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 in D'Imperio (1978)
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 (1912) (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 (1912) (3) provides a striking comparison:
Figures 42 in D'Imperio, taken from Gessmann (1922) (4) 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 (5). 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 (6).
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 (7).
While various experts have stated that the handwriting appears to be uniform throughout the MS (8), Prescott Currier was the first to point out (9) a variation in handwriting style. He also correlated these with textual statistics, as described on another page (10). 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 similar-sized section of a page.
|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:
The faded or erased Ex Libris of Jacobus de Tepenec. This is discussed in more detail on a dedicated page.
There are also faded or erased character tables in the right margin.
On some of the earlier herbal pages
Individual letters, and in one case the word 'rot', in or near leaves, flowers and stem of plants. These appear like colour annotations (11).
An unreadable comment near the top margin. Nick Pelling was the first to observe that this also includes one 'word' in the Voynich script.
On fol. 66r
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.
fol. 66v and
Strange, similar scribbles (possibly not really written text)
On several cosmological pages
The characters 'a', 'b' and 'c' written in the top corners of some pages: fol. 67r1, 2, fol. 68r1, 2, 3, fol. 70r1, 2.
These are written in pencil and obviously originate from a later owner of the MS.
On the zodiac pages
Month names 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 (12). Following is a table of the readings:
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.
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 (see also here).