they took 380 and decided to see if it matched any of them.

Thomas: They eventually came to the conclusion that it matched Hebrew and they translated some of it and they’re like, “This is great.”

Thomas: But there were problems.

Dylan: There’s always a but.

Thomas: So first of all, it compared the manuscript to modern Hebrew instead of 15th century Hebrew, which there is a pretty big difference actually. I know more about Hebrew now because I wrote about it.

Thomas: Hebrew was a dead language during that time period, and now Hebrew has been revitalized and has gotten inflections from Yiddish and a bunch of other languages. So that’d be different.

Thomas: Also, a red flag, it assumed that every single word had the letters mixed up. So like …

Dylan: Like those little … what are those unscramble puzzles?

Thomas: Yeah. It’s like a jumble and a substitution-

Dylan: Jumbles, that’s it.

Thomas: Cipher and also it’s based on a language that-

Jen: Also every word is an anagram.

Thomas: Yeah. It’s-

Steph: Who had that much time on their hands?

Thomas: I mean again, computers can do it, but this kind of seems like a bad sign. But I think the worst of it all was that when they were doing this, they happened to use Google Translate.

Jen: Oh, no.

Thomas: So I mean I don’t want to completely crap on Greg Kondrak’s life. Obviously this does show how we can try to use these modern methods to try to crack it.

Thomas: But everyone kind of agrees now, “This is cool, but no. This doesn’t make any sense.”

Dylan: So it’s still unsolved?

Thomas: Yeah. As Jen was saying, I don’t think anyone really wants it to be solved. Because it’s probably just gonna be like, we solve it and then it’ll be, “Step one, apply this herb to your wound and stuff.” That’ll be boring.

Dylan: What if it cures an illness that we didn’t know about?

David: What if it’s a blueprint for how to build a hot tub time machine?

Jen: I hope that’s actually what it is because that would be-

Dylan: I really hope that.

Jen: The best reveal. We need that kind of news right now, I think.

Thomas: Yeah.

David: It’s that technology.

Thomas: Look forward to Hot Tub Time Machine Three; there was already a second. Where they go back and find out the origins of the Voynich Manuscript.

Steph: I almost wonder if there’s any … are there any astrologers who are trying to crack the code? ‘Cause I feel like if people think that it’s related to astrology and herbology, it’s probably …

Thomas: I don’t know because I think what they settled on is there are diagrams in the front of astrology and I guess it’s just like, “Yeah, this is what we do.” So they don’t see the need to devote the rest of their lives to cracking the language.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: Can you view the entire thing online?

Thomas: Yes.

Jen: That’s amazing.

Thomas: After 1912, the book changed hands a few times. Voynich, the man, died and it passed on to his heirs and eventually was donated to the Yale University Beidechi … oh, no.

David: Beidechi. Beinecke? It’s Beinecke.

Dylan: A library at Yale.

Thomas: Yeah, Yale’s library now has it and they uploaded it somewhat recently, so that anyone can see it and it’s great.

Dylan: Link in show notes.

Thomas: You can also now buy an actual physical edition of it.

Dylan: Oh.

Jen: Oh, my god. Why haven’t you bought us an edition of it?

Dylan: How much does it cost? Do you know?

Jen: You’ve been holding out on us.

Steph: How much? I buy.

Thomas: I think it’s like $50.

Jen: Buy it and then-

Dylan: That’s not bad.

Jen: Steph will dedicate her week next week to translating it.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: From an astrology perspective.

Steph: Yeah.

Jen: Then we’ll become famous. This seems like a foolproof thing.

David: We should crack the code.

Thomas: Absolutely.

Dylan: Yeah.

Thomas: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Speak a language with confidence and choose from 14 different languages, including Spanish, French, and Polish.

Thomas: Dylan, what’s something you learned recently with Babbel?

Dylan: Well, I’ve been studying some French with Babbel and particularly focusing on food vocab because that is the most important thing in my life.

Thomas: Of course.

Dylan: Yeah. So one thing that I thought was kind of funny that I found out was that breakfast is le petit déjeuner, which means little lunch ’cause it’s like a little lunch. It’s cute, you know?

Thomas: Is there a word for brunch?

Dylan: Brunch? I don’t know. Probably not.

Thomas: Oh.

Dylan: Maybe, I don’t know.

