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VMs: Re: Voynichese as an Abugida

  > [John E. Koontz] I'm aware that the possibility that the Voynich
  > script is syllabic is generally rejected on the grounds that there
  > are not enough distinct symbols to represent the syllables of the
  > Western European languages likely to underly the script.
No one knows what is a "letter" in the Voynichese script. That is not
surprising since the question is not trivial even for known languages:
Should English "th", Spanish "ll", and Italian "tt" be considered one
letter or two? Should "é" be considered two letters ("e" + "´")? The
answer is usually based on tradition, and different languages have
different traditions: Spanish counts "ll" as one letter for sorting
purposes, for example, while Portuguese counts the equivalent "lh" as
two separate letters. In fact you will get different answers depending
on whether you are talking to a phoneticist, to a grammarian, or to a

Since we do not know the "language" of the VMS, we can only give a
"typographical" definition: a letter is a set of strokes that is often
seen disconnected from other strokes. We are fortunate that the VMS
was written using "printing letters" rather than "cursive", so most
words are in fact a disconnected sequence of "glyphs", each consisting
of a few connected strokes.

Moreover, except for a few dozen "weirdo" glyphs, each occurring only
a few times in the whole book, all glyphs seem to be taken from a
small "alphabet", with the variations expected from hand writing.
Where larger groups of connected strokes occur, they generally seem to
be made by two or more of these same glyphs that were "accidentally"

If we try to make a catalog of glyph types, we get different results
depending on how strict are our criteria for comparing glyphs. Many of
us have followed the precedent of Friedman and his colleagues
who---for instance---assumed that all plumes were equivalent,
independently of their shape. (The plumes are those reverse-C strokes
that rise above the "o" height and are unconnected at the top end.)
This assumption is implicit in the FSG alphabet and most of its
successors, including EVA. Under that assumption, there are only four
glyphs with plumes --- "sh", "s", "r", and "n" --- that are not
"weirdos".  Other people --- Glen may be one of them --- have chosen
not to make this assumption, and so they recognize more than four
plumed glyphs. Friedman and EVA have also assumed that the little
"hook" that sometimes ends the arm of EVA p/f is not significant;
I suspect it is, so by my count there are four one-legged gallows,
not two.

Our perception of the alphabet is also modified by statistical
analysis. For instance, the EVA letter "e" is special because it often
occurs three times in a row. After uncounted tabulations, I have
tentatively concluded that the pair "ee", even though it seems to be
two disconnected glyphs most of the time, should be considered a
single letter like "ch" or "sh". It occurs in the same contexts where
those two occur, with similar relative frequencies, and that pattern
of occurrences clearly separates the three glyphs --- "ch", "sh", and
"ee" -- from other glyphs. In fact, it is possible that "ch" is the same
as "ee", the top ligature being merely a device optionally used by the
scribe to remove ambiguity.  By similar arguments, the sequences
"ii", and "iii" have come to be considered two single

One also should take into account handwriting variations from page to
page. For example, in the Zodiac pages (which, to my eyes, are the
oldest in the book) one often sees an EVA "a" which is open at the
bottom. In extreme cases, this "open a" can almost be confused with a
"ch". But since the "normal a" is under-represented in those pages,
and common words that are written with "normal a" elsewhere are
written with "open a" on those pages, most transcribers have assumed
that they are the same letter.

The point of all this discussion is to say that the size of the
Voynichese alphabet depends on who is counting; but, according to most
people, it has only between 20 and 30 distinct glyphs, even counting
"ee", "ii", and "iii" as separate glyphs. Since a syllabic alphabet,
or an abugida, would need at least 50 or so distinct glyphs, a strict
syllabary seems to be ruled out.

It may be that in Voynichese one of the vowels is left out, while the
others are written as separate gliphs.  That is, instead of "pa pe pi
po pu" one would write "p pe pi po pu".  However, at the stage we are, 
it seems hard to distinguish that system from a simple alphabetic one.

I cannot comment much on your specific proposals that certain groups
of glyphs represent syllables in some abugida system. That is possible
and in fact the problem is that there are too many possible
alternatives. In any case the rigid word structure is a problem,
unless you assume that different conventions have been used for the
beginning, middle, and end of the words. (Arabic has something like
that, but the three variants of each letter can be seen as extreme
calligraphic variations on the same original glyph---which is hardly
the case in Voynichese.)

The only way I can understand that rigid structure in terms of natural
languages is by assuming that each word is a single syllable. That, as
you are all bored to know, points towards an East Asian language. So
far all statitistics seem to fit that theory better than any other
alternative --- including theatrical Middle English, vowelless Arabic,
letter-based ciphers and Rugg's gibberish --- except for
codebook-based cipher, which I put in second place only because it
seems too cumbersome for a whole book.

  > To return to the logic of the system, I'm suggesting that a series
  > like l, il, iil, iil represents, e.g., pa pe pi po or p pa pi pu
  > or pa pi pu p or something like that. The set of grades in a
  > series R IR IIR IIIR (once IIIIR?) doesn't provide for many vowel
  > distinctions.
Another problem is that these sequences, with very few exceptions,
only occur at the end of the words.  

  > I'm assuming that the O characters are something different -
  > syllable codas - but perhaps they simply augment the vowel set.
  > There are languages with only three (or four) vowels, but this is
  > not typical of Western Europe
Arabic has only three vowels (a,i,u), although it has a distinction
between strong (consonantal) and weak ones. Arabic was the language of
administration in parts of Spain and Portugal for several centuries,
until 1480 or so (You can't get more 'Western' in Europe than that!).

In fact, Arabic books were read and sought by learned doctors and
alchemists all over Europe, since 1300 or so until the late 1600s at
least. Between 1300 and 1500 they were probably the main source of
scientific knowledge in Europe, even for knowledge that ultimately
came from the Greek. So Arabic is definitely not an "exotic"
alternative for Voynichese. It has been largely abandoned only because
its statistics do not seem to match.

  > where the Classical Languages have aeiou systems (with length and
  > diphthongs), and many of the modern languages added additional
  > rounded front vowels.

Actually Greek had at least seven vowels (alpha, eta, epsilon, iota,
omicron, upsilon, omega). I am not sure about Latin; the alphabet had
only aeiou, but the language may have had more. Italian and several
other Romance languages have at least two sounds for "e" and two for
"o", so I would guess that Latin did, too. (Besides there are those
"ae" and "oe" ligatures --- are they Classical or Medieval?)

All the best,

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