Voynich Heavy Inking

This was supposed to be a comment on Nick Pelling’s blog ciphermysteries, but turned out too lengthy. So I decided to turn it into a blog post. It is of the “all out” type..


I am wondering about the use of the term “glyph” in voynich world. I suspect it is understood slightly different as in Unicode terminology, i.e. “characters vs. glyphs“. More like in “hiero-glyphs”, I’m afraid.

I think EVA’s “bad” is in that it partially tries to transport meaning in shapes instead of code points, and that it encodes in (E)ASCII instead of Unicode.

If we look at the Copiale Chiffre decipherment, the simple complication of “tokenising” (substituting) german bi- & trigraphs “ch”, “tz”, “sch”, and doubles “ll” and so on in separate homophone sets disrupts statistical language guessing and more.

Now EVA does exactly that when it introduces special characters which could be mapped otherwise in Unicode (like diacritics, dialectic variants, tironian notes, latin & scribal abbreviations, phonotactics [variable spacing] etc.) or be expressed as ligatures. Much worse, the mapping is to high ASCII chars instead of the Unicode Private Use Area. So e.g. we throw an inofficial &163 (£, english pound sign) at the stats where it would eventually need an U+2184, Latin Small Letter Reversed C, etc. The neglecting of ligatures, abbreviations and spacing does it’s deed.

While otherwise little regarded features of medieval crypto techniques of Linguistic Obfuscation, for example Code Switching (using latin, vernacular french, italian etc. intermittently) and layering of these “weak” methods certainly pose an obstacle, some statistical methods are not impeded by the uncertainty of existing transcriptions, like the fundamental note, that there are no capitalizations in, sorry for the pun, “so-called voynichese script”.

The voynichese character set is not an “in situ” creation, meaning it is not invented out of the blue, as this is an almost impossible task for reasons I cannot outline here.

The script uses many ligatures and has many unique scribal abbreviations, along with many borrowings from Tironian notes” would describe it rather well, while this quote is nicked from the Wikipedia article about Insular Script.

Prescribed practice hasn’t been tried, so far. The most difficult problem of “no language, no alphabet” could be digitally tackled with a graphemic transliteration table first, followed by an allographic analysis (comparing mean distribution of possible variants), encoding spatial positions on a character level, encoding emanation types (e.g. inking density for writing order definition), ambiguities etc, etc. Of course encoding the imagery, marginalia, physical properties etc. would be part of the VMS ontology, no matter if TEIP5 or standoff-property style.

Multi-level is the keyword, but I realise this is getting much too lengthy for now while not even beginning to outline the task completely. It means tons of work. I would like to avoid a certain proverb I find ghastly, but it is true:

A lot of bathtubs will have to be unplugged.

The whole duty
of Typography, as of
is to communicate
to the imagination,
without loss
by the way,
the thought or image
to be communicated
by the Author.

An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns — but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.

Robert Bringhurst, “The Elements of Typographic Style

The Voynich Undusting

Lunch break is over! Now for a short coffee break.. there is a book on the coffee table, a coffee table book, so to say. With strangely familiar looking letter like symbols and incomprehensible naive imagery. So much for shortness.. but let me type along.

I think the Yale facsimile edition of the VMS is excellent. Not so much in terms of “crispness” of the print, which would rather disappoint me. It enables me to “get related” with the physical appearance of the volume, almost as being able to leaf through it. A very different experience from watching it onscreen.

I need to do a few things differently on this blog, in terms of personal resource allocation. Hence, to understand the true nature of the weBlog format, which is to be an aid to condensate my thoughts. You are welcome to accompany me on my breadcrumbs trail. Please excuse brevity from now on.

The Voynich Challenge

A Strange Proposal

dungeon map

Photo by Dru!

I wrote the following text a while ago with the idea in mind to put it up as a challenge on a place like Quora but then it got too lengthy and also too implicative. Reading it now it sounds more like the intro to a text based adventure game.



Let’s suppose you receive a strange proposal. Your task is to create a large body of text, split into several parts varying in length from single sentences to several pages, around 200.000 characters in all. The actual content is not important but it should appear meaningful. The text must appear to be written in an ancient, yet unknown language. This is crucial, it needs to be absolutely indiscernible from a real, existing ancient language, even to experts on the field and should hold up under scrutiny for at least a few decades. The reward is tempting so you don’t ask questions and agree to the assignment. Your timeframe is about 12 months.
You receive a batch of papers containing texts as a source of inspiration and a few hints like a list of keywords to use in different contexts, that it would do no harm if fragments of some words and sentences would appear here & there and the suggestion to encrypt parts of it to your liking. You could sometimes make it look lexical or otherwise copy the structure of some of the texts.
Which prove as a random collection of all sorts of different things, single words, names, lists of all sorts, quotes, poems, hymns, meditations, recipes, tractates, short essays, you name it. Mostly they are in latin, some in english. Some are in languages you only know of like ancient greek and some in what you can only guess to be aztec or ancient hebrew. A few remain undiscernible but this does not matter because they are nicely transcribed into latin characters, sometime with markings for extra characters of the originating language which do not have a latin equivalent. It comes in handy that you are asked to deliver your text in latin characters.
Of course there are some limitations. Your use of tools is restricted to pen & paper, dice, slide-rule & abacus (or digital simulations of such). Now here’s the real challenge: You can only use scientific knowledge that has been around until 1910 (it’s best you imagine living at that time). For example, Markov published in 1906 but it is unclear if you can use Markov chains because you do not have a computer. At the very most you have access to a Hollerith machine (or rather the virtual pendant).
How would you go about it?

