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Text Analysis - the Writing System

Introduction

The main mystery of the Voynich MS is clearly its unknown writing. This topic is addressed from three different aspects, on three (sets of) pages:

This page addresses the first part, the analysis of the writing system. Following are the main topics of this page:

Text and Layout

Main text writing

Almost the entire Voynich MS is written in a script that is not found in any other surviving (old) document. The main text of the MS has been written largely in a line-by-line manner, obviously from top to bottom and from left to right. The majority of the MS text is written in short paragraphs, which are often separated from each other by a larger line spacing. Herbal pages typically have two or three such paragraphs, which tend to occupy mostly the upper half of the page, clearly avoiding the herb drawing. Pages in the so-called biological section tend to have much more text, filling the entire page, sometimes with just three paragraphs, but occasionally also more. The text tends to have a straight left margin, and is only roughly right-justified, except for the last line of each paragraph which tends to be shorter.

The text consists of groups of characters separated by spaces, and these groups seem to form words. The same words tend to appear throughout the MS, with a frequency distribution that is quite normal for a meaningful text (1).

Labels

In some places, single 'words' are written near elements of drawings. These have come to be called 'labels'. There is a clear suggestion that these words provide the name of the object in question. Many of the label words also occur in the running text, though only rarely do they also occur in the immediate vicinity of the label.

The following types of labels may be found in the Voynich Ms:

There are also places in the MS, for example in the cosmological section, where single words appear as elements in the overall design, but not necessarily near an identifiable object.

Titles

The term 'titles' was introduced by John Grove. It is a term used for the words that appear at the end of a paragraph of text, written somewhat away from the main text (usually at the right margin or centred). Some clear examples (four instances) are on f1r, the first folio of the MS.

Text in circles

Almost all astronomical, astrological and cosmological pages have circular drawings, some with text written in normal paragraphs, but all with text that has been integrated in the drawings. Frequently, text is written along the circumference of these circles, and occasionally also along radial lies. The following figure shows an example of text along the circumferences and along radii of such a circular drawing.

Character or word sequences

In some circular designs and occasionally also in 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. They have all been included in the table at the bottom of this page, with the keyword 'SEQ'.

The circular diagram on f57v deserves special mention here, as there appear to be several sequences of words and characters integrated in this figure.

Non-sequential writing

In a few places it appears as if the first characters of lines were written in a vertical column first, possibly in order to create a straight left margin. The remainder of the text was then added later. The following example is one paragraph on f88v.

In addition, there are several places in the MS where writing seems to have been added 'afterwards' or where the text was perhaps not written in a strictly top-down line-by-line manner. One clear example is f105r, where one may observe a text break and a use of different inks before and after it, and also a partial line added above the last paragraph in the darker ink. There are more examples of this type of change in the MS.

The character set

While the earlier owners of the Voynich MS (Barschius, Kircher) may possibly have believed that the writing represented a languague unknown to them, nowadays we know that there is no other old MS that uses the same writing. Ever since it was brought to light by Voynich, people have compared the script with examples of writing. A summary of this is provided in section 4 of D'Imperio (1978) (2), and this may serve as the basis for the following.

Latin abbreviations

In medieval manuscripts numerous more or less standard abbreviations and ligatures were in use. A collection of such abbreviations may be found in the dictionary of Cappelli (1912) (3), which lists, in alphabetical order, a large number of abbreviations found in Latin and Italian manuscripts. While browsing through this dictionary, one will immediately recognise the similarity between some of its enties and the writing in the Voynich MS. D'Imperio (see note 2) shows a few cases in Fig.17.

A particular set of characters in the Voynich MS is usually called 'gallows' characters. They ascend above the majority of other characters. There are four of these:

They also occur in combination with the character ch, in which case they have been called 'pedestalled gallows':

While these characters are not typical abbreviations, one illustration in Cappelli (1912) (4) provides a striking comparison:

Alchemical symbols

Figure 42 in D'Imperio, taken from Gessmann (1922) (5) shows some similarities between Voynich MS characters and a few alchemical symbols. There are only a few examples, and it is not certain whether this is coincidental or not, since these alchemical symbols were not known to me to have been in use in the early 15th century.

14th and 15th Century cipher

Potentially of great interest is the comparison between the characters in the Voynich MS and the symbols 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.

