Having examined many historical ciphers over the last few years, I’d say that there are only a handful of ways in which individal ‘cipherbets’  (i.e. “cipher alphabets”) are typically constructed. The big fallacy is to think that people building ciphers are only concerned with a need for long-term message security, when actually there are plenty of other important short term needs they have to attend to, such as: ease of construction, usability, speed of deciphering, aide-memoires, etc. Broadly speaking, these needs express themselves in the following aspects of the cipher alphabet:-

  1. Symmetrical – where the letter-shapes are based around a geometric / symmetrical pattern
  2. Incremental – where the cipher alphabet is adapted from a pre-existing cipher
  3. Practical – where the letter-shapes are optimized for speed of writing
  4. Stylistic – to give an overall effect of looking exotic / strange / occult / ancient
  5. Mnemonic – where letter-shapes contain associative reminders about the plaintext letter
  6. Steganographic – where letter-shapes hide visual hints as to the plaintext shape
  7. Deceptive – where letter-shapes vary in subtle ways to hinder transcription / decipherment
  8. Distracting – where letter-shapes are constructed to resemble a different type of text

Apart from ‘pure’ symmetrical ciphers (such as the various pigpen and Masonic ciphers, or indeed Edward Elgar’s Dorabella cipher alphabet),I would say that most cipher alphabets tend to present a blend of only two or three of these, which you can sensibly read as reflecting the most pressing needs of the encipherer. As brief examples, you might note that many of the Sforza ciphers were primarily [incremental + practical] (and occasionally stylistic, such as the 1464 cipher for Tristano Sforza), while I’d predict that Cod. Pal. Germ. 597 will turn out to be [mnemonic + stylistic].

What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript’s cipher alphabet? Of course, the hope is that if we can classify its cipher alphabet, we might be able to “read” the needs of its encipherer.

The first thing to note is Steve Ekwall’s extraordinarily specific claim about the four gallows shapes: he asserts that these four shapes (and their four ‘ch’ strikethrough versions) specifically depict the eight folding states of the deciphering paper key – basically, that these are mnemonic. While that would make a lot of sense, debating that in sufficient detail is something I’ll take on another time.

Regardless, my position on the Voynich Manuscript’s alphabet is simply that it is a tour de force of cipher construction technique, insofar as I think you can see traces of symmetrical, incremental, practical, stylistic, steganographic, deceptive and distracting aspects (which, curiously enough, would make Ekwall’s mnemonic the only one missing from the list). Here they are in more detail:-

  • Symmetrical
    The four gallows shapes exhibit an explicit structural symmetry – one leg or two legs, one loop or two loops.
  • Incremental
    The four strikethrough gallows look to have been developed from an earlier (probably less secure) cipher system based purely on the four simple gallows. I also suspect that the “e / ee / eee / ch / sh” letter-shapes represent vowels, and that they were in some way incrementally adapted from a variation of the “dots for vowels” ciphers used by some medieval monks.
  • Practical
    The Voynich Manuscript’s letter-shapes have been consciously constructed for ease and speed of writing, far more so than typical cipher alphabets of the time.
  • Stylistic
    I would argue that the overall form of the alphabet has been designed with older (non-cipher) alphabets in mind – that is, that the stylistics of the letter-shapes was deliberately chosen to resemble an archaic (but lost) alphabet.  Note (mainly for Elmar Vogt): I do not therefore believe that the Voynich Manuscript was meant to resemble an enciphered medieval herbal, but rather that it was meant to ressmble an unenciphered herbal written in an archaic (but lost) language. I fail to see how this makes it unlikely to be smuggled past Venetian border guards… but that’s an argument for another day!
  • Distracting
    As I argued in The Curse and elsewhere on this blog, I am convinced beyond any doubt that the “aiir” and “aiiv” cipher letter groups in the VMs are specifically meant to resemble medieval page references (i.e. “a ii v” denotes “[quire] a, [folio] ii, v[erso]”), but that this is meant to distract contemporary eyes from looking in detail beyond that.
  • Deceptive
    I believe that the actual Arabic numbers enciphered by the “aiiv” family are to be read from the shape and position of the final flourish of the “v” – and that whereas the (earlier) Currier A pages used a system based on the position of the flourish, the (later) Currier B pages used a system based on the shape of the flourish. This would also point to incremental cipherbet change during the overall writing process!

