If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Voynich hoax muppet advocate, stop reading this right now, otherwise you’ll only get yourself all cross and bothered, and you’ll forget to take your medication or something else just as bad.

The rest of you, particularly those who have looked at Voynichese with a bit of care and close attention, should already understand that there are lots of patterns present there, all at the same time and on many different levels: and that any sensible explanation for the internal structure would need to give a reasonable account of these numerous simultaneous patterns. In short, it’s not enough to say ‘a clever table could generate them‘: there’s far more going on than just that.

At the same time, it’s well known that there are very few apparent corrections within the Voynichese text itself; while I’ve also presented a fair bit of evidence in the past that indicates that the text was copied onto the page (say, by one or more scribes copying from wax tablets), rather than composed on the page per se. What kind of account could tie all these diverse observations together?

Today’s proposed explanation is that Voynichese may well be even more heavily structured than we tend to accept, and that copying errors (of which I think there will prove to be plenty) were simply left intact on the page rather than corrected. As opposed to the Tamam Shud cipher (which appears to have an entire line crossed out!), I suspect that here the principle will turn out to be far closer to Omar Khayyám’s well-known:

“…The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it…”

Literary aside over, let’s look at the first paragraph of a typical Voynich page (I was looking at f111r the other day following an email by Torsten T, but more or less any would do just as well) and where I’m reasonably sure the copying errors are to be found on it:-


In Takahashi’s transcription:-

kcholchdar. shar. aiip. chepchedy. […]
doiin. sheeky. okeey. okeey. qeeal. […]
dsheedy. lkeedy. chckhy. lchedy. qo[…]
saiin. oteedy. qokeey. daiin. oke[…]
saiin. sheekshy. ol. shedy. chok[…]

Error #1: I don’t believe that “aiip” is correct. Rather, what I think happened here was that the downstroke of the “p” gallows overlapped the terminal upstroke of an “n”, probably on the wax tablet. Hence, I suspect this should read “aiinp”. Philip Neal has long pointed out that words ending in gallows characters are unusual and tend to be found on the top line of pages and paragraphs: I suspect that this is a typical example of that phenomenon.

Error #2: I don’t believe that “oiin” would ever be correct Voynichese, i.e. it’s just a miscopied “aiin” (of which there are many examples to be found on just about every page), hence this should probably read “daiin”. Curiously, though, the instance stats of aiin-family groups change between A pages and B pages: aiin appears 5x more often than ain in A pages, but only 1.6x more often in B pages.

Error #3: “akeey” (as it appears on the page, though Takahashi-san has autocorrected it to the more plausible “okeey”) should almost certainly be “okeey”. Basically, the (ok:ak) and (ot:at) instance ratios are both about 100:1, which brings copying errors to my mind rather than rare linguistic features.

Error #4: “qeeal” just looks wrong (it’s the only instance in the whole VMs). But then again, there are only 4 “qoal”s and there are no “qochal”s or “qoshal”s at all (which surprised me a little bit, but hand-building Markov models of Currier A and Currier B is a job I’ve been putting off for too long). There are plenty of “qokal”s (228) and “qotal”s (72), as well as a few “qopal”s (3), “qokeal”s (5), and “qoteal”s (2). Again, these last two look like potential copying errors (i.e. qokeal -> qokal, qoteal -> qotal)

Anyway, that points to (I think) a likely four copying errors out of 56 words (or 338 characters), i.e. an average of roughly one every 14 words (or, alternatively, one per line), which – I think – is probably a pretty good figure for a scribe copying a ciphertext. At some point, I ought to repeat the exercise on a bigger sample, see if the error rate holds true (and for both Hand 1 and Hand 2, etc).

29 thoughts on “Errors in the Voynich Manuscript…

  1. bdid1dr on January 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm said:

    It’s early morning here, Nick. So, I’ll just do a test run on your ex-ampl nmbr one: amber ambrosia ampersand improper important embarrasing embrace……ending enduring ..imposing ongoing ungulate…….I’ll be seeking the context first (after my first cuppa coffee). g–d mrn-ng gracias dios epharisto !

