Almost the entire Voynich MS is written in a script that is not found in any other surviving document.
Most of the text has been written in a line-by-line manner, obviously from left to right and from top to bottom. There are character groups separated by spaces, and these groups appear to form words, which tend to repeat on all pages with a normal frequency distribution. Especially on the herbal pages it appears that the illustration (or at least its outline) was on the page before the written text, and the text carefully avoids these illustrations.
In some places, single 'words' are written near elements of drawings. These have come to be called 'labels'. Other, more complicated, pages contain (often circular) diagrams, and the text occasionally seems to form an integral part of these. It may be written along radii or along circumferences of the circles.
In various places, short words or even single characters in the Voynich script form what are called 'sequences'. Their meaning is not yet clear, but they deserve special attention.
In addition to the above, there are a few lines or words in the MS which are not written in the Voynich script. This so-called 'extraneous writing', even though obviously in the normal Roman alphabet, is almost all unintelligible. These occurrences will be described below, after a more detailed discussion of the Voynich MS script.
Possibly the earlier owners of the Voynich MS (Barschius, Kircher) may have believed that the writing represented a languague unknown to them, but nowadays we know that there is no other manuscript that uses the same writing. Since the time it was discovered by Voynich, people have compared the script with examples of writing found elsewhere. A summary of this is given by D'Imperio
which is the basis for the following.
In medieval MSS more or less standard abbreviations and ligatures were in use, for example a (small) nine at the end of a word meaning '-us', or, when at the start of a word meaning 'com'. A standard work on this topic is the dictionary of Capelli (2), listing in alphabetical order a large number of abbreviations found in Latin and Italian MSS. While browsing through this dictionary, one will immediately notice a number of ligatures that remind us of the writing in the Voynich MS, in particular also the characters that don't look like Latin characters or numbers. D'Imperio lists a few cases in Fig.17.
A particular set of characters in the Voynich MS are usually called 'gallows' characters. They ascend above the majority of other characters. There are four of these:
In another variety, they are combined with another character and are often called 'pedestalled gallows':
One illustration in Capelli (3) provides a striking comparison:
Figures 42 in D'Imperio, taken from Gessmann (1922) shows some similarities between Voynich MS characters and a few alchemical symbols. There are only a few examples, and whether this is coincidental or not is not certain.
More promising seems to be the comparison between the Voynich MS characters and those found in early renaissance cipher systems. D'Imperio (Fig.39) shows examples from a cipher of Parma (1379), A Venetian cipher (1411) and the Code of Urbino (1440). While these do not show exactly the same characters as the Voynich MS, there are some striking similarities, and the author of the MS may well have been inspired by these, or similar, examples.
A particularly interesting example is the codex of Tranchedino (MS Vindobonensis 2398 in Vienna), which has appeared in facsimile edition (4). This MS lists rather similar sets of ciphers to be used with different correspondents, and they are dated from 1450 to 1496. None of these ciphers uses the gallows characters mentioned above, but the common sequence '4o' (see illustration above) appears several times, typically representing a single character. Other typical features of the ciphers in Tranchedino are that they include nulls (characters that are introduced but have no meaning), and that double characters are usually represented by a single code character (5).
Among the few known examples of MSS from the 15th C written in code are two MSS by the humanist Giovanni Fontana (ca. 1395 - ca.1455). Also these are available in facsimile edition. More information may be found on a web page by Philip Neal (6).
All those who studied the Voynich MS text realised the need to be able to convert the text to Roman characters. The only exception to this rule was Fr. Th. Petersen of the Catholic University of America, who made a complete hand transcription of the MS using the original alphabet. This was in the 1930's, well before the introduction of the computer, of course.
Various transcription alphabets for the Voynich MS script have been devised in the past. The First Study Group (FSG) of Friedman defined an alphabet agreed by all members of the team. Using this alphabet, they transcribed almost the entire MS in the 1940's. Because of the desire for secrecy by Friedman, nobody outside his team was aware of this transcription exercise or the alphabet they used.
Prof. Bennett of Yale University was one of the first to use the computer to analyse parts of the Voynich MS text, and he therefore needed a transcription alphabet.
Currier, working on his own, also devised a transcription alphabet. When he presented his findings at the 1976 symposium, Mary D'Imperio suggested that it would be important that all researchers use a unified alphabet, and announced that she would abandon here own in favour of Currier's.
Later, D'Imperio showed that many characters in the Voynich MS cannot be represented exactly by any of the existing alphabets. There are some 'rare' characters, and there are what appear to be ligatures of several characters. This was reflected in a new generation of transcription alphabets.
The first example of this was the 'Frogguy' alphabet by Jacques Guy, first presented in 1991. This alphabet uses characters which represents common 'strokes', and thus allows the representation of the many ligatured characters using these strokes.
The second example of this is the EVA alphabet which will be used throughout this site.
