Phonics and the Voynich manuscript

Some consider it to be a hoax. Despite sustained attention, the Voynich manuscript has so far defied all attempts at deciphering. Some passages resemble a medieval herbal, except that they reference fantastical plants. Others, such as the balneological section, defy obvious interpretation. There are bathing nymphs and there is water, often being pumped around through a series of strange water works.

The manuscript is named after Wilfred Voynich, who purchased it in 1912. However, it was mentioned in correspondence in the seventeenth century, radiocarbon dating places the parchment in the late medieval period and analysis of the inks used show them to be consistent with that time. Statistical analysis of the characters in the text throws up some weird patterns that seem distinct from extant languages.

If it is not elaborate gibberish, then what we really need is for someone to work out the script – what the squiggles on the page mean. At that point, we may have a hope of understanding the text. Looking at the pictures only gets us so far.

An example such as the Voynich manuscript, alongside other undeciphered texts such as Minoan Linear A, demonstrates conclusively that an understanding of a language’s script is not in opposition to an understanding of the meaning of a text. In the case of the Voynich manuscript, contextual clues such as the illustrations, only deepen the mystery.

This is a useful example to bear in mind when considering the arguments in a story by Jordan Baker in the Sydney Morning Herald this week about the new voluntary phonics check for early readers in New South Wales.

When education academic Robyn Ewing dismisses the idea because reading, “…boils down to meaning – understanding that it’s about meaning-making first.” they are offering us a false choice. Attempts at understanding the meaning of a text are only enhanced by an understanding of the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. True, knowledge of phonics may allow a child to pronounce a word that is not in their oral vocabulary and therefore a word they do not understand, but this hardly seems to be harmful to understanding. How could they access the meaning of such a word in the absence of phonics? It may even prompt a question that will lead to the child learning the new word.

Fortunately, teachers are starting to see through the false choices and are taking over the conversation for themselves. This is right and proper as teaching emerges, blinking, into the light of being a profession with a professional body of knowledge. Despite the warnings of academics such as Ewing, David Hornsby – “Absolute bloody silliness” – and Pasi Sahlberg, a third of public primary schools in New South Wales have opted in to the new phonics check. Why? Because the teachers working in those schools see the value of it.

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