There is one further one to discuss – steganographic. If you stare at the Voynich Manuscript’s cipher alphabet long enough, I contend that you will (eventually) grasp the logic underlying most of the letter-shapes (as per the discussion above). However, you are still left with a few odd “spares” (such as “4o”, “8” and “9”) that don’t fit into the symmetric families and groups described above. What is going on with them?

In The Curse, I argued (based on the statistics) that “4o” was probably encoding a word-initial abbreviation sign: what I now think is fascinating is the notion that the letter shape for the “4” might also be steganographically hiding a horizontal stroke, as an aide-memoire to the decipherer.

Similarly, I argued (also based on the statistics) that the “8” shape and the “9” shapes were probably encoding word-middle and word-final abbreviation signs (respectively): similarly, I think that these are steganographically hiding a curved half-loop at the top of each of them, the typical mid-Quattrocento sign denoting contraction and abbreviation. I’ve marked these hidden strokes in red below:-


Actually, I suspect the author might possibly have given a little bit of the game away on page f2r, via a slip of the pen: para 2 line 3 word 1 is “4oP9” with a curved contraction half-loop added over the “o”, which I think might well denote a contraction of “4o” + “oP” + “9”. But that, too, is another story. 🙂

All in all, I’d say that if the Voynich Manuscript’s cipher system turns out to have broadly the same degree of subtlety and roundedness exhibited by its cipher alphabet, then no wonder it has remained unbroken for centuries. It has not only the Everest of cipher systems, but also the Rolls Royce of cipher alphabets!

13 thoughts on “The Voynich’s alphabet and steganography…

  1. Emily on May 29, 2009 at 1:03 am said:

    Interesting stuff… could these categories perhaps also apply to the illustrations? They have the stylistic appearance of an herbal(at least some do), and some aspects of them might be distracting, while others might conceal things in a steganographic/mnemonic manner. I like your idea that the plant drawings hide diagrams of machines and parts of heraldic designs.

    Also, one thing I find interesting about the Voynich text is how smoothly it flows, and how there seem to be few corrections– which makes it seem that “Voynichese” was the writer’s native language(as the actual writer might have intended). But the use of a practical cipherbet also explains that well.

    One more question: can any Voynich letters be traced to specific alphabets?

  2. Hi Emily,

    My basic observation is that Herbal-A “plants” look like collages of plant-based bits, while Herbal-B “plants” look like there’s something geometric and strange going on. If you link that with all the other Quattrocento books of secrets and machine notebooks, you may (as I do) end up with the whole Machinery Complex inference: but I fully appreciate that that remains a step too far for many people.

    As you say, I think the smoothness of the writing is by design, not by accident. 🙂

    As for their sources… possibly, but I’m not entirely sure if that helps us (it’s a bit of a “D’Imperio” exercise, if you know what I mean). Understanding if Steve Ekwall is right about the mnemonic aspect of the gallows might well prove more useful! 😉

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Christopher Hagedorn on May 29, 2009 at 8:57 am said:

    Hey Nick,
    Googling around a bit thinking about the contractions, I came upon this page, which contains a bunch of Latin steganographic contractions. Also, I remember reading somewhere that Latin steganographers used the Arabcic number “9” to contract -us. Did I read this in The Curse, or somewhere else? Do you have more information on this subject?

    Reading your book, I’d say that having the VMS turn out to be written in anything but Latin or a variant of Occitan would surprise me. But how does this sound: Occitan with Latin steganographic contractions? It doesn’t sound far-fetched for a person with knowledge of both languages, and must certainly fall into what a Quattrocento encipherer would be able to come up with.

    Lastly, of course I cannot possibly be the first person who thought of this. Do you know where I can find any more on this theory? (Perhaps later in The Curse I’m at page 90-something)

    Christopher Hagedorn.

  4. Christopher Hagedorn on May 29, 2009 at 9:02 am said:

    Oh, and one more thing: today is the anniversary for Constantinople’s fall to Mehmed II’s siege! Happy Fall of Constantinople!

    I am really enjoying the book, by the way,

    Christopher Hagedorn.