Of particular interest is the codex of Tranchedino (MS Vindobonensis 2398 in Vienna), which has been issued in a facsimile edition (6). This MS lists numerous, 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 also the various illustrations of Voynich MS text 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.

Among the few known examples of manuscripts from the 15th century that have been written in code are two manuscripts by the humanist Giovanni Fontana (ca. 1395 - ca. 1455). Also these are available in facsimile edition. More information about Fontana and his cipher may be found on a web page by Philip Neal (7).

Initials

The initial characters of many paragraphs are larger than usual, and are sometimes embellished with additional curls or dots. Not all characters in the MS can appear in a paragraph-initial position, and indeed these characters form only a very small subset.

In addition to this, there are two initials highightde in red on the first page of the MS (f1r), which are not standard characters in the Voynich MS alphabet. These have been the subject of some speculation, and many years ago I was struck how one of them appears almost identical to the old Aries symbol in Greek astronomical manuscripts (see in particular here.

More recently, a convincing argument has been presented on >>this blog page by J.K.Petersen. The conclusion is that these symbols have been used for centuries as emphasis or paragraph markers, and it is apparent that the Voynich MS scibe was familiar with these.

Rare characters

The text of the MS includes numerous rare characters. Many of these appear only once in the MS, and could be considered aberrant forms of standard characters. Others appear several times, and are concentrated in some pages of the MS. One of these has been called the 'picnic table' (x). Other examples may be found in the next page about transcription of the text.

The handwriting

General

A still largely unexplored area of the Voynich MS is a palaeographic analysis of the writing. Since the script is unique, it does not lend itself very easily to such analysis, but a few comments have been recorded. They fall into two categories.

The first is whether the type of script can be placed in a geographical or temporal context. In this respect, the herbalist Sergio Toresella stated in 1995 (8) that the handwriting of the MS was a humanist hand, which belongs to 15th century Italy. While some doubts have been expressed over the years by non-experts, it was recently confirmed by another handwriting expert (9). An interesting point with respect to the humanist hand is, that this was not at all popular in the time before printing, and it was an elitist hand primarily used for classical texts, but not for medical texts or by scribes (see note 9).

The second question is whether the text is all by a single scribe, or one may identify different scribes, or at least different hands. Several experts have stated that the handwriting appears to be uniform throughout the MS. Panofsky made a short remark to his extent (10), and a more specific statement from A.H. Carter (1946) is quoted in section 3.1 of D'Imperio (see note 2), who even goes further and says:

Because the same ink and the same kind of penstrokes appear in the illustrations and because the text forms an integral and unified part of many of the illustrations, it appears probable that the same person wrote the text and drew the illustrations.

Also Toresella stated (see note 8) that the entire MS appears to be in the same hand.

Currier's Hands

A contrary opinion was stated by Prescott Currier, who was the first to point out (11) a variation in handwriting style. He also correlated these with textual statistics, as described on another page (12). 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'. Currier even tentatively identified several more hands, which he called 3, 4, 5, X and Y.

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 similar-sized section of a page.

f2r, Herbal f26r, Herbal f70r2, Cosmological
f79v, Biological f86v5, Text-only f88v, Pharmaceutical
f116r, Recipes

At first sight, only the Herbal-B page seems different, but more samples should be compared before any conclusions can be drawn. In addition, this sort of analysis should be done by an expert paleographer. Pending that, it would appear as if Currier's correlation between hands and languages, which he based mostly on the herbal section, may not be valid for the other sections.

Apparent lack of corrections

One unusual feature of the writing of the Voynich MS is that it appears to have no corrections. The first mention of this (that I am aware of) is in a letter preserved in the Beinecke Library, from Anne Nill to Theodore Petersen, dated 19 Feb. 1953. She writes:

I remember I talked too much, but did I really say "the ms. does not include a single erasure or correction"; whatever I said, this is my present opinion: in all my experience of manuscripts I have never come across one in which corrections and erasures are so unobtrusive as they are in this ms. if it contains any. I have looked through it again - of course not every word, and have nothing to add to the one or two probable corrections I recorded c. 1936 when I worked with photostats.
 
In this connection I must add that we still have a few Voynich estate mss. (requiring additional research which I never found time for, before I attempt to sell them) which include one beautifully written text on fine vellum and some well and some poorly written manuscripts; and in none of them is there any difficulty in detecting corrections, erasures, deletions or transpositions.

