The Origin of the Voynich Glyphs

The Search for the VMS Glyphs

Researchers have speculated for decades about the origins of those funny letters in the Voynich Manuscript.

When I first encountered the VMS, I recognized most of the shapes from medieval scribal traditions, but I couldn’t read the text, so I combed the world’s archives for examples of other alphabets that might have inspired the glyphs, hoping it might yield clues to an underlying language. Along the way, I discovered certain shapes are found in many scripts—loops, circles, snake-shapes, or sticks with a loop or two, seem to naturally occur in diverse regions. Shapes that look like p, s, g, and ell are particularly common.

In the end, after years of pouring over hundreds of languages and dozens of alphabets, I came back to where I started. The Latin alphabet and scribal abbreviation conventions can explain almost all the VMS characters. I already knew this, but sometimes you have to look around to appreciate what you already have.

I’ve mentioned the Latin origins many times, but I’ve noticed there is still a certain skepticism, and I’ve never posted examples of the entire alphabet due to the enormity of the task (I have thousands of examples and severe time constraints). So, I’ve decided to post it in installments rather than trying to fit it all into one very long paper that might never get finished.

Organizing the Glyphs

Most people are not familiar with Latin paleography, so I will try to include as many original samples as possible from medieval manuscripts.

Most of the VMS glyphs fall into four categories:

  • Latin letters,
  • Latin numbers,
  • Latin ligatures (two or more shapes combined for ease of writing), and
  • Latin abbreviations.

Some glyphs can be classified in more than one category. For example, in medieval script, the Greek sigma is sometimes used as a terminal-s in Latin scripts and is sometimes drawn with the last stroke looped so that it resembles a figure-8. This shape is hard to categorize unless one knows by context whether it is a letter or the number 8. Since the VMS lacks context (the text has not been decoded), I have assigned some glyphs to more than one category (e.g., letter and number, or letter and abbreviation). More on this later when I sum up the individual characters.

A number of Latin glyph-shapes are borrowed from Greek. Sometimes they mean the same thing and sometimes the shape has been adapted for other uses, as will be illustrated in today’s blog.

The Big Red Weirdo

I thought I’d start with one of the iconic shapes in folio 1r, sometimes known as the “bird glyph” or the “seagull” or simply as a “big red weirdo”. This shape is used only once.

The big red weirdo somewhat resembles a bird with a vertical squiggle between the “wings”. I usually call it the seagull glyph.

We learn in primary school that letters have more than one version, and are taught to write both upper- and lowercase letters. In most ancient scripts, there was no distinction between upper- and lowercase, but sometimes the beginning of a paragraph or line would be adjusted for aesthetic reasons or to call attention to something of importance by enlarging the letter, using different colors, or by adding lines, curves, or other embellishments.

The seagull glyph without the squiggle can be found in old languages that use the Greek character set (a variation of it can be found in Arabic, but much less often). It is not always drawn with the line underneath, but the line is used in certain writing styles or sometimes to create emphasis, as in these examples. Note the double dots above some of the letters. A Latin squiggle doesn’t have the same meaning as Greek dots, but the dots show a precedence for the position of a squiggle in later Latin documents:

These examples are from leftmost columns of new paragraphs (left) and from header text written for emphasis (right). Just as capital letters sometimes have extra strokes to make them stand out from lower-case letters, the Greek letters, such as ypsilon, sometimes had an extra line on the base to give them emphasis. In Coptic Greek this shape (without the dots) represents the letter Ue and, depending on the handwriting style, sometimes the letter Djandjia.

In Latin, the seagull shape usually represents a V, but sometimes it retains one of the Greek meanings. Note that dots have a variety of meanings in Greek. In some cases they are associated with the character (pronunciation or abbreviation), in others, dots can mean that the copied text diverges from the original, a convention that is also used in Latin.

The Seagull Tradition

Latin was a required language for medieval scholars and many also studied Greek, so it’s not uncommon for Greek conventions to show up in Latin texts. Sometimes they mean the same thing in Greek and Latin, and sometimes a shape is preserved but used for different purposes. In some cases, two conventions are combined, as will be seen when I discuss the squiggle.

You might have noticed that the seagull shape, when written as it is above, resembles the symbol for Aries. The Aries symbol is ubiquitous in Latin texts on astrology and astronomy, but the Greek convention is sometimes also used to mark paragraphs in texts not related to astronomy. You might notice that the “seagull” shape also somewhat resembles an open book, when the line on the bottom is extended. This, in combination with the way it is used in some Greek texts, might have inspired its use as a pilcrow in certain Spanish documents.

