In the text of the Voynich manuscript, certain glyphs frequently occur in isolation. Additionally, there are a few pages that contain a sequence of single glyphs, in a circular band or in the margin like initials. Studying these cases could potentially teach us something about the VM writing system. This post is my first exploration of the phenomenon.
Let us first have a look at which glyphs can occur in isolation in the text, as if they form a “word” by themselves. In modern English, only two glyphs can pull this off: “I” (the personal pronoun) and “a” (the indefinite article). Three if you allow the archaic interjection “o”. However, one can think of situations where other glyphs appear separately as well.
Five EVA glyphs appear in isolation over a hundred times; in descending order these are: [s, y, l, o, r]. We might also add [d], which occurs 44 times in isolation. Let’s call these sylord glyphs, a special category with the ability to function as a “word” beyond any reasonable doubt. We can be certain that these, at least, are separate glyphs.
Overall though, this approach won’t take us far. For starters, as in English, not every glyph in a language will appear in isolation. And how do we differentiate between single glyphs, digraphs, ligatures, short words, one-off scribal errors…? And with the VM’s notorious use of ambiguous spaces, can we trust that a free-standing glyph is actually free-standing? And what about minim clusters, which are traditionally transliterated as something like [aiin], but may also be read as one glyph? This leaves us with more problems than solutions.
For example, let us analyze this line from f6v.
In EVA, this would be written something like chockhy.s.or.chy.s.ain.or. The first [s] is clearly separated by spaces. One could argue about the second [s]: on voynichese.com it is attached to “ain”, reading “sain”, while in the ZL file it remains separate. The latter option seems the most likely to me. But now consider the “ain” part: how many glyphs are these? Three, two, or even just one, made of three minims with loops at the ends?
Might we find intentionally single glyphs elsewhere?
In the margins
There are a few pages where series of single glyphs have been added in the margins, almost like initials. The first such example is f49v:
For these to be helpful, we must assume two things:
- They represent single glyphs. One glance at the series suggests that this is very likely the case, since none of these glyphs appear composite, consisting of mostly one or two strokes.
- They were made by someone who “knew” Voynichese. This is impossible to know for sure. In the case of f49v, I see no reasons to doubt the series’ authenticity, but other cases are less clear.
Let us now consider each series in turn. Since we are interested in the behavior of common Voynichese glyphs, the many rare or unique glyphs in these series will be ignored.
The first series of “single characters” is found on f49v, in the left margin. The sequence is mostly repeating, but since sequences are not the focus of this post, below is just a quick and dirty representation of the glyphs.
This column uses the gallows [k, p, f] and glyphs [d, e, o, r, s, y]. It also includes two rare glyphs, which we will ignore: one resembling the number 2, and another that looks like a mirrored “c” or an open circle. This leaves us with gallows and “sylord” glyphs (only [l] is missing). To me, this suggests that the writer knew what he was doing: gallows have the appearance of initials, and sylord glyphs already occur easily by themselves. If the c-shape is indeed the same as EVA-e, then it is the exception here.
- gallows: [f, k, p]
- sylord: [s, y, o, r, d]
- other: [e]
A similar column is found on f66r. This one includes more rare glyphs, and no clear repeating sequence. In the image below, I simply cut up the column to make it more presentable. This is no attempt at discovering a sequence.
In this series, we are treated to three different gallows and the complete sylord collection. This is no surprise. Much more interesting are the three other frequent glyphs. It includes EVA-c, which is the first half of the “bench” glyph, if it is indeed the same. But it also included EVA-sh, the bench-with-curl on top. So what is it, are benches made up of parts, or are they single glyphs?
Finally, there is one attestation of EVA-air. If both assumptions are correct – that these represent single glyphs and that the writer knew what he was doing, then the implications are huge. It would mean that [a] is part of the minim sequence, and that [air] was considered a single glyph. Of course, we don’t know if the assumptions are true.
- gallows: [f, p, t]
- sylord: [s, y, l, o, r, d]
- other: [c, sh, air]
Yet another marginal column is on f76r, but this one contains only 9 tokens, which I awkwardly gathered below.
We get one gallow here, and only [y] is missing to complete the sylord-collection. The surprise guest on this folio is EVA-q, which is notorious for almost always preceding EVA-o.
- gallows: [k]
- sylord: [s, l, o, r, d]
- other: [q]
Circular diagram: f57v
f57v contains two circular bands of single characters in a series that repeats four times with only minor variations. The image below, made by Sam G, is a good representation of the first band. Several of these characters are rare or unique to this page. I fully acknowledge that these may be important, but they are not the focus of this thread, so let’s look at the rest.
- gallows: [f, k, p, t]
- sylord: [y, l, o, r, d]
- other: [c, m]
This is the inner band:
- gallows: [f, k, t]
- sylord: [s, y, l, o, r, d]
- other: [m, aiin, ar]
In summary, f57v contains all gallows and all sylord glyphs. There is again what looks like the first half of the [ch]-bench, and this time no complete bench to counter it. Interestingly, both [aiin] and [ar] are included in the inner string of single glyphs.