This apparent lack of corrections has occasionally been taken as evidence that the scribe could not understand what he wrote, or even that the text is meaningless.

Ever since high-resolution images of the MS have been publicly available, closer scrutiny by many people has revealed a few cases where it appears that the text has been emended. Following are those cases I am aware of, which shows that such corrections are few and minor.

f16r f20v f24v f39r
f39r f42r f50v f79r
f80r f83r f102v2 f112r

Extraneous writing

This general term is used to indicate several different types of additional writing that may be found in the MS. Only very few barely legible phrases in the normal (non-Voynich) alphabet may be observed in the Voynich MS. These are listed below, including the numbering of folios and quires.

Folio and Quire numbers

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 on a previous page (see also here).

On several of the cosmological pages the characters 'a', 'b' and 'c' have been written in the top corners: fol. 67r1, 2, fol. 68r1, 2, 3, fol. 70r1, 2. These are written in pencil and were obviously added by a later owner of the MS. This may date from as late as the Jesuits of the Collegium Romanum, or even Wilfrid Voynich.

Month names in the zodiac section

Month names have been written in a later hand in the central drawings of each of the zodiac pages: fol. 70v2,1, fol. 71, fol. 72 and fol. 73.

The language, which is certainly a Romance language or dialect, has been much debated, including suggestions of Spanish, Occitan and French. The most convincing argument is presented >>at this web page and thus the language would appear to be Northern French. This is further confirmed by the appearance of very similar month names on an astrolabe that originates from Northern France (13). Following is a table of the readings:

FolioSignMonth name
f70v2Piscesmars
f70v1Ariesaberil
f71rAriesaberil
f71vTaurusmay
f72r1Taurusmay
f72r2Geminijong
f72r3Canceriollet
f72v3Leoaugst
f72v2Virgosepte(m)b(r)
f72v1Libraocte(m)bre
f73rScorpiusnove(m)bre
f73vSagittariusdecebre

Apparent colour annotatios

On some of the earlier herbal pages in the beginning of the MS we find individual letters, and in one case the word 'rot', in or near leaves, flowers and stem of plants. These appear like colour annotations, and were already discussed here, in the frame of the origin of the MS. A detailed list of these annotations has been added to the table at the bottom of this page with the key word 'COL'.

Other 'plain text' writing

On f1r we find the faded or erased ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec. This is discussed in more detail on a dedicated page.

The ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec.

In addition, in the right margin we find faded or erased character tables, which are presumably a decryption attempt by a later owner.

Mixed writings in or near margins

On f17r we find a largely unreadable comment near the top margin. Nick Pelling was the first to observe that this also includes one or two words in the Voynich script, barely visible in normal light, but clear under UV illumination. They seem to read: oteeeon oiil but in particular the second word is not clear. See also Pelling (2006) p. 164, where he reads oteeeol aim (14).

In the left margins of f49v and f76r we find detached sequences of characters, in the former case accompanied by the roman numerals 1-5.

On f66r we find both characters and short words in the left margin. Near the bottom of the same page we find some apparently German words, which have been partially amended, near the dead body of a man or woman, and some other objects. This was first interpreted by R. Salomon as 'der Mussdel'. I would propose the reading 'Musmel'. Neither are generally accepted. There is also some writing in the Voynich script, this time clearly visible.

The text on f116v is a short paragraph of text including what appears to be German, Latin and two words in the Voynich script. An additional line is slighty offset above this, in the top margin. It is perhaps the most debated text in the entire MS.

Other

On f66v and f86v3 we find strange, unreadable yet similar scribbles of which it is hard to say whether they represent readable text or not. They are usually referred to as chicken scratches. These two have been added to the below table with the key word 'SCR'. More chicken scratches may be observed above the roots of fol. 43r, but these really look like scratches, so are not counted.

