I recently bumped into a “Random Freebie” from blogger “Miss Black Pepper”: apropos of nothing much, she posted up a Voynich Manuscript Scrabble Tile Set, composed of nice little images clipped from the Voynich Manuscript (which she happens to rather like).

Of course, this set me wondering what a real Voynich Scrabble would look like. You see, the most appalling thing about this idea is that it is actually possible, in much the sameway that you don’t need to know what an ULVA is (don’t ask, but many people apparently eat it) to use it to score in Scrabble.

For Voynichese, the problem is that the alphabet used for most transcriptions (called EVA Hand 1) is a stroke-based alphabet, designed to capture what the letters look like (rather than what they are). Though elegant in its own linguistic way, this unfortunately led to a number of (frankly) rather odd design decisions, with a number of apparently unitary “glyphs” being split up into overlapping component bits. If you reassemble the most obviously glyph-like stroke groups back into glyphs, you could just about get a moderately workable set of Scrabble tiles. Note the four tall letters in the top-left row (these are called “gallows”) and the four “vowel-like” glyphs in the top-right row (these are transcribed as “a, e, i, o”).

Voynich Scrabble tiles (using the EVA transcription)

Voynich researchers have spent a lot of time working out abstract models for Voynichese, tiny generative grammars that attempt to predict what should (or indeed shouldn’t) be a valid Voynich word: Jorge Stolfi’s “core-mantle-crust” paradigm is one such model. But the awkward fact remains that none of these works massively well, either generating many more words than actually appear or generating far too few words of those that do appear in the ms.

(And anyway, the question remains what kind of vocab could ever be algorithmically generated… but let’s stay on track here).

You could use Voynichese tiles to play one of two basic types of Voynich Scrabble:

  1. You can only play words that actually appear in the Voynich Manuscript
  2. You can only play words as predicted by [Person X]’s generative grammar

(Quick hint: don’t play rule-set #1 against Philip Neal or Glen Claston, they’ll probably thrash the pants off you.)

Another factor that hasn’t been considered enough is the specific language differences that occur within the Voynich Manuscript. Prescott Currier identified ‘A’ and ‘B’ languages: but labels have a different usage pattern too, as do line-initial, paragraph-initial and word-initial letters. And so you might add a special kind of dialect ‘mode’ to your Voynich Scrabble, that only lets you play ‘A’-language words or ‘B’-language words (or label words) at certain times.

However, one problem I have is that I simply don’t trust the so-called ‘Voynich vowels’. For example, Voynichese ‘o’ functions in so many different ways within the text that I cannot easily believe it is a letter per se: rather, I would argue that it is a multi-function ‘trick’ token, that performs different jobs in different contexts. I’m also deeply suspicious about the ‘a’ and ‘i’ letters, particularly when they appear in ‘aiin’ groups: I argued in my book that these are used as a kind of visual framework to encode numbers using the backwards flourish of the “n” (which seems more like a ‘v’). And so I think the ‘vowels’ form a great big hole for linguists to jump willingly into (but that’s another story entirely).

Anyway, given that I have also long suggested that a small set of letter-pairs / letter-groups would form a more usable starting point for cryptanalysis than ‘raw’ EVA, here are the tiles I’d expect the original author to be most comfortable playing with (you’ll notice the absence of free-standing ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘o’ from the set). Agree or disagree, here they are:-

Voynich Scrabble (using Nick Pelling’s verbose pairs)

Happy Voynich Scrabbling! 🙂

PS: OK, “ulva” is the name of the sea lettuce ulva lactuca, an edible algae / seaweed. Aren’t you glad you don’t play Scrabble competitively? 🙂

23 thoughts on “Voynich Scrabble…?

  1. Vytautas on March 9, 2009 at 11:42 am said:

    I like the phrase “that performs different jobs in different contexts” about Voynichese “o” ;). This symbol associates for me with ring symbol in texts of Robert Firth. And when I look into Voynich manuscript, some “o” shaped pictures make me feel that this symbol have one of important (if not main) places… Just a thought 🙂


  2. Hi Vytautas,

    Thanks! I suspect that ‘o’ forms a kind of threshold test for your cryptologic imagination: if you can only see ‘o’ as a vowel, you have probably failed the test. Which is, of course, not to say that I’ve solved everything: but rather, that I think that this is probably a stage cipher-breakers have to get past in order to make any progress.