After this, Glen Claston devised a transcription alphabet which he called Voynich 101, (here V-101 for short) which again includes 'composite' characters as single elements, and which distinguishes between several variants of characters that were considered one in all previous alphabets. He used this in his transcription of the entire Voynich MS.
Both for EVA and V-101 True Type fonts have been designed, allowing a rendition of the Voynich MS text in documents.
One of the main problems in transcribing (and ideally translating) the Voynich MS is the fact that one cannot determine for certain what are the 'single characters'. Just like in normal medieval MSS, there are apparent ligatures. The designers of the different transcription alphabets have made different choices on this topic.
The following table gives an overview of the alphabets mentioned above, presenting the most frequently used characters of the Voynich MS script. The columns of the Currier and EVA alphabet have been highlighted. After that, some further information about the four most relevant alphabets is presented. The V-101 font is still missing and needs to be added.
In this table, the characters of the Voynich MS are being shown using small gifs presenting the characters according to the EVA Hand 1 font of Gabriel Landini. Elsewhere on this site, the characters may only show up if this font is available to your browser.
(*) Note: Tiltman used the FSG alphabet, but instead of N and M wrote IL and IIL.
The FSG alphabet uses capital letters and numbers. It has an unusual method for transcribing the 'intruding gallows', by using a special symbol (Z) for the intruded pedestal.
The FSG transcription is well described in a paper by Jim Reeds (ref). A printout of this transcription was found by Jim in the Marshall library, and together with Jacques Guy he entered it in computer readable form. This file is >> available for downloading.
Currier had transcribed a significant part of the MS in his alphabet. This uses the capital letters A-Z and the numbers 0-9 (i.e. all 36). Currier's alphabet does not represent some characters which FSG does, and uses single characters for what appear to be composites. Mary D'Imperio had also started transcribing parts of the MS using her own alphabet, which she abdicated in favour of Currier's. The two files were merged and the result is the most often-used transcription of the MS, which, however, has some lacunae, which is not always realised by its users.
This powerful alphabet was devised by Jacques Guy. It uses lower-case characters, numbers and diacritical marks, and represents the closest similarity with the original script. As a result of its analytical nature, some characters which appear to be one, are represented by several in this alphabet. It is well explained at >> one of Jim Reeds' web pages
The EVA alphabet was designed in the framework of a more recent transcription effort. It is analytical, like Frogguy, but it uses only lower-case alphabetical characters. These have also been chosen in such a way that the transcribed text is almost pronouncible. The power of this alphabet lies in the fact that it allows the definition of 'rare' characters or character components using numerical strings, in such a way that the entire MS can be represented. This is explained in detail at a local copy of the EVA alphabet reference page.
This alphabet is used in Takeshi's transcription, the future EVMT transcription and at this web site.
Using the EVA transcription alphabet as described above, it is possible to point out a number of features of the writing of the MS. These are presented in the analysis section of this site.
While various experts have stated that the handwriting appears to be uniform throughout the MS (7), Prescott Currier was the first to point out (8) a variation in handwriting style. He also correlated these with textual statistics, as described on another page (9). He called the main hands '1' and '2', and the textual variations languages 'A' and 'B', and proposed that the 'A' text was written mostly in hand '1' and the 'B' text mostly in hand '2'.
The following 'cuts' from various pages of the Voynich MS show the different handwriting styles usd in the different sections of the Manuscript. Currier's classification of languages into A or B has been reflected in the font used in the captions. Red and bold for A-language, blue and italic for B-language and neutral when no identification was given.
Each image represents a 32mm x 32mm section of a page. They were scanned from Friedman's copy of the Voynich MS now kept at the George C. Marshall Library and Archives in Virginia.
|f2r, Herbal||f26r, Herbal||f70r2, Cosmological|
|f79v, Biological||f86v5, Text-only||f88v, Pharma|
At first sight, only the Herbal-B page seems different, but more samples should be compared before any conclusions can be drawn. Pending that, it would appear that Currier's correlation between hands and languages, which he based mostly on the herbal section, may not be valid for the other sections.
'Labels' is the term used for the appearance of single words or short phrases near drawings. The suggestion is very strong that the label gives the name of the item shown. The following types of labels may be found in the Voynich Ms:
The term 'titles' was introduced by John Grove. It is a term used for the occurrence of words appearing at the end of a paragraph of text, written somewhat away from the main text (usually at the right margin or centred). The clearest examples are on the front folio of the MS (four instances).
In some circular designs and in the margins of some pages, sequences of single characters or short words may be found. These are usually referred to as key-like sequences.
Only very few barely legible phrases in the normal (non-Voynich) alphabet may be observed in the Voynich MS. These are:
Quire marks are found most commonly (but not always) on the verso of the last folio in each quire, in the lower right corner, while folio numbers have been added in the upper right corner of the folios, when the pages were folded in. Both appear to have been added after completion of the MS. They are discussed in some more detail in a previous page.