O’Donovan notes. #4 Vocabularies.

3300 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

If you read comments made by Karl to Note #3, you’ll see genuine expertise on the history and methods of past and current approaches to the Voynich glyphs.

Voynich researchers, or would-be researchers, whose area of competence is mathematical-computistical deserve more attention than I’ve given them in the past, so this post offers a couple of suggestions for research topics needing those skills.

One major headache for the traditionalists – and since have no idea if Karl is traditionalist this comment isn’t about him – is that western cryptography wasn’t particularly sophisticated before 1435 and even then was developing only in a couple of regions in Europe – yet even the most sophisticated modern methods of decryption have failed to gain from the Voynich text the sort of ‘plaintext’ presumed to underlie any ciphertext.

Part of the problem might be the attitudes and assumptions embedded in the Friedmans’ approach – influenced not only by their conception of the way encipherment-and-decipherment should work, but also by their personal biases – reflecting the attitudes of their time and of the social class to which they aspired. We’ve already noted the waspish way in which Elizebeth Friedman and Mary d’Imperio met an academic board’s view that the matter might be trivial and the extraordinary over-emphasis which was placed on the merest rumour that at sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries the manuscript might have been seen or purchased by Rudolf II.

Despite that fixation which led them ever further from the manuscript’s proposed date, they do not seem to have looked very closely at any body of Bohemian ciphertexts, or even to have enquired into what sort of ciphers were employed in fifteenth century and sixteenth century Bohemia – if any.

1.My ‘Colorni’ question.

The question of how anyone in Rudolfine Prague would have been able to make sense of Voynichese has not been considered, so far as I know. My efforts, from 2018-19, to engage the interest of a cryptographer in determining whether the informing method might be among those included by Abramo Colorni in a work he published in Prague met little response. Pity.

It ended a line in my research considering various persons known to have moved through, or from, Italy en route to Prague during the Rudolfine years. Colorni was there 1588-1594.

Unless the work of testing that possibility has been quietly taken up without any reference to me or to Nick Pelling, it’s still an open question in need of computistical and cryptological skills. (Nick mistakenly supposed I’d “fallen over” Colorni’s work; in fact it came about as an extension of earlier investigation into the historical links between Jews of the south-western Mediterranean and Italy.

As I began advertising for a cryptanalyst’s assistance – first by approaching the editor of Cryptologia – and after then making a post about it, Rene Zandbergen remembered having once mentioned Colorni in a list of alchemists, but since Rene had evidently not known of Colorni’s work on ciphers nor started any original research of his own, there’s no claim of precedence there.

As as far as I’m concerned, this line in my research is still on hold and – so long as Nick Pelling doesn’t mind – anyone willing to taking up and test this possibility is welcome, so long as they do the honourable thing and mention both Nick and me.

You might start by searching ‘Colorni’ at Pelling’s blog and reading the following post and comments made to it:

2. Text-types.

Another question which has apparently been always a blind spot for theorists is what kind of text or plaintext the Voynich text might be.

We really don’t know, and certainly don’t know enough to assume the usual ‘either prose-or-poetry’. That other kinds of text have not emerged on the Voynich research horizon is most easily explained as another manifestation of the ‘high culture’ and ‘high society’ fixations of last century.

So that’s another question worth looking into, and first of all a survey of what kinds of text are attested in the greater Mediterranean and in Europe before 1440. One which has been mentioned – by Alain Touwaide – is the semi-formal medical-magical notebooks of Iatrosophia.

In a vein half-humorous (but only half-), I once posted the following image to remind Voynicheros that there did exist writings of other kinds, including technical instructions.

  • from ‘Voynicheriana #16’, Sidenotes to the Voynich manuscript (Feb 4, 2013).

That ‘postcard’ was inspired by a series of posts which Julian Bunn had written which had led him conclude that the text ‘was not a language at all’.

By ‘a language’ I took him to mean one defined in terms of neatly grammatical prose or poetry. Though I considered a variety of ‘technical instruction’ sort of texts, I chose to imagine a knitting pattern because there, once more, Voynichese seems so neatly to accommodate to it just as it does to others of the technical instruction type. I chose knitting because Voynicheros have an unconscious but nonetheless deeply-rooted traditional bias against ‘lower class’ material, and an ingrained if equally unconscious chauvenism (nationalistic and gender-specific). Such unconscious bias, or to be more positive, such predelictions, determine and thus restrict their research-range and arbitrarily set its parameters.

