Voynich script

With all the computing power we see employed to serve study of the Voynich manuscript’s written text,  I have long hoped to see a statistical study made of where and when we find similar glyphs within other scripts, whether alphabetic, abjad or otherwise.

It  seems reasonable to suppose that the creators or the later copyists responsible for our present manuscript might employ forms already familiar to them in some way; the Voynich glyphs present as ‘real’ script,  not a collection of artificial and newly devised signs.  At the same time, we know that the complete set has so far found no  match. So far as we know – but who has troubled to really look into it?

Obviously other factors come into play in considering the present form of this text.   Copyists, for example,  tend to naturalise the shapes of any foreign letters that strike them as  ‘like’ one they are used to writing.  An originally oval form, perceived as like the Latin “o” may be rendered as a circle .. and so forth.  Speaking of “o” shapes – it is obvious that not every Voynich ‘glyph’ is worth including in such a study.  An “o” shape is near ubiquitous and its occurrences unlikely to tell us much. But to find that a glyph of the more unusual sort does occur in a standard script is surely of some interest, and a map showing where and when they occur most often would surely be of interest too – all the more if we find the range sits within definable  geographic and/or temporal limits.

I’m not suggesting that we could announce Voynichese to be this language or that by so simple a method, but we might gain insight into the range of precedents available to the persons who first set down the Voynich script in its present form.

As   illustration of what I mean …

the-glyph(click to enlarge)

script Coptic Galatians marked textThis fragment, being considerably earlier than 1405-1438, and a product of   Christian Egypt, nicely chimes  with the manuscript’s history as  Georg Baresch envisaged (or knew) it to be, outlined in his letter to Athanasius Kircher.  We might also recall that another document from Egypt (this time from a medieval work) includes glyphs closely similar to some of the ‘gallow glyphs’.[1]

Philip Neal published an original transcription of Georg Baresch’s letter; his translation with notes can be read online. [2]

Naturally, I’m not trying to lead readers to infer that the text is Coptic.  Proper investigation of the glyphs’ occurence and range will require input from  specialists in epigraphy, comparative languages, palaeography and statistics.  I’m simply showing that such an investigation might produce very helpful information.

The Coptic fragment above as published on Alin Suciu’s site. It is reproduced with his permission, and was earlier shown in connection with Beinecke MS 408 (here).

If anyone does feel curious about where and when the more unusual Voynich-like forms occur in other scripts, may I suggest a control: the Voynich glyphs include no   “x” form.


[1] often mentioned now, credit for bringing these glyphs to the notice of Voynicheros is owed to Nick Pelling, via his comment on Okasha El Daly’s book. (see here).

[2] I have noticed some confusion in recent secondary writings.  Wilfrid Voynich himself translated the letter to Kircher from Marcus Marci (with the notorious rumour about Rudolf’s  600 ducats) but  Neal’s translations are now the standard for citation.

I am happy to credit other translations that may have been made of one or more documents, but I would ask that people consider the amount of time wasted (including Zandbergen’s time) when they wrongly attribute origins for information found on Zandbergen’s website voynich.nu to Zandbergen himself.  To the best of my knowledge, Zandbergen reads no Latin and has never made an original translation from any Latin text.



  1. Diane

    I agree that such a study is needed. A problem I foresee though, is that many shapes are found all over the place. Not only “o”, but also 4, 9, 8 – not as numerals but as actual letters. Also the pi-shape is very often found, just off the top of my head. If you were to color-grade a map based on the number of voynich-like glyphs found there, the whole area around the Mediterranean and far beyond would turn pretty dark.

    That would basically turn the gallows into the deciding factor, and there we have two options. One is to look for glyphs that are very similar. That brings to mind certain Coptic “magic symbols”, though I am not convinced of their relevance. And, of course, certain European legal documents.

    The other option is to assume that the underlying shape was something different and that they were turned into the gallows later, but then where do we draw the line? What is similar and what isn’t?

    And, even worse, if we have to assume some creativity or adaptation on the part of the people who turned the script into what it is now, then who can say which shape is invented or adapted and which one was taken from their environment? How far did they go in replacing original glyphs with others?

    An additional problem: you will want to avoid irrelevant scripts cluttering the results. So how do you select those?

    Hmm. Let’s say it will take a courageous individual to perform this task 🙂


    • Koen,
      I’m not sure the issue is *quite* so messy. We have, in general, a fairly good understanding of the history of literacy – I mean of scripts according to their ancestry and evolution. In the main, the Mediterranean has only one tradition, though we usually speak of three: the Egyptian characters, the Phoenician characters which are presently believed derived from those (and which informed the Greek and Latin alphabets) … and the Aramaic family.

      I know that there will immediately be yells of “what about the Byblos syllabary? What about the Minoan scripts and cuneiform etc.etc.” I have seen some people speak about those in connection with the VMS but for the sort of exercise I mean (in the post above) I think scripts of those three families would be the reasonable first assumption for compiling data. As I’ve pointed out before, the Voynich script’s “ornate P” form is descended from finds regular parallels in scripts of the Aramaic-family of scripts and occurs over a definable range – which seemed to touch the Mediterranean only at the Black Sea (- as far as I looked into it, at least). I don’t want to say too much, or sound dogmatic of course because it’s not my field and even whether the thing is feasible should be decided by experts in epigraphy and paleography, I should think. The aim isn’t to name a language ‘Voynichese’ but to look further into the question of how this script came to be inscribed using these particular forms of glyph.

      The so-called “gallows” are not, of course, gallows letters in the strict sense. Nick Pelling, I think, was the first to be reminded of them in looking at later documents, and it was those later documents which had true ‘gallows’ in them. What I described informally as “elongated ascenders” (a neologism I think) has since been rendered into a more impressive Latin phrase by one of the “central European” group, but so far as I know that doesn’t make it any less informal. Those elongated ascenders occur ( as I’ve long ago shown) in early Mozarabic works, and (as I notice someone else has recently decided to agree) there are certain interesting comparisons to be found in works of that milieu and the Vms’ “bathy-” folios.

      Unfortunately the notion that rediscovery or re-use of other people’s work should adopt the forms of originality and neglect acknowledgements means that what should become a single stream, joined by others, to form a torrent of opinion becomes just a seasonal soak – found, then lost, then found, then lost…:)


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