Thomas: It’s probably like le brunch.

Dylan: I’ll find out.

Thomas: Le brunch.

Dylan: Get back to you.

David: Le brunch.

Thomas: We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three-month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting That’s B-A-B-B-E-L dot com/podcast.

Jen: Welcome to the round table section of Multilinguish, where we talk about what we’ve learned this week. Because every week we produce a ton of content around languages and culture and want to share a little bit of that with our audience.

Jen: So, Dylan?

Dylan: Yes?

Jen: What did you learn this week?

Dylan: This is fun. Okay. Welcome to the round table. I like that word.

Dylan: I spoke with a US marine, he’s actually what’s called a cryptologic linguist for the marines. He was, he’s no longer.

Dylan: But basically it’s really interesting. The whole way the military language program works is really cool. You can take this test when you enter the military that-

Jen: ASVAB, right?

Dylan: Yeah.

Jen: Which is like the weirdest acronym.

Dylan: ASVAB. Yeah, I don’t like that that much. But it basically determines how qualified you are for certain special positions within the military.

Dylan: The guy I spoke with did well on it and so he took another test called the DLAB, defense language aptitude battery. Great acronyms all around. To see how good his linguistic skills are.

Dylan: Basically they use a madeup language, so you don’t actually have to speak another language. But they test you based on how well you understand this madeup language and the grammar rules. It basically just determines how good you are at linguistics.

Jen: So just determining a pattern in a language? That makes sense though, because if you’re actually trying to parse a language, even if you don’t become totally fluent, knowing if it’s a noun or a verb and being able to identify that, that kind of makes sense.

Dylan: Exactly. You know how it works as a language. Once you get past that, then you go to their special school, the Language Institute, the Defense Language Institute, DLI in California. You spend a long time there learning different languages or learning whatever language you’re assigned to.

Dylan: It’s very immersive. So you spend all your time, eight hours a day and five days a week, learning about the language and the culture. Then toward the end, you end up being kind of secluded in this little hotel type of thing with the other people learning that same language and your professors.

Dylan: You just speak the language all day, every day for like the last week or two of this program. You eat together, and the whole time you’re only allowed to use the language. So you get it down really well, which I guess is important if you’re in the military because you need to know the language.

Jen: It’s literally life or death.

Dylan: Yeah.

Jen: The funny thing that I took from that interview that you did is you only get to choose top three, but you don’t actually get to choose which language you learn, right?

Dylan: No. Yeah, you come with a list and you’re like, “These are my top three choices. I’d love to learn Spanish and French and maybe German.” And they’re like, “No, you’re gonna learn Bosnian ’cause that’s what we need right now.”

Dylan: So yeah, you can have a little bit of choice, but it’s usually just whatever’s needed at that time. But yeah, it was a pretty interesting conversation.

Jen: That’s cool. And that’s what you learned this week.

Dylan: That’s what I learned this week.

Jen: Steph, what did you learn this week?

Steph: So I did an article about the linguistic origins of New Orleans food. So I learned a lot about … well, I mean a lot of people know that New Orleans is kind of like this unique cultural melting pot that’s unlike any other city in the United States. And …

Dylan: I don’t know ’cause I’ve never been and I’m bitter about it.

Jen: I think you’re the only one on the team who hasn’t gone yet.

Thomas: Oh, that’s so sad.

Steph: Yeah, I was just there.

Dylan: Can you send me?

Steph: I was just there in November, so I’m rubbing it in.

Dylan: Yeah. Got it.

Steph: But basically, you can take apart the etymology or the contested etymology of a lot of these food names and you can sort of see all of the influences at work.

Steph: For instance, you take a dish called gumbo and a lot of people have this misconception that gumbo is basically just a creole version of … I can’t pronounce it, it’s a French seafood stew called bouillabaisse.

Jen: Bouillabaisse.

Steph: I can’t-

Jen: I don’t know if that’s the right way to pronounce it.

Steph: I’m sorry.

Thomas: That’s probably like the American-

Jen: Yeah. It’s definitely not the totally right way.

Thomas: I don’t think I’ve ever taken French.

Steph: Yeah, I apologize to everyone listening. But …

David: Bouillabaisse.

Steph: So the word gumbo actually means okra in just about every French-speaking country, which was once a key ingredient in the stew. I don’t think it’s … people today kind of make it without it or with it.