  2. Hi Nick! You have a lot better feel for Voynichese than I do, so I defer those judgments to you.

    I do remember seeing a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead at a museum exhibition; there were no corrections in it.

  3. bdid1dr on January 16, 2014 at 12:37 am said:

    Many months ago, I mentioned that the elaborate, curlicued, “capital P” could be added mentally onto before and after the elaborate one-stroke figure had been enscribed. Depending on the number of “curlicues” or “wraps” of the singular pen-stroke, one would be able to read/translate the entire multi-syllable word. I have done that with “es “P” c-e (especie) for many of the botanical discussions. I’ve also discussed how that elaborate “P” can be used to form the words “botanical” and “prescription”.
    Yes, there are bound to be errors ‘especially’ when trying to either copy written dialogue, or if one has a hearing or visual disability. (I speak from experience — while trying to take notes and lip-read at the same time.) Not all of my teachers were able to break their habit of writing on the board while lecturing with their backs to the room.) I failed miserably with Gregg shorthand. Some other time I might tell the story of the one and ONLY teacher who arranged the schoolroom furniture into a deep “U”-shape — so that none of us could miss what he was saying. I ‘aced’ that class (partly because it was English Lit’ — and I had already read it all). Also partly because he would pace the inside of the “U” and ask each student if they had any questions. So, x-Per-i-n-S is still sometimes the best teacher. I bet your Gran was great with Scrabble! 😉

  4. Nick –
    Great post, thanks.

  5. Nick – there are implications for historical period and context here. I know your methods too well to think you wouldn’t have done the research to see whether, and by whom, wax tablets had been used, as well as if they were still in use by the early fifteenth century – care to comment on that, or must be wait for Curse 2?

  6. Dear all –
    I’m asking about Nick’s take because while i know it will be informed and balanced, any casual reader might be inclined to turn to an English-language wiki article entitled ‘wax tablet’ which has neither of those admirable qualities.

    The wiki article isn’t worthy of an encyclopaedia – not by any means.

  7. Diane: wax tablets go back millennia (of course), and were a consistent backdrop to medieval life (Hildegard of Bingen was depicted with hers). However, they were only gradually supplanted by the improving availability of paper, and were in active use right through the Renaissance, even up to the 19th century for certain specialist tasks. The best proper article I’ve found on them is by the British Library’s always excellent Michelle P. Brown from 1994 – http://www.bl.uk/eblj/1994articles/pdf/article1.pdf – which I’m sure you’ll enjoy. 🙂

  8. Diane: I just had another quick look, and there’s a nice set of links to wax tablet images here – http://www.larsdatter.com/tablets.htm

  9. Nick – I’m fond of the larsdatter page too. Michelle Brown’s article is totes yummy.

    For fun, you might like an article on the use of a wax tablet to conceal a secret diplomatic letter – written in runes, no less.
    Aslak Liestol, ‘The Runes of Bergen Voices from the Middle Ages’, Minnesota History , Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer, 1966) , pp. 49-58 (JSTOR)

    Same article shows sketch of a ship with prow and sternpost as ornamented with dragon and dog, respectively.

    This is really becoming fun!

  10. How pristine is the Voynich?
    What was added latter?
    Who put the beard on the naked lady?

  11. xplor: (a) it’s in very good condition, all things considered (b) the zodiac marginalia (late 15th century), the quire numbers (late 15th century), the cipher table on f1r (mid 16th century), the f49v number table (also mid-16th century), the folio numbers (late 16 century) [all dates approximate], (c) Errrm… who told you that it was a lady? 😉

  12. Diane: careful with that “totes” word, it’s, like, totes easy to, like, totes overdo it. Basically. 🙂

  13. Nick,

    ” I suspect this should read “aiinp”.”

    Possibly, but I did not find any other examples of aiinp…maybe “aip” as there are about 11 of these (but they could be errors as well given the small number). I also note that “ak” is a common error, but curiously “.ak” (ie word beginning) is predominately found in Q20. I’ve often wondered if we could separate our A and B into subsets based on these (and other) errors. Another example is “r.r”…just like “.ak” it feels like an error, but its an error almost exclusive to Q20.