In the above examples, the shape that resembles the Greek letter is used to mark passages in a 15th-century Latin manuscript on astrology, and a 16th century New World document by Spanish missionaries. The shape underwent some minor changes, but its use as emphasis or a topic marker was retained.

This manuscript combines Greek and Latin, and the character can be seen both with and without the squiggle. Note that symbols above letters in Greek do not have the same meanings in Latin. Greek pronunciation symbols, for example, were not carried into the Latin writing traditions but the use of symbols as abbreviations was prevalent in both traditions.

In Latin manuscripts, a seagull shape usually represented the letter V or the letter V plus additional letters. If a squiggle was added, it was almost always an abbreviation. The example on the left is from the late 13th or early 14th century. The one on the right, from the 15th or 16th century.

What About the Squiggle?

The VMS character is embellished with a flame-like squiggle that sits vertically between the “wings”. This too is a Latin convention, a very common one. It can be drawn as a straight line, a slightly curved line, or a full s-curve, and it can be horizontal or vertical.

In old Greek, marks above letters are a combination of pronunciation symbols and abbreviations. In Latin, pronunciation symbols are rarely used and the symbols usually represent a number of abbreviations. You can think of them as specialized apostrophes, depending on their shape and position.

In Latin, the squiggle was particularly prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries and it was usually drawn in the vertical direction to distinguish it from the shape that represents “n” or “m” which is straighter and almost always horizontal, but it didn’t matter whether an s-curve was horizontal or vertical, the meaning was usually the same—it stood for er, re, or ir or these letters combined with additional letters. In the illustration above, the word on the right is “versus”, with the squiggle standing in for “-er-“.

Sometimes if a squiggle had an extra wiggle, it stood for a degree of something or a series, as the “th” that is added to ordinal numbers. In this case, it was usually horizontal, but not always.

I don’t know what the seagull glyph signifies in Voynichese, but whether one considers it to be textual or an embellishment, the shape is not unusual, especially when it appears like this, at the beginning of a block of text.

Summary

It seems abrupt to end a blog on just one character, but it will take at least a dozen blogs to describe the whole alphabet and a dozen more to describe the relationships between them and their positions in the text (and that’s without going into the actual structure or meaning of the text). As will be seen from other characters, including the more exotic ones, whoever designed the glyphs was familiar with classical scripts and used Latin as the primary source of inspiration (or Latin conventions derived from Greek). This is indicated not only by shape, but by the design of the alphabet as a whole, and by position.

I’ll post examples of the other characters, including a discussion of their behavior, in future blogs.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

6 thoughts on “The Origin of the Voynich Glyphs

  1. D.N. O'Donovan

    -JKP –
    Thanks for a most interesting post. Am I right in concluding that it is a Greek symbol whose form (not always with the same meaning) entered other manuscript traditions, including the Arabic, and the Latin.

    Hope you won’t mind some questions – they’re not heckling.

    First – not all your images are dated – what is the earliest you’ve found where this Greek (or Greek-derived) symbol is employed? If that’s an impossible question, what’s the earliest example you know of in a Byzantine document; an Islamic document; a Spanish document and a Latin document?

    Second – You take the symbol used for ‘Aries’ as being – not just resembling – that Greek symbol. Do you know of a linguistic connection that might explain why a ‘V’ symbol would be used for Aries? Might they not be distinct symbols that happen to take a similar form? What exactly does the Greek symbol sound like, and how did it evolve – if you know.

    Third: “The Aries symbol is ubiquitous in Latin texts on astrology and astronomy,..” Do you actually mean it is found everywhere, with equal frequency, when the subject is astrologia? Or do you mean it occurs very often? Does it occur earlier, or more frequently, in some scribal traditions?

    Fourth: Of course it is true that “Latin was a required language for medieval [Christian] scholars [within Latin/western Christian Europe]” Not all scholars had Latin even there; some were prohibited from reading or writing Latin, so I add qualifications in brackets.

    When you say that “many also studied Greek”, I admit to certain reservations. First, do you mean Classical-, -demotic, or Biblical-clerical Greek? And I can’t say that the historical evidence backs you up if you mean that literary Greek was a part of the curriculum available to Latin-European scholars before the fifteenth century. Had it been, the fuss made of two Greeks in fifteenth century northern Italy would hardly have been so hectic, you’d think.