Steph: But I spoke to a culinary historian, Jessica B. Harris, and she said that the word gumbo actually comes from a word that means okra in the Bantu languages. It’s ki ngombo, or a variant of the word. So there’s this strong linguistic tie to West Africa, which a lot of the cultures there have okra soups and stews, which New Orleans gumbo is very similar to.

Steph: So you can kind of go down the list. I have a whole thing about jambalaya, the po’ boy sandwich, the muffuletta, etouffee, congri, and calas, which are sweet fried rice fritters that are-

David: Oh, my gosh, I’m so hungry.

Steph: Yeah. But it was really interesting. I mean a lot of these dishes, there’s kind of like a multiplicity of theories that it’s kind of hard to totally pin down. Because some people say it’s this, other people say it’s that. You can kind of see the case for so many different origin stories.

Dylan: Is a po’ boy like a sub?

Steph: It’s-

David: No.

Dylan: Apparently no.

David: It’s-

Jen: He’s never been to New Orleans.

Dylan: Hoagie, sub, there’s a million words. Isn’t po’ boy just one of them?

Steph: You need New Orleans explain this to you. So it’s kind of like … it’s made with this crusty Italian bread that’s usually kind of hallowed out and then there’s fried oysters and seafood inside of it.

Dylan: Not a sub.

Steph: It’s sub adjacent.

Dylan: Just ’cause of bread. Okay.

Steph: It’s sub adjacent, I think, yeah.

Jen: On a similar, equally academic note, when I took the cocktail tour in New Orleans that I recommended Thomas take as well with his entire family.

Thomas: Yes, we all got very drunk.

Jen: By noon. The organizer of that tour talks about how some of the most famous cocktails and punches in New Orleans actually have all of these different origins based on the trade routes.

Jen: So the Sazerac is a super famous New Orleans-based drink and the sugar came up from the West Indies during the sugar route. The absinthe came from French people. It’s just a really interesting way to see the melding of cultures.

Jen: Thomas, what did you learn this week?

Thomas: On a similar vein, I’ve also been writing about food a lot recently.

Jen: We do like-

David: We like food.

Jen: We do like food.

David: Yeah.

Thomas: Yeah. So my most interesting word that I discovered was turkey because did you all think that turkey was connected to the country Turkey?

David: No, not at all.

Thomas: I felt like I was told it was not at all because people were like, “You can’t just say the country is a bird, Thomas.” I’m like, yes, I can.

Thomas: So I thought that they were separate, but then I learned recently that actually turkey is named … the bird is named after the country. Because hundreds of years ago, the country Turkey would import these birds from West Africa and then have them brought into Europe through Turkey. So during that time, they were called, don’t laugh, turkey cocks. Which was eventually shortened to just turkeys.

Thomas: So that’s different from the American bird, but when people went over to America, they found a similar looking bird and then just called them turkeys. Because they kind of look a little bit similar if you look at the pictures.

Jen: So wait, so there are birds that look like turkeys that were shipped around from Turkey? But then the turkeys in North America are what we know as turkey now?

Thomas: Yes.

David: But do they still call the other ones turkeys?

Thomas: No. They stopped. Now they’re called guinea hens because they’re from-

Jen: Oh, okay.

Thomas: Or guinea fowl. So they stopped calling those … it’s just a weird thing. Then the people in actual Turkey, when they see American turkeys, are like, “Those aren’t Turkish.” So with that accent exactly. So they call them Hindi because they looked at the bird and decided that looks Indian. So they gave it the word for India.

David: What?

Thomas: Which is weird.

Steph: That’s actually in Russian, the word for turkey is … has the root indus.

Thomas: Yeah. So it’s gotta be the same sort of thing. So it’s just basically no one understands the bird and no one really likes it that much either.

David: I was gonna say, I feel like Turkish food is probably a lot more flavorful than turkey.

Thomas: Yeah.

Jen: Well, I think I’ve had … didn’t guinea hen have a moment a while back? I feel like I had some and it was way better than turkey.

Thomas: Oh, I believe it.

Jen: They’re smaller.

Thomas: I mean turkeys, they’re hard to prepare and then you have to douse them in gravy for anything to taste decent.

Jen: Yeah.

Dylan: Did you have something that you learned, Jen?