I would like a really good Voynich game, I guess I’m not alone. So if you’re a talented MUD developer with lots of time on your hands, let us know!

The Voynich Circular Animations

A Good Question – Almost

Recently I thought to have made an observation on The Voynich (actually an impulse to start this blog), which lead me to formulate a good question – so I thought.

About 8 minutes into the 2009 ORF documentary on The Voynich there is a short part showing 3 animated clips derived from some of the circularly arranged illustrations. Clip 1 and 2 simply rotate circular illustrations, or figures in The Voynich, where clip 1 seems to be made up from page 67. The rotation is directed counter-clockwise. Clip 3 is slightly more advanced, in that a frame mask is applied. Adding intermittent dark frames would almost qualify it as a real animation.1 I can’t determine the source pages for clips 2 & 3 (yet).

The sparse commentary simply states that optic phenomena are hidden in the illustrations that come to life when rotated. There’s not much more to be found out about the matter as it seemingly failed to attract any attention. Optics, animations & the like belong to my interests so it stuck with me.

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke's Library

Phenakistoscope Disc designed by Edward Sang, Beinecke’s Library

A while ago I visited an exhibition called “Eyes, Lies and Illusions“, featuring some simple animation devices, antecessor of cinematography like a Praxinoscope, some making use of round cards with circularly arranged drawings in a way quite similar to The Voynichs’ “round tables”. Hence my connection: If these illustrations are  ment to be animated then there must exist a viewing apparatus for it, an animation device.

I did some research and found a first pitfall: All designs I looked at had rotating cards, unsuitable for the subject at hand, a book. I thought up a possible way to circumvent this problem (inside mirrors rotating in a planet gear) and even considered the possibility that an actual device never existed, yet in “ideal” form. To be found, like an easter egg in software, only by “users” (researchers) clever enough to uncover & reconstruct the necessary mechanism.

Nevertheless I felt I had something and formulated my question as:

If they are genuine, what is the purpose of the circular illustrations encoding animations?

You will notice that the “if” already disqualifies it as a good question according to my own terms.. and more ifs to come.

I asked Rich SantaColoma, who is into optics and was featured in the documentary. He kindly took the time to answer:

(…) it was not intended to be animated in the first place. There have been those who, even before the documentary artists pulled this off, thought that this could be the intent of these images. So to some people, they are somewhat “evocative” of these type of moving images.

He also pointed out the wealth of possible influences involved in creating The Voynich, especially those contemporary of the late 19th century.

So I retreated to my “if”, the necessity to find out if all or some the illustrations are actually ment to be animated, a task not devoid of quite some effort. I had a similar suspicion towards the film production crew as the source of the clips and a certain reason why the examples were short & few in number.

voynich photo

Photo by lamont_cranston

In the meantime, looking at the illustrations it turns out not a lot of them lend themselves easily to the animation idea, while a few really do seem to be ment to move. And I have overlooked another thing: I have fallen to the common error to misjudge the rather modest physical dimensions of The Voynich book, which are about that of a paperback (not as small as The Micro-Voynich in the picture) . Hence the animations would turn out rather tiny. I guess this size restriction rules out an actually existing viewing apparatus.

My partner remarked that this circumstance would be negligible if The Voynich was created with the idea of spreading photographic enlargements of it already in mind. Interesting point there, Wilfrid Voynich took the book to the darkroom first thing. This is probably another implication of The Voynich 1910 dating.

Another way to save my question would be to reformulate it towards the reason for circular illustrations (charts, tables, figures..) to begin with, if not time-related, which the majority of them does not seem to be. It complicates reading (have to turn book around) and creation (needs gauge screen and to rotate sheets) and points to another question, that of The Voynich Rebinding. It is an observation that some of the illustrations are slightly to large to fit on a page so a certain overlap is left as not to simply cut them off. Hence hey must have been created before the rebinding / rearrangement of the vellum sheets.

Another path would be to try tracking different, older sources of inspiration for the circular drawings. After all, The Voynich was supposed to look ancient. Encyclopedia Britannica says Michael Faraday looked into the phenomenon, and so did Mr. Isaac Newton (unsourced). Traces of the concept are even to be found in Leonardo’s work.

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Show 1 footnote

  1. A dark frame (or shutter) in between the actual drawings is necessary to make use of the psi phenomenon, an after image we see in the intermittency and thus the motion appears to be seamless. Source