    And so whenever I see state diagrams for Voynich grammars where ‘o’ appears only once, I naturally suspect that they are probably wrong. Oh well!

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: do you have your own Voynich word-generating grammar? 🙂

  3. Vytautas on March 9, 2009 at 1:53 pm said:

    No 🙂 I am not linguist, I am computer guy… But I have hypothesis about enciphering method. In short, I was inspired by Steve Ekwall idea and by some articles of Jan Hurych at hurontaria.baf.cz/CVM/ . One of claims of my hypotesis looks a bit drastic: I think we already have cipherbet and EXPLANATION OF ENCIPHERING on the manuscript pages ( there are examples from middle ages of such “prompting”, with testing abilities of person to see hidden things 🙂 But at this moment my hypotesis is uncomplete, I need some time for finishing postulation. Serious (IMHO ) hypothesis is hard to born… Especially when seeing how many theories are on the fly 🙂

  4. Hi Vytautas,

    Well, speaking as a computer guy myself who was also inspired by Steve Ekwall’s ideas (see “Curse” Chapter 12), I’d be fascinated to hear what you think – please let me know if you do post anything on this, I’d be extremely interested to read it.

    Of course, the main place that Ekwall-like stuff (i.e. with eight states) might be hidden in plain sight are any of the circular diagrams with obvious 8-way symmetry, such as f68v1, f68v2, f68v3 and possibly the outside eight rosettes of the nine-rosette page. But doubtless you’ve looked at all of those very closely already. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. Dennis on March 10, 2009 at 5:39 am said:

    Hi Nick! This is a great post! Are you saying that your Scrabble set is the “real” grapheme set of Voynichese? It’s very interesting. I also think the idea that EVA is some sort of indicator is interesting too.

    It actually would be a very good idea to make a Voynich Scrabble set like you show. Anagram blocks are a well-recognized cryptanalytic tool, of course.

    I hadn’t heard of “ulva”. Did you know that “scrabble” is also a sort of meat dish they eat in New Jersey and Indiana?



    PS: Welcome, Vytautas! I don’t recall a Lithuanian Voynichologist before this. We had an Estonian for a while, but that’s quite different, of course.

  6. Hi Dennis,

    Is my Voynich Scrabble tile set the correct one? Well, if I knew that for sure, there wouldn’t be much of a cipher mystery here. 🙂 All the same, I do think it’s pretty close – and it is (at least) reasonably testable. I’ve been meaning to use this as a basis for cryptanalysis for a while, specifically by reconstructing some kind of Markov-style state machines for A, B, and labels.

    My suspicion is that you should be able to use the changing token-transition statistics as a kind of metric for the developing sophistication of the system – that, far from being a static “one-off” system, the VMs’ enciphering system actually changes (develops and evolves) across the pages, and that the right metrics might well yield an additional mechanism to help us reconstruct the original order of the pages.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: though I’ve never actually eaten scrabble, I’ve had to eat my words a few times. 😉

  7. Rene Zandbergen on March 10, 2009 at 2:56 pm said:

    ‘o’ may have different roles in Voynichese, but so do ‘u’ or ‘h’ in English 😉

  8. Rene Zandbergen on March 10, 2009 at 3:03 pm said:

    By the way…

    (sorry, I would edit the previous message if I knew how to)…

    This Voynich scrabble is a neat idea. Other quite feasible gadgets would be a
    Voynich ‘memory’ game, or in fact a Voynich-MS based Mah-Jong game (!)