Jen: You guys teach me something new, several new things, every week.

Dylan: Oh.

Steph: Aww.

Jen: One of my bucket list items for 2019 is to go to Copenhagen. I’ve been wanting to go forever, not just because it’s the home of the Legos. But it’s supposed to be a really cool place to go. I have a lot of friends who studied abroad there and I did not and I still have a little bit of FOMO.

Jen: I read an article by our Danish writer/expert, Birte, wrote for the magazine. She’s talking about silent consonants and how to approach Danish pronunciation.

Jen: Basically there are as many … there are less Danish speakers in the whole wide world than there are people in New York City. Which is pretty crazy.

Jen: And they’re also known as some of the most fluent, best English speakers in the whole world. So there’s no way I’m gonna have to learn Danish to go there.

David: Nope.

Jen: But I still really wanted to figure it. It’s so different than any language I’ve studied. I wanted to look at it.

Jen: Basically they are masters of these silent consonants, which I know we’ve talked about in Russian and some of these other silent letters that crop up or sometimes the extinct letters that we don’t use anymore.

Jen: Apparently Danish is just lousy with these silent consonants. So there’s this whole … I won’t go through all of them, but basically, the discrepancy between what’s written and how it actually sounds is really, really difficult.

Jen: It’s like the most difficult thing if you’re learning Danish is to actually look at the word and pronounce it. Which I struggle with in English, so …

Dylan: Right.

Jen: It’s a little bit daunting. But some of the examples she gave are if you see a G anywhere besides the beginning of a word or syllable, you can be pretty confident that it won’t be pronounced.

Dylan: Oh, why put it in at all?

Jen: There’s a letter combination, H and V together. It’s a relic of old Norse, which I know we’ve talked about, sort of the route of all Scandinavian languages.

Jen: There’s a lot of those really funky-looking, like the A and the E squished together, the O with the slash through it. I’m sure, Thomas, you have the more academic terms for those letters. But I don’t want to ask you to recite them on the spot.

Dylan: How do you pronounce the A on the E thing?

Thomas: Ah! I mean, it depends on the language.

Jen: It depends on the language. It depends what consonants are between too, doesn’t it?

Thomas: Yes. Well, the A and the E together, I’d say “ah” because in the international phonetic alphabet, that is the sign for “ah.” So I’d like to think that that’s how you do it.

Dylan: I don’t know if y’all ever read The Golden Compass, but-

Jen: Oh, yes.

Dylan: They all talk about the-

Jen: Daemon.

Dylan: The daemon. I always pronounce it D the A E.

Jen: Like Matt Damon.

Dylan: Yeah, the daemon. I was like, I don’t know how to say this, so in my head I’m saying daemon.

Jen: I said daemon too.

Dylan: Is it dammon?

Thomas: It’s demon.

Dylan: Oh, okay.

Jen: They made a movie, did you see it?

Dylan: We’ll find out then. Yeah, I saw that’s coming, I’m excited.

Thomas: All right.

Jen: It came.

Steph: All that-

Jen: It came and you missed it.

Dylan: It’s out?

Jen: It’s been out.

Thomas: The Golden Compass came out years ago. Religious groups were mad because they killed god. It’s Philip Pullman.

Dylan: Is there a new one coming though?

Jen: That sounds like a good place to end it. Maybe we’ll talk about it in the future.

Dylan: I’ll report back on The Golden Compass.

Jen: All right. Thanks, guys.

Jen: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are …

Thomas: Thomas Moore Devlin.

David: David Doochin.

Steph: Steph Koyfman.

Dylan: Dylan Lyons.

Jen: And I’m Jen Jordan. Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.

Jen: You can read more about this episode’s topic and even more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit B-A-B-B-E-L dot com/magazine.

Jen: Say hi on social media by finding us @BabbelUSA, all one word. Finally, if you like what you heard, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.


David: I think that all the people who are trying to solve these language mysteries are looking in the Rongorongo places.

Dylan: Oh, no.

David: I have a message for them, to anyone trying to solve these mysteries, Zuni to really expand your mind and go on a Voynich of knowledge and nose will be the ultimate answers.

Thomas: We can’t do the podcast, it’s over. It’s been a good run, guys. But-

Jen: And cut.

Steph: I hope you’re not recording anymore.

Thomas: Yeah, the podcast ended five minutes ago.

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