When I was young, I often used to play Scrabble with my grandmother Win on my way home from school. (By which I mean her maisonette was on my route home, not that we played Scrabble on the bus.) Which probably helps account for the deep-rooted enjoyment I still get from weird and wonderful words, many decades later.
From way back then, my favourite English word has always been “svelte” (though “tergiversate” was nipping at its heels for a couple of weeks last year). The reason I particularly like svelte is that it’s (I’m struggling to describe) ‘productively onomatopoeic’, in that the slow ‘l’-sound in the middle makes it feels elegant (indeed svelte) on the tongue. Really, it’s a word with an unusual (but nicely matching) mouth feel, one that manages to stand out from a dictionary sized pack. With getting too synaesthetic on you, to me it’s a kind of David Gower four of a word, a left-handed ping that’s over the boundary before the fielders even notice it’s gone. Something can’t be half-svelte, it’s either got it or it hasn’t.
Svelte also brings right to the fore the mad ragtag heterogeneity of English, the arbitrary coupling together of chance encounters over the millennia. To some it sounds
Svedish Swedish (or perhaps a piece of stray Elvish?) but it’s actually a French word (svelte), from an Italian (svelto, “stretched out”), from Vulgar Latin (ex + vellere, i.e. to stretch + out).
(You might therefore suspect that it shares some kind of origin with “vellum” which is also stretched out, but the latter has its roots in “veal”, i.e. young calves: hence vellum is properly fine calfskin.)
Languages are like that: for all their modern apologists, academies, and syntactic niceties, they’re at heart accidental rather than designed. Esperanto and all the other modern conlangs are all very well, but a good part of the charm of real-world languages is the way stray and mongrel words hop in to fill the semantic gaps that inevitably open up as culture mutates and evolves. English obviously needed a word that expressed presence of svelteness in an object, why else would svelte have succeeded and persisted otherwise?
But (and isn’t there always a but in Cipher Mysteries)… where’s all that in the Voynich Manuscript’s language? Even if William Friedman was completely and utterly wrong about the Voynich’s being an artificial constructed language (which he was), I really can see exactly why he thought & believed that. For Voynichese words show such a strong family resemblance – a strongly interlinked productive grammar, if you will – that it almost precludes anything else. Whatever Voynichese is, there is definitely an artificiality to it, or at least an abundance of artifice. I suspect that anyone trying to map Voynichese onto a direct language base will almost inevitably find (to their eventual embarrassment) that it’s just too artificial to be workable: and that’s pretty much what Elizebeth Friedman concluded too.
So here’s your Voynich paradox for the day. I’m sure that there can be no “svelte” in the Voynichese ‘language’ as we see it, because the overwhelming majority of its words arise from a compact productive grammar quite unlike that of a real, heterogeneous, messy, accidental, historic language: and yet the look of Voynichese so resembles a language that it’s hard not to feel as though you’re perpetually a mini-dictionary away from just reading it.
Of course, for me the resolution of this paradox comes down to a well-chosen bunch of steganographic tricks (such as verbose cipher, shorthand, etc) that serve to conceal the plaintext in a misleading form… but you will no doubt have your own theories about how to slice through such a Gordian knot. 🙂