    Who wouldn’t want to have one of those 🙂

  9. Shame on you for doubting me! 🙂

    Oh yes, and “ghoti” = fish, is that right? 🙂

  10. Hi Rene,

    Well… speaking as an old-school computer games programmer, this is all do-able stuff. Though a memory game formed of fifty different zodiac nymph hair-styles to match up might be a tad unkind. 🙂

    A Voynich-themed Mahjong (or The Turtle, or Ac Chen) might be fun too: we have four winds on f57v, right? 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  11. Rene Zandbergen on March 12, 2009 at 9:08 am said:

    Well, let’s see…

    Mahjong stones include:
    9 ‘stones’ or circles. (Voynich: stars)
    9 ‘bamboos’ (Voynich: up for discussion)
    9 ‘characters’ (Voynich: easy one…)
    4 ‘winds’ (Voynich: you had them…)
    3 ‘dragons’ (Voynich: doodles on f1r and f57v)
    4 ‘flowers’ (Voynich: 🙂 )
    4 ‘seasons’ (Voynich: well, we must have the nymphs somewhere)

  12. Bamboo – you might try f84r
    There’s a dragon on f25v, a lion-body (?) on f90v, and you can make what you like of the roots on f34r and f34v. 🙂 Or f79v!

  13. I can’t believe anyone with an interest in the Voynich manuscript actually found my blog, haha!

    A scrabble tile sheet may seem odd but people modpodge little images onto scrabble tiles and make necklaces and jewelry.

    I think I’d be really good at cheating at Voynich scrabble.

  14. Hey Beth,

    I just like catching all the ways the Voynich Manuscript is seeping into our Cultural Hive Mind, one odd connection at a time. Scrabble modding is a neat craft idea, my wife would love it! Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  15. Hey again Nick & Ciphermysteryers!

    Yeah the Voynich Manuscript is so incredibly fascinating! And a wealth of artistic inspiration 🙂 I had some Voynich manuscript inspired merchandise on Cafe Press for a while last year but nobody bought anything and finally I just closed the shop.

    I also have an unfinished Voynich animation I started making for fun – gathering metaphorical digital dust on one of my hard drives. If I could just get some royalty free Hildegard von Bingen music to set it to and an audience I just might finish it! Maybe it would even need a Ciphermysteries debut someday, what do you reckon?

    All the best!


  16. Ah, that would be the “personal journal” I mentioned here a while back, very sorry for not remembering it was you!

    Incidentally, a nice source for (hopefully non-sucky) royalty-free music is often the Internet Archive’s audio archives. Think of evocative keywords to search the archive for, and your wish might well be answered courtest of some mad musical genie. Enjoy! 🙂

    Of course, I’d be more than delighted to give a mention to any Voynich-inspired or -themed animation. 🙂

  17. Wow 🙂 I never had any google analytics to keep track of hits on my cafepress shop & such so I had no idea it had even been found!

    Now I am just going to have to get myself psyched to fire up After Effects and Flash… I haven’t animated in soooo long! I’ll check out the Internet Archive’s audio files, maybe there are some hidden gems:))

  18. Diane on April 8, 2010 at 6:50 am said:


    I’ve included a copy of 16 squares in my blog.Please email me if you want them removed.

  19. I have snitched the scrabble letters again.
    Different blog, different context. Would appreciate a comment from you on it, even if just to say it is/isn’t ok to use the letters

  20. Diane: use my Voynichese Scrabble-style tiles as you like, ain’t no big thang. 🙂

  21. I missed this article. It would be a good exercise to crenellate the four sides in various ways so some tiles would fit and others not. Now it becomes obvious that someone recorded the secret games as words were formed. Which words in the VMs named the players?

  22. Daniel Henriquez on October 20, 2014 at 10:54 pm said:

    Lo tengo Nick, basandonos en patrones de codificación por numeros, hay palabras (palabra voynich) que son una sola letra en especifico se repiten mucho por lo mismo, la mayoria de las mismas sus 3 primeras letras son el mismo parametro, he encontrado el detonador. hay dos codificaciones en una.

  23. Daniel: if I have interpreted you correctly 🙂 , you are saying that many Voynichese words have repeated letters and therefore resemble Roman numbers (xiii, etc), and that as a result Voynichese effectively covers two code-levels at once – a letter-text and a number-text.

    Many people, most notably John Tiltman, have wondered about this in the past. I also wrote a paper exploring the idea back in 2002.

    But these days, I think it far more likely that the presence of “ololol” etc is instead a hint that ol/al somehow encipher Roman numbers in the plaintext (e.g. CCC –> “ol-ol-ol”), and that there’s something completely different going on with the aiin groups (i.e. that these steganographically encipher Arabic digits in some way). But that’s several other stories rolled into one small comment. 🙂

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