Overview of additional or extraneous writing

Fol. Type Lang What / where Comment
1r SEQ V+L Three vertical sequences of single characters in the right margin, faded or erased Possibly a decryption attempt by a later owner
1r WRI L The ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec, followed by the number 19 (TBC) faded or erased, in the bottom margin see here
1v COL L A single 'g' under the paint of the second leftmost green leaf The suggestion is that this indicates that it should be painted green.
2r COL V Voynich text (ios an on ?) under green paint of bottom right leaf (middle petal) The suggestion is that this could also be a painting instruction
2v COL L Cursive 'fo' or 'fa' in dark ink just above the first word of the second paragraph. Similar to 'fo' (meaning folio) annotations on all pages of the alchemical herbal Firenze MS 106.
4r LET L A capital F in the rightmost flower
4r COL L The word 'rot' (German for red) written vertically in the stem of the plant (near the bottom)
9v COL L Several characters in the top left flower under the blue paint: 'por' in the top petal, 'p' in the lower left petal and 'r' in the lower right petal Readings are tentative. These may also be colour annotations.
9v COL L A single 'g' to the right of the top right flower Seems to be another colour annotation.
11v MAR Nr The nr. 88 (or Voynichese dd ?) close to the edge of the page, at the height of the second last line. Seems to refer to the Voynich character sequence dd found on that line.
17r MAR L+V Small writing in the top margin of the page. Under UV illumination, one or two words in Voynich writing, largely faded, can be seen at the end of this fragment.
20r COL L A 'p' (or possibly an 'r') at the top of the root system Could be another colour annotation.
28v SCR ? Some apparent symbols in the middle of the flower If this is writing, the script has not yet been identfied.
32r COL L A 'p' and what looks like a 'v' or an 'r' in the bottom right flower. There could be another character after the 'p'. These could be more colour annotations.
39v LET L A capital B in the white space between the two green part of the bottom right leaf.
49v SEQ V+L A vertical sequence of single characters in Voynich script in the left margin, aligned with and just before each line of writing. In addition, the numbers 1 to 5 to the left of the top five characters. Both may have been added after the main text was added.
57v SEQ V A four times repeating cycle of 17 single characters in the Voynich script, in the second ring from outside
57v OTH ? A symbol in the lower right corner of the page Tentative reading: 17 (-mus)
66r SEQ V Sequences of words and characters in the left margin of the page
66r SEQ L+V Writing near the lower left corner of the page, with a reclining person and some other small objects The well-known 'musdel' reference
66v SCR ? Unintelligible scribles left of the root of the plant Similar to those on f86v3
67r2 FOL L A pencilled 'b' in the upper right corner of the page
68r1 FOL L A pencilled 'a' in the upper left corner of the page
68r2 FOL L A pencilled 'b' in the upper left corner of the page
68r3 FOL L A pencilled 'c' in the upper left corner of the page
70r1 FOL L A pencilled 'a' in the upper left corner of the page
70r2 FOL L A pencilled 'b' in the upper left corner of the page
70v2 MON L The word 'mars' near the Pisces emblem
70v1 MON L The word 'aberil' near the Aries emblem
71r MON L The word 'aberil' near the Aries emblem
71v MON L The word 'may' near the Taurus emblem
72r1 MON L The word 'may' near the Taurus emblem
72r2 MON L The word 'jong' near the Gemini emblem This is the strongest evidence that the language is northern French
72r3 MON L The word 'iollet' near the Cancer emblem
72v3 MON L The word 'augst' near the Leo emblem
72v2 MON L The word 'septe(m)b(r) near the Virgo emblem
72v1 MON L The word 'octe(m)bre near the Libra emblem
73r MON L The word 'nove(m)bre near the Scorpius emblem
73v MON L The word 'decembre' near the Sagittarius emblem
76r SEQ V+L A vertical sequence of single characters in Voynich script in the left margin, aligned with some of the lines of writing.
86v3 SCR ? Unintelligible scribles in the middle of the page Similar to those on f66v
116v MAR L+V Recipe or spell, in a mixture of pseudo-Latin and German, with two words in Voynich script. Additional marginal drawings.

Notes

1
The frequency distributions of words and characters are analysed in more detail in the analysis section of this web site. For the words in particular, see this page. The frequency distribution that is hinted at is called Zipf's law, which is also explained here.
2
D'Imperio (1978).
3
Cappelli (1912), also >>available on-line
4
Tavola (table) iv (see note 3 above).
5
Gessman (1922)
6
Tranchedino (1970).
7
See >>here.
8
In priv.comm. to Jim and Karen Reeds.
9
I hope to be able to quote the source of this statement soon.
10
His uncertain statement made in 1954 may be found here (question 9).
11
See in his online paper.
12
See here.
13
As described in King (2001), pp.138-139 and p.398. I am grateful to Don Hoffmann for this reference.
14
See Pelling (2006).

 

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