Category Archives: Observations

Towards a Unicode Transliteration Table for VMScript

If we look at Capelli, Bischoff, etc. long enough it does not seem an unusual notion at all that  VMS symbols are derived from latin letter shapes (I am trying to avoid the term “glyph” as it often gets misinterpreted1). If we read: “The script uses many ligatures and has many unique scribal abbreviations, along with many borrowings from Tironian notes2“, it is about the shapes of Insular Script, not VMScript. It seems virtually impossible to invent letter shapes out of the blue, without resemblance to anything known3.

If we did the statistics and identified most of them, we could also take a look at Unicode charts, especially Latin Extended A through D, Latin Supplements, the MUFI recommendations etc. and try to locate the glyphs and their corresponding character code points. Almost everything is there. Medievalists need a lot of glyphs to encode manuscripts, like “LATIN SMALL LETTER A INSULAR FORM , LATIN SMALL LETTER OPEN A CAROLINGIAN FORM , LATIN SMALL LETTER N WITH FLOURISH  (an old friend if constructed with minims), LATIN SMALL LETTER T ROTUNDA ꞇ” for the basics, or more advanced, “LATIN ABBREVIATION SIGN SMALL CON DESCENDING ꝯ, LATIN ABBREVIATION SIGN SMALL IS ꝭ, BREVE BELOW”, all sorts of combining diacritics, contextual spacing modifiers, and last but not least, 6 different spaces.

What I’m hinting at:
A graphemic transliteration table could be constructed. We still do not care about meaning, we are simply looking for allographs, “alike looking glyphs”. There is no need to settle on a singular verdict for a glyph, on the contrary, we are noting down variants. This will be very helpful later on, as well as describing the glyphs verbosely.

While the MUFI recommendation contains a lot of latin ligatures as code points, Unicode discourages the addition of new ligatures.
Contemporary font standards, mostly OpenType and SIL Graphite allow for the composition of ligatures as part of smart font features. So we would try to express as many of the more complex VMS signs as contextual ligatures, eventually making use of complex text layout. There are a lot of possibilities. It may be up to judgement in some cases. But of course this means we are also in need a font supporting this.

We have constructed a sieve, and what rests within are unique, unknown glyphs. Did we wish to encode VMScript, these would go to a PUA, a private use area of Unicode, preferably taking unpopulated code points.

Why is this of significance?
A Unicode transliteration table would in turn allow us to create a scholarly acceptable, palæographic (also: allographic) transcription of the VMS. There is still no diplomacy, no expansion of abbreviations, no judgment on meaning, we simply record what we see.
The difference is, that the recorded glyphs do not map to ASCII “a”, “Z”, “#”, “/”, etc., like EVA does, but to their respective code points. This should help to avoid the misunderstandings EVA encourages, and allow scholars & information scientists alike to work with a reliable transcription. Wonderful things could be done, like judging allographic variation by mean distribution, e.g. “-is” vs. “-ris” (good that we noted variants before).

Of course a lot depends on the transcription itself, and there are numerous options how to tackle this. Accepted scholarly standards exist and should largely be followed or extended upon. Open Source software for collaborative work exists and needs to be evaluated. This shall be elaborated on in a follow-up post.

Fun with ſ

Who says Wikipedia can’t be fun? Linguists can be rather nerdy, following some excerpts from the Talk page for the long s article:

Where the bee ſucks, there ſuck I;
In a cowſlip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After ſummer merrily.
–William Shakeſpeare

Long s had a dethender to begin with, and during the medieval era thcribeth gradually thortened the dethender part until long s had no dethender to thpeak of. Descenderless long esess are an example of atrophied letter forms. Oh gee, now I’ve completely broken the pattern.

May the ſ character bloſsom like the roſe

And, may the phyſical ſpacing of it one day improve.

Ðe letter ſ is ſweet! We ſhould use it more. Alſo, braſsſmith is correct. I þink it alſo makes the word “ſcrewed” look muć better. Wiþ a compoſe key on Linux, you can uſe Compoſ, f, s to get it.

Ðiſ iſ getting ſilly.
Gettiŋ ſilly, you ſay? I ſay we revive ſome of ðeſe ‘antique’ letters, and (of courſe) briŋ ðe “eszett (“ß”)” in from German. To me it’s quite a preßiŋ ißue. I þink we need more letters!

But, more serious:

It is important to note that many languages, eſpecially Germanic ones, make words by compounding ſhorter words and word fragments. When word a made is made from a part ending in s followed by another part, the compound word ſhould ſtill be written with a final s even though it is now inſıde a word. The correct uſe of long verſus ſhort s can make the ſtructure clearer, and ſometimes remove ambiguity.

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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