    Reply
    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      1. Yes, it’s a Greek symbol that has found its way into other scribal traditions and became firmly entrenched in Latin. Even in Latin it has different meanings, depending on the time period. For example, in Carolingian Latin, the squiggle usually stands for an “m” whereas in medieval Latin, it’s usually er/ir/re/ri as mentioned in the blog.

      2. I don’t have time to date all the images while writing the blog—I barely have time to prepare blogs. I look for the earliest I can find and try to present them in chronological or narrative order. I did not know, when I started studying the VMS, that I would be communicating with others about it. I like puzzles and studying the VMS is a personal hobby. I don’t get paid for this, so looking up additional information is simply impossible—my work schedule doesn’t allow for it. I add citations when I can or when it is particularly important to the narrative or the choices.

      3. I did not mean to imply that the Aries symbol and Greek symbol are the same. Aries is designed to represent a head with horns. The Greek symbol is a letter form. They are related shapes with different origins, but I mentioned them together because they are sometimes drawn like each other and sometimes even used like each other (as topic markers, for example), depending on the focus of the manuscript.

      4. Latin was not just a required language for Christian scholars, it was also a required language for Jewish scholars, many of whom attended major universities in central Europe and southern Italy. Since this blog is specifically about the Latin and Greek origins of the VMS characters (90% of which originate from Latin), I was speaking specifically of scholars who would have known Latin. The VMS characters don’t just look like Latin, they are positioned as they would be in Latin as well, as I have illustrated in some of the previous blogs and will illustrate again after I’ve described some of the other characters, so the VMS scribes didn’t just copy the shapes, they retained positional traditions, as well.

      5. We know that many of them also studied Greek because the medieval Latin-language documents are full of Greek alphabets (I’ve collected many samples), and Greek words, and because there is information extant on the curricula of medieval universities (and biographies of specific scholars) that mentions what they studied. I don’t think it matters whether it was Classical, demotic, or Biblical-clerical Greek since the great majority of the VMS characters are Latin.

      Reply
  2. D.N. O'Donovan

    PS. I forgot to add that I’ve been hoping for years that someone would do such a survey and try to discover the range of scripts from which the set of Voynich glyphs was selected. Perhaps an impossible job, but I look forward to reading more about your investigation.

    Reply
    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      Identifying the origin of the Voynich glyph shapes is not an impossible job. I’ve known for years where the glyphs originated. There’s nothing exotic about any of them. If you are familiar with medieval Latin, it’s pretty straightforward, the rest of the glyphs are easier to trace than this one. The problem is that it’s time-consuming to explain it to an audience unfamiliar with Greek and Latin paleography. I have to collect dozens of samples of each glyph, and organize them, and find the time to explain them. I’ve had the examples for several years, but finding the time to blog about it and to explain them is like trying to explain a foreign language to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with that language—you can’t do it in one post.

      The more important question is what they mean and I don’t believe the origins of the shapes reveal very much about their possible interpretation. The glyphs are Latin, with a small percentage of Greek, even the “gallows” characters, even the benched gallows (which I will illustrate in future blogs), but their extreme repetition and positional rules are highly unusual if evaluated from the perspective of natural language.

      Reply
  3. Nikolaj

    Good day!
    My name is Nikolai.
    To a question about the key to the Voynich manuscript.
    Today, I have to add on this matter following.
    The manuscript was written no letters, and signs for the letters of the alphabet of one of the ancient languages. Moreover, in the text there are 2 more levels of encryption to virtually eliminate the possibility of computer-assisted translation, even after replacing the signs letters.
    I pick up the key by which the first section I was able to read the following words: hemp, hemp clothing; food, food (sheet of 20 numbering on the Internet); cleaned (intestines), knowledge may wish to drink a sugary drink (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to think (sheet 107); drink; six; flourishing; growing; rich; peas; sweet drink nectar and others. It is only a short word, mark 2-3. To translate words consisting of more than 2.3 characters is necessary to know this ancient language.
    If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages indicating the translated words.
    Sincerely, Nikolai.

    Reply
  4. voynichbombe

    ξ
    Ύ
    Ϋ

    ɤ
    You find all these in Unicode as part of the Greek Extended code block for ancient greek polytonal notation. They look better with an appropriate font, e.g. Noto Serif, but most fonts should display them.

    ϓ
    ϔ
    or these, if they suit better.

    Reply

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