There’s nothing a-historical about the possibility that some, or much, of the Voynich text might consist of technical instructions, including ones relating to, say, dyeing or weaving rather than alchemy or medicine. Having the secret of making those highly-technical patterns of silk-velvet and figured velvet was so vital to the Venetian economy that, like the glassblowers, those craftsmen were forbidden ever to leave the city and its environs. And, as we know, technical secrets were the most likely to be enciphered. So it’s not a random possibility and ‘technical instruction’ of any kind should be included as one group if anyone would like to survey the types of text appropriate to a period before fifteenth century and especially texts which had no need to conform to a model of nicely grammatical prose or poetry.

3. Alphabets – a comparative database.

I find it astounding that the most basic question anyone asks when confronted with an unreadable text is a question which has apparently never been asked in Voynich studies. That is, ‘Is this set of glyphs attested in use – as a set – in any writing system recorded before 1435?’

I expect that the work of compiling such a database might take a dedicated researcher a couple of years. It wouldn’t be enough to compile an list of standardised forms such as you find, say, at Omniglot, though they would provide a good first foundation from which to build. The researcher would also have to take into account actual historical examples and note the varying forms which letters took in practice.

I recall raising this very question – i.e. if the question itself ever been asked – only to receive inexplicably over-confident assertions that such comparisons were “unnecessary” because Voynichese “obviously looked like the Roman alphabet.”

Assertions of that sort, made without the speaker’s admitting it a personal instinct and no more, create an impression that one is hearing a pronouncement from on high, invested with unarguable authority, but looked at carefully, they’re just hypothesis-balloons.

The Voynich glyphs which are also found in a Roman alphabet occur in many non-Roman scripts too, while those which do not occur in a Roman alphabet make the pronouncement’s ‘obviously’ meaningless.

And accepting that the set of Voynich glyphs “looks” Roman to such a speaker it means no moe than that it looks like one of the family of scripts descended from Etruscan, Greek or Phoenician precedents because it certainly doesn’t resemble classical Roman script. Tempers can rise over the lineage of Roman script so I won’t go further into that here, and it’s not a subject where any online source will do.

To see how not-very-well educated Roman soldiers actually wrote in the 1stC AD, seethe tablets from Vindolanda, and for the ductus, this illustration copyrighted by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (here). That site has a nice term ‘sub-literary text’. 🙂

Then you might consider finding alphabets or abjads which include forms comparable to those glyphs which are in the Voynich set, but not in any version of the Roman (i.e. western Christian) alphabet.

A little nettled by the tone of that ‘unnecessary’ speaker, I decided that while the text isn’t my field, I’d see whether what I call the ‘ornate p’ form exists in any recorded alphabet.

‘Ornate p-forms’

I found it does occur, and in a variety of forms, in scripts classed of the Aramaic family of scripts – that’s scripts not languages. The ‘Aramaic-derived’ scripts, I should warn readers, is an absolutely enormous family. This sort of comparative research is not only data-base worthy but data-base essential.

I’ve taken the following from an online site because it seems close to the current scholarly consensus but here again you’ll find that linguists, palaeographers and epigraphers can be a disputatious lot.

The ancient Aramaic alphabet was adapted by Arameans from the Phoenician alphabet and became a distinct script by the 8th century BC. It was used to write the Aramaic language and had displaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, itself a derivative of the Phoenician alphabet, for the writing of Hebrew. The letters all represent consonants, some of which are also used as matres lectionis to indicate long vowels. The Aramaic alphabet is historically significant since virtually all modern Middle Eastern writing systems can be traced back to it as well as numerous non-Chinese writing systems of Central and East Asia. That is primarily from the widespread usage of the Aramaic language as both a lingua franca and the official language of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, and their successor, the Achaemenid Empire. Among the scripts in modern use, the Hebrew alphabet bears the closest relation to the Imperial Aramaic script of the 5th century BC, with an identical letter inventory and, for the most part, nearly identical letter shapes. The Aramaic alphabet was an ancestor to the Nabataean alphabet and the later Arabic alphabet. Writing systems (like the Aramaic one) that indicate consonants but do not indicate most vowels other than by means of matres lectionis or added diacritical signs, have been called abjads by Peter T. Daniels. The term [abjad] was coined to avoid the notion that a writing system that represents sounds must be either a syllabary or an alphabet, which would imply that a system like Aramaic must be either a syllabary (as argued by Ignace Gelb) or an incomplete or deficient alphabet (as most other writers have said). Rather, it is a different type.

from site DBpedia, article ‘Aramaic alphabet’.

