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Analysis of the writing (script)

Main text writing

Introduction

Almost the entire Voynich MS is written in a script that is not found in any other surviving 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. Biological pages tend to have much more text, filling the entire page, sometimes with just three paragraphs, but occasionally also more. The text is roughly right-justified, except for the last line of each paragraph which tends to be shorter. The initial character of a paragraph is occasionally larger than usual, and is also selected from a very restricted set of characters.

The text consists of character groups separated by spaces, which seem to form words. These words tend to appear on all pages with a reasonably normal frequency distribution (1).

Labels

In some places, single 'words' are written near elements of drawings. These have come to be called 'labels'. The suggestion is very strong that these words provide the name of the object in question. Many of the label words also occur in the running text, though not usually near 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 an element 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 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). Some of the clearest examples (four instances) are on 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. Usually, 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 added in a table at the bottom of this page, with the key word 'SEQ'.

The circular diagram on fol. 57v deserves special mention here, as there appear to be several sequences of words and characters integrated in this figure.

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.

Closer scrutiny of the MS by hundreds of pairs of eyes has revealed a number of cases that do look like corrections. (Some will be included here). 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 top-down manner. One clear examples is fol. 105r, where one may observe a text break with different inks used before and after, and a partial line added above the last paragraph in dark ink. (Additional examples will also be shown here.)

Similarities with other scripts

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) (2), which is the basis for the following.

Latin abbreviations

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) (3), 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) (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.

14th and 15th Century cipher

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 (6). 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 (7).

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 (8).

Currier's Hands

While various experts have stated that the handwriting appears to be uniform throughout the MS (9), Prescott Currier was the first to point out (10) a variation in handwriting style. He also correlated these with textual statistics, as described on another page (11). 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
f116r, Recipes

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.

Extraneous writing

This general term is used to indicate serveral 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:

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 (12). 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 (13). They have 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. 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 'word' in the Voynich script.

In the left margins of fol. 49v and f76r we find detached sequences of characters, in the former case accompanied by the roman numerals 1-5.

On fol. 66r 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.

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 fol. 66v and fol. 86v3 we find strange, unreadable yet similar scribbles which are not necessarily written text, but possibly they could be. 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. Seem to 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, a word 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 it's 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'. 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 norther 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
Frequency distributions of words and characters are looked at in more detail in the analysis section of this web site.
2
D'Imperio (1978), Section 4.
3
Capelli (1912), also >> available on-line
4
Tavola (table) iv. (see note 3 above)
5
Gessman (1922)
6
Tranchedino (1970).
7
Information provided by Nick Pelling in 2001.
8
See >>here.
9
E.g. A.H. Carter (see D'Imperio, S. 3.1), S. Toresella (priv.comm.).
10
See here.
11
See here.
12
As described in D.King: The Ciphers of the Monks: A Forgotten Number-notation of the Middle Ages (Stuttgart, 2001), pp.138-139 and p.398. I am grateful to Don Hoffmann for this reference.
13
See also here.

 

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