  5. Hi Christopher,

    As I replied to Emily just now, looking for direct correlations with letter-shapes in existing alphabets is a very “D’Imperio” thing to do: the way I currently see it, the “aiiv” and “aiir” family (when combined with their wildly irregular instance counts) is a bit of a giveaway that (a) there’s a covertext at play, and (b) any similarities between shapes in the covertext and existing alphabets is not only deliberate but also probably misleading. 😮

    As far as the idea of Voynichese having Occitan plaintext (whether abbreviated or not) goes… I’m rather more convinced (as you’ll see later in the book) that it is Italian, contracted broadly in the common scribal style well-documented circa 1450. The whole issue of Occitan and the various marginalia is something that desperately requires a better kind of scan to resolve, sadly. 🙁

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying The Curse – I thought you would! 😉

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  6. And a Happy Fall of Constantinople to you too! 🙂

  7. Tony on May 29, 2009 at 9:59 am said:

    A cipher alphabet with contractions can be found on this wheel –http://home.hiwaay.net/~paul/cryptology/opusdisc.html
    I’ve seen other alphabets that have one or 2 of these ‘contractions’ tacked on the end.

  8. Hi Tony,

    That’s very true – and in fact plenty of the mid-Quattrocento Sforza ledger ciphers have a cipher letter for the Latin “9”. Even Tristano Sforza’s 1450 cipher (see The Curse p.176) has one, which I’d guess he was probably using prior to 1450.

    But I’m actually suggesting something I haven’t obviously seen in other contemporary ciphers: that perhaps the Voynich encipherer used symbols to encipher the “macron” (arched bar).

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  9. Dennis on May 31, 2009 at 4:20 pm said:

    Hi Nick! As to Italian Occitan, there are a large number of good links on this at this article in French Wiki:


    Probably all the info you’d want!

  10. Rene Zandbergen on June 3, 2009 at 7:21 am said:

    29 May is fall of Constantinople day.
    That’s cool!


  11. Diane on March 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm said:

    This may sound like a stupid question, but I’m puzzled, and not a crypto person, so please bear with me.

    Since the only recognisable language in the Voynich is Occitan, why aren’t we supposing that the rest of the manuscript is too?

    A sort of Old Occitan, to which plain text occitan was added later (in the 15thC) to translate the month-names?

  12. WL Holland on September 3, 2013 at 10:27 pm said:

    Ah so here is the Voynich community… Nice! Hello!

    I started recently to do some online research about it and I am no specialist whatsoever. I also think in the mnemonic direction, by some other manuscript from that time a Dutch professor in Latin did some amazing work on.

    If it is similar, the real translation may just be calculations and numbers rather than text, to find the proper date for Easter, and the pictures and text may be used to memorize it. (Original text removed therefor)

    But if the text would be related to the pictures, then.. I would think in the trotula direction (La scuola medica de Salerno)

    There are known recipees for herbal baths taken by women in different bodily states. They could be compared to the VMS. For example radish was used in one of them and it seems to be recognizable in the VMS.

    Also notae could have been used here, in the 800-900th century for example 9 was used for cum/cun/com/con. But also it could just mean 9. So to study Latin notae may give clues, as well as other ligatures.

    This may be too complex for me anyway, but if I find any interesting clue I will be happy to share it here.

    In the disc including 4×17 the same symbols, they seem to be numbers… So a counting disc perhaps, like the guidonic hand. The first numbers could be: 0-4-8-2(5?)-7

    (I mean the disc with 4 faces in the middle pointing in directions, I think this page may hold the clue)

    The red V on first page is to honor Mary. V is also 5, the letters from Maria) The V with snake may refer to female medicin. Red is the color of love. The first section there, but this is a very vague theory of me, could it be: Our father who art in heaven, thy kingdom come etc? I somehow seems somewhat similar..


  13. Hi
    Nice to meet you, but I won’t be around Voynich things much longer. Other things increasingly need my time, and have been the past year. I keep making time for Vms writing-up, but really must stop soon.

    To make the best use of my time, I’m putting up thematic ‘essays’ composed of clips from the past three years’ sequential study of pages and sections. I left theastronomical till last, till I was more sure *whose* stars are personified by the nymphs (ALL the nymphs – there are no ‘bathing ladies’ in this manuscript at all, imo).

    WL – the address if you want to use it is

    I’ll be adding to it till about October-November. December if I’m unexpectedly fortunate with my time.
    So far it contains one post – indications of Jewish influence.


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