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Analysis of the writing (script)

Introduction

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.

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) (1), 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) (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:

Alchemical symbols

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.

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 (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).

Currier's Hands

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
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.

Transcription of the Voynich MS

Introduction

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 v101 for short) which again includes 'composite' characters as single elements

Both for Eva and v101 True Type fonts have been designed: "EVA Hand 1" by Gabriel Landini and "Voynich 1.01" by Glen Claston. Either font allows high-quality rendition of the Voynich MS text in documents. They can be downloaded at the site map.

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.

Overview of the alphabet

The following table gives an overview of the alphabets mentioned above, presenting the most frequently used characters of the Voynich MS script (but note that both Eva and v101 can represent many more rare characters). After that, some further information about the most relevant alphabets is presented. The Eva and v101 fonts will only display correctly if the True Type fonts have been installed on your computer.

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.

Bennett FSG Currier Char Frogguy Eva v101
D4 4 4 qq 4 4
OO O o oo o o
S8 8 8 dd 8 8
GG 9 9 yy 9, ( 9 (
Z2 2 s ss t, s, T t s T
LE E x ll e e
QR R 2 rr y, x, X y x X
CTT S ct chch 1 1
ETS Z c't ShSh 2, 3 2 3
HH P qp tt k k
Bennett FSG Currier Char Frogguy Eva v101
PP B qj pp g, j g j
KD F lp kk h h
FF V lj ff f, u f u
CHTHZ Q cqpt cThcTh K K
CPTPZ W cqjt cPhcPh G, J G J
CKTDZ X clpt cKhcKh H H
CFTFZ Y cljt cFhcFh F, U F U
AA A a aa a a
CC C c ee c c
II I i ii i i
Bennett FSG Currier Char Frogguy Eva v101
ILIE G ix ilil ie ie
IILIIE H iix iiliil iie iie
IIILIIIE 1 iiix iiiliiil iiie iiie
IQIR T i2 irir z z
IIQIIR U ii2 iiriir Z Z
IIIQIIIR 0 iii2 iiiriiir iZ iZ
UL D v nn N N
NN(*) N iv inin n n
MM(*) M iiv iiniin m m
IMIIIL 3 iiiv iiiniiin M M
Bennett FSG Currier Char Frogguy Eva v101
 K J ig mm p, Q p Q
 IK K iig imim P P
 IIK L iiig iimiim q q
 IIIK 5 iiiig iiimiiim iq iq
     c) bb
 (6) 6 cg gg * *
 (7) 7 & jj & &
YY (n) n xx \, | \ |
VV (v) ^ vv ^ ^
     z zz %252 ü
     ' ' '
     " " "
     + + +

(*) Note: Tiltman used the FSG alphabet, but instead of N and M wrote IL and IIL.

FSG
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 Reeds (1995) (11). A printout of this transcription was found by Jim Reeds in the Marshall library, and together with Jacques Guy he entered it in computer readable form. This file is >> available for downloading.

Currier
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 until about the mid 1990's, which, however, has some lacunae, which is not always realised by its users.

Frogguy
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

Eva
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.

v101
The v101 alphabet was designed to keep stroke combinations that appear to be single signs as single characters. It furthermore distinguishes between several variants of characters that were considered one in all previous alphabets. The designer of this alphabet transcribed the entire Voynich MS using it.

Special Topics

Labels

'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:

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). The clearest examples are on the front folio of the MS (four instances).

Character or word sequences

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.

These are:

Extraneous writing

Only very few barely legible phrases in the normal (non-Voynich) alphabet may be observed in the Voynich MS. These are:

On f1r
A faded or erased signature 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 (12).

On f17r
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.

On fol. 66v and fol. 86v3
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. Following is a table of the corresponding readings:

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

On f116v
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.

Gathering / Quire marks and folio 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 in a previous page.

Notes

1
D'Imperio (1978), Section 4.
2
Capelli (1912), also >> available on-line
3
Tavola (table) iv. (see note 2 above)
4
Gessman (1922)
5
Tranchedino (1970).
6
Information provided by Nick Pelling in 2001.
7
See >> here.
8
E.g. A.H. Carter (see D'Imperio, S. 3.1), S. Toresella (priv.comm.).
9
See here.
10
See here.
11
Reeds (1995).
12
See also here.
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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2014
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Latest update: 25/09/2014