Finally, around the centre of f69r, we find six more single (?) characters. At first, I doubted whether these should be considered, since they appear to correspond to points of a diagram. But then it dawned on me. This whole post I’ve been promoting the silly mnemonic sylord, which stands for all free-occurring glyphs in descending order. Now look at this:
In these six points, we get five out of six sylord-glyphs: [s, y, l, o, d]. Note that EVA-r has been present in all other pages we looked at, but here it is the missing one. Even more surprisingly, in its stead we get something that looks like [ed] or [em]. (ZL says “ed”, TT says “em”). Apart from this last combination (?), it looks like this diagram is well aware of Voynichese’s preferred single glyphs.
We now have an inventory of the common glyphs used in isolation on five conspicuous folios. The graph below shows on how many of these pages each glyph features in a series of singles:
The graph shows that gallows and sylord glyphs are clear favorites. The gallows [f, k, p] are used in three out of five folios. Common glyphs [l, r, s] occur in all but one folio, and [s, o, d] are found in all five.
Gallows: according to the ZL transliteration file, gallows are not used very frequently in isolation in the normal text. This is not required either, after all most words (in Latin script) consist of multiple letters. Still, gallows are popular choices when the VM needs isolated glyphs. This is no surprise, since the initial-like gallows have a strong air of proper “glyphhood”.
It should be noted that benched gallows do not occur. This may be an argument in favor of “unstacking” benched gallows rather than considering them unique single glyphs.
Sylord: before studying the series of isolated glyphs, I checked which glyphs commonly stood alone in the normal text. In descending order of frequency, these were [s, y , l, o, r, d]. As it turns out, these are also the most popular glyphs in series of singles. There must be something special about these glyphs, making them particularly suited to stand by themselves. Or about other glyphs, making them less likely to stand by themselves. It looks like when they ran out of sylord and gallows, they would resort to “weirdos” rather than other Voynichese glyphs.
Benches: the bench characters are EVA [ch, sh]. Here, the results are ambiguous. The first part of the [ch]-bench appears to be used on two pages. I don’t know whether this is a “weirdo”-glyph that simply looks like half a bench, or it actually hints at benches’ composite nature. Strangely, the bench-with-cap [sh] is used in one of the series, hinting at this being considered a single glyph. Interestingly, [sh] is the most frequently isolated non-sylord glyph. Despite being less than half as frequent as [ch], the capped bench [sh] occurs twice as much in isolation.
e: despite being one of the most frequent glyphs in the MS, [e] does not like to occur in isolation: this only happens on f49v. It is unclear to me whether this was an intentional use of the actual glyph. It looks like this folio, when it had used all but two of the gallows-sylord set, started experimenting with curved lines, since it also includes some weird mirrored version of [e].
Additionally, one page contains [em] as the final member of a series of sylord-glyphs. Given this evidence, I would suggest that [e] has less “glyphhood” than gallows and sylord-glyphs.
q: EVA-q, the glyph that looks like “4”, is usually followed by [o]. In the whole VM, it appears only once in isolation, in the margin of f76r. To me it looks like a clear example of [q], and it is represented as such in both LZ and TT. In the clip below, you can see three examples of [qo] in the main text as well.
Since this is a unique example, it is not clear to what extent this demonstrates that the [q] usually attached to [o] was seen as a separate glyph. If one considers this as evidence, then it probably implies that prefixation of [q] somehow further modifies a word that has already been prefixed with [o]. If I recall correctly, research has been done along these lines, and this is certainly a possibility.
ar, air, ain: Separate glyphs [a, i, n] are entirely absent from the series, yet a-clusters appear on two folios. Granted, the three of them are different and they are not nearly as frequent as gallows or sylord-glyphs, but still a-headed clusters have a clear presence. This should really make us wonder what’s going on with these glyphs. Does [a] exist separately, or is it always part of a larger, combined unit? Or does [a] turn into something else, like [y] when it stands alone? Is [i] a separate character, or merely a stroke in a larger glyph? And why is [n] missing from the separate glyph series? It has a loop, making it more clearly defined for standalone use, yet it is always attached at the end of certain clusters.
Both TT and ZL mark three or four single [n] in the main text, but those have a strange shape compared to the normal versions on the same page.
We still have a lot to learn about the way Voynichese script functions. I was surprised to see that the five pages with a separate series of individual glyphs all follow the same logic, relying heavily on gallows and especially sylord-glyphs. These same glyphs are the ones that most often stand alone in the main text as well, which may suggest that the writer(s) of the glyph series made informed choices.
Other glyphs were notably absent: the bench [ch], benched gallows and [a, i, n]. The latter three only appeared in combinations. EVA-e occurred on one page, but in my opinion not entirely reliably. Either way, its absence from the four other pages is strange given the status of [e] as the second most frequent glyph in the main text. Therefore, I would include [e] along the glyphs where something weird is going on.
Focusing on the absence of [a, i, n, e], I can think of two possible “solutions”:
- Are they strokes of larger glyphs? EVA [ain] can be read as a three-minim glyph with a loop on each side.
- Do they have preferred equivalents for standalone situations? For example, maybe [a] becomes [y] in certain contexts, and the [y] version – with tail – is preferred when the glyph stands by itself. Visually, [r] can be seen as [i] with a tail and [s] as [e] with a tail. Apparently this even extends to the bench characters, where the only the tailed version [sh] occurred once.
As so often, this post left me with more questions than answers. And if I learned something, I am not sure what it is.