Not all scripts in the Aramaic family use no vowels, but what a majority show is that the ‘ornate p’ with one loop and/or with two loops, consistently represent a sound within the ‘S-T’ shift. Here’s a table I included when posting a summary of that cursory survey. It shows a script variously said to be Ubyk or Abkhaz. Cidi Celebi recorded it as ‘Ubyk’; others identify it as a script used for Abkhaz. You’ll see it has an ornate ‘p’ form, a variant of the ‘ornate p’ we find in many, and widely separated, scripts derived from Aramaic forms.

Here’s another illustration from my posts, selected to demonstrate the geographic range of the Aramaic family. The previous example above came from the Black Sea region – the following one from older Arabia. It is known as ‘zabur’ or ‘psalm’ script and is said to derive from Sabaic – whose forms, again, derived from Aramaic script.

Attempting to provide a data-base able to address -let alone resolve – the question of whether the set of Voynich glyphs finds a counterpart in some other pre-1450 script is no trivial undertaking, unless you’re a specialist who has already years of training and experience in comparative palaeography.

4.Plant-pictures – (a)Vocabularies

By now, one would have thought, there’d be a substantial data-base created for Voynicheros in which as many plants as possible were listed with (at least) their names according to the Greek, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Hebrew and Judeo- dialects and varying orthographies. The plants would be any of which knowledge is attested in the greater Mediterranean (at least) prior to c.1440.

As a first foundation, for anyone willing to make an historically-appropriate data-base, you might begin by collating the contents of Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma with, say, a Jewish list compiled in medieval Provence. Here are some initial resources.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – open access.
  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. highly recommended
  • Gerrit Bos, Martha Hussein et.al.,(2011) Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance). Brill.

To be of real value for the hopeful decrypters of Voynichese, such a database should then moving outwards, in geographical and in linguistic terms, as well backwards in time to cover the possibility that the present text derives from one written very much earlier than the fifteenth century.

4 (b) .. as drawings.

Before 2009, the manuscript’s images had generally been treated much as Newbold treated them and with no effort made to understand how we go about treating problematic pictures today. The ‘method’ was a pretty basic ‘match-the-picture’ exercise and matches weren’t sought on the basis of preliminary analysis of the picture itself, but from whatever range was dictated by the Voynichero’s preferred theoretical-historical-fictional story. Here again, the paradigm of the traditionalist method – transferred to the New World – is ‘The Voynich Codex’ in which so many pictures are similarly ‘matched’ to suit a wholly theoretical tale.

After I’d been publishing analytical-critical research and summaries for a few years – that would be about 2012, a crop of newcomers appeared who seemed to have had it as their mission to create more Eurocentric and traditionalist-friendly ‘alternatives’. A detailed analysis and commentary of the Voynich map published from 2011 onwards saw ‘alternatives’ invented by several such newcomers but in the event they served the traditionalists scarcely at all, and served the study adversely.

Again, though I was not the first to recognise that one image refers to plants of the ‘banana’ group, and the identification had not met – and never was met – by any informed debate, suddenly there were efforts made to produce an ‘alternative’ in that same childish ‘match-the-picture’ style. Even pre-schoolers learn both to compare and to contrast, but not many Voynicheros attempt the same.

Assertions of ‘similarity’ were made without any evidence of the proposer’s having troubled with historical investigations or inconographic analysis. A Voynichero’s website might alter a title to read ‘analysis…’ but there too I found no evidence of any effort taken to grasp the principles and practice of iconographic analysis.

One certainly welcomes informed comment, debate and alternative conclusions – such things are essential to any field of study. But in Voynich studies, such artificial ‘alternatives’ have served only as obfuscation, not unlike that manufacturing of confusion which we associate with think-tank disinformation.

If you ever need to judge between one and another assertion made about the pictures, see how well or poorly the writer discusses the Voynich image, of itself, in terms of historical, geographical and cultural context. Since it is actually that context which is being ‘matched’, failure to contextualise the chief item makes any comparison dubious.

And check their bibliography – in ‘Findings’ that bibliography filled a separately posted page.

In my opinion, the fact that so few Voynicheros show evidence that they have the time and the inclination to study – to read – is a significant problem.

To judge from what has been said to me directly, and from what has been produced and presented as explanation for the manuscript’s images, I can only suppose there are very few Voynich writers aware that there is such a discipline as iconographic analysis, and fewer who understand that it involves far more reading, and continual study, than is spent in just ‘looking at’ pictures.

It may be a common idea that pictures are easy and written text is difficult, but that’s an illusion.

No less than do written works, pre-modern pictures express the habits, spoken language, ideas and beliefs, customs and daily practice of the community for whom they are first formed. In the case of the Voynich pictures, that first community is still unidentified, as is the first composition of its written text.

There is certainly very little in the Voynich pictures which conforms to the traditionalists’ theory of an all-western-Christian origin for the whole. I’ve explained this in its positive and its negative aspects several times, as well as outlining aspects of human psychology which affect reactions to, and interpretations of ‘the foreign’ in images.

All we can agree on as “what we know”, or surely think we know, is that these images were copied on to these sheets of vellum during the first decades of the fifteenth century.

Any occasional similarity between a Voynich image and something seen in a western manuscript – such as a herbal – may be due to the fifteenth-century copyist’s resorting to his own local habits in drawing, or may relate more distantly to some common ancestor – perhaps from north Africa or from 9thC Baghdad, or from one of the great many works and manuscripts whose original is now lost. It would be interesting to see a debate on the question of whether or not Latin Europe ever had an indigenous herbal tradition.

When we develop ‘genealogies’ for manuscripts or for images, the parameters are usually quite clear and tight because we begin by knowing enough to limit the parameters fairly well. This can’t be said for any aspect of Voynich studies because we don’t know enough and the old presumptions, magnified by traditionalists’ maintaining social attitudes and attitudes to history characteristic of the Anglo-German school during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, seem to triumph only because backed by that same tradition. Objective validity would be shown – as it has never yet been – by that narrative’s having solved (rather than determinedly ignored) the great many questions raised by this manuscript, including the nature of its written text.

People ignorant of cryptography usually refrain from trying to decrypt the Voynich text. The same is true – usually – for people asserting that Voynichese is written in one or another language. One might wish that a similar level of restraint was shown to images in the manuscript, or alternatively that those interested in them would find the time needed to learn the work of iconographic analysis and to do the amount of reading required for any opinion to be considered well-informed and balanced by suitably qualified external scholars.

[end of rant].

To end on a more text-oriented note – here’s a thought-provoking passage from another of Pelling’s posts.

Even back in 1962, Elizebeth Friedman – having been a top US Government code-breaker for several decades – was able to note that all attempts to decrypt the Voynich Manuscript as if it were a simple language or single-substitution alphabet were “doomed to utter frustration”. That is, if you wind the clock back half a century from the present day, it was already clear then that Voynichese’s curious lack of flatness was strongly incompatible with:

  • natural languages
  • exotic languages
  • lost languages
  • monoalphabetic (simple) substitution ciphers, and even
  • straightforward hoaxes

from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Statistics, And Why Voynichese Is Not Flat‘, ciphermysteries, (January 21st., 2016).

I haven’t checked Pelling’s source(s) for myself in this case – as one usually must with Voynich writers – because in thirteen years I’ve never found an instance of Pelling’s attempting to claim (tacitly or overtly) credit for another person’s contribution to the study, nor of dishonesty in giving details of original contributions and sources. I cannot at present think of another Voynich topic on which we wholeheartedly agree. 🙂

2 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes. #4 Vocabularies.

  1. Period’s a bit late and well into western literalism, but otherwise – this is a superb example of analytical-critical approach to an image, complete with cultural and literary contextualisation, commentary on technical ability, and the question asked, and addressed by that means. Do watch


  2. The commentator opts for a trompe-l’œil as explanation. It’s perfectly possible, though if one connects the forget-me-not and its German legend (the beloved knight dies performing a service for the lady), then perhaps she loved a man whose surname had been the Norman name rendered as Fly, Flye, Flyt etc. To make ‘Hofer’ into ‘hover’ and ‘hofering’ into ‘hovering’ would also be characteristic of an English or Anglo-French accent. But that is speculation whereas we know as fact that trompe-l’œil was fashionable at the time and it is always wise to opt for what is fact over what is unproveable.
    At the end, analytical critical studies aim to give the reader the means to ‘read’ an image accurately – that is, as it would have been read by people of the time and cultural community in which it was first made.


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