  14. Tim: aiinp vs aiip is a tough one. Really, they both look wrong, wouldn’t you agree?

    Q13 and Q20 see a change in the system that suddenly allows l-initial words (which I suspect may actually turn out to be the same as ol-initial words in Currier A pages). Similarly, Q20 also sees the introduction of r-initial words (which I suspect may actually turn out to be the same as or-initial words in Currier A pages). Hence I suspect that r.r may well actually be “ror” groups but with the ‘o’ missing from the middle. There are a few “l.l” groups too, right?

    Cataloguing the errors (and localising them to sections) may well be one of the few ways that we stand of sneaking our way inside Voynichese. But it’s a tough path to follow, because you’re effectively transcribing the same page twice – once with what you see, and once with you think it ought to have been.

  15. Agree, both “aip” and “aiinp” probably don’t fit anywhere.

    “There are a few “l.l” groups too, right?”

    Yes, “l.l” is another favorite as it is quite common, but almost exclusive to Q13 and Q20, so, as you said, something changed here, either the method, or the scribe.

    Some of these may map (ie there seems to be a correlation between EVA ‘x’ and ‘yy’ which seems to be the inverse of l.l)

    “But it’s a tough path to follow…”

    Sums it up quite nicely.


  16. Nick: Yes, slang becomes its own generation and no other, but it’s still fun to play sometimes.

  17. Are you sugesting Gynecomastia?
    The reason I ask is the most recent cipher to be cracked was the ‘Ndrangheta cipher. It was solved by two policemen with a passion for crosswords. It had a mix of Arabic, Cyrillic and Chinese-type script was found in Rome.

  18. thomas spande on January 17, 2014 at 10:07 pm said:

    Dear all, How do we know that the first highlighted word that Nick has flagged above “anp” isn’t split after the “n” and “p” is being used to start the next word? Then the following word looks like “pipi… 89 (et)?? In short this may not be an error at all. Previous word ends in a consonant “n” and following word starts with a consonant”p”? Cheers, Tom

  19. bdid1dr on January 18, 2014 at 5:08 pm said:

    Nick, I still ‘aven’t gotten around 2 f111r. But a little more info on the different but homonymous words which are ‘ard to differentiate while taking dictation (homonymous is probably my own word — we’ll see ‘ow m’ll’m ‘andles this, my latest kontribution). Wax tablets aside, I see a scribe trying to write while ‘on the fly’ (slang for moving very rapidly). I give the (possible) team of scribe, illustrator, and colorist high marks for their efforts.
    Big smile for y’all

  20. Good evening (from Spain), Nick.
    I was wondering why you take those examples as copying mistakes. Couldn’t there be any further explanations for those exceptions on the MS? We could also think of them as linguistic exceptions or even the real text behind this apparently nonsensical letters. I think we cannot just take these examples (or any other through the MS) and give them only one explanation. So it is as if we said, ‘ok, this word never occurs, so there must be a mistake’. What happens if it is not the object (the MS) but the subject (we) what is wrong?
    In Spanish for example common consonants at the end of a word are -n, -s, -d, but that does not mean we cannot find -j. In fact there are some words ending in -j, as in reloj (a wrist watch).

  21. bdid1dr on January 20, 2014 at 4:47 pm said:

    Nick & Carmen, I awoke this morning with a lingering dream which landed me at Hildegard’s (of Bingen) door. Yesterday I visited Nick’s ‘Sirius Voynich’ discussion page, and I mentioned the very strange B-408 f-28v — and my translation of it. I’m bringing up the subject here because that folio was seemingly full of errors. It wasn’t. The difficulty was with the scribe’s inability to scribe the first three syllables of “ha-ma-mel-i-caea corylus. So I guess we can call some ‘errors’ just plain inability to write as fast as the lecturer is speaking. Some of those wax tablets may have been melting while the scribe was heating up with anxiety?

  22. bdid1dr on February 1, 2014 at 11:17 pm said:

    To answer Job’s question, ‘what was added later?” : The only ‘added’ item appears on the last folio ‘back-page’ (116v?) My ‘take’ on that addendum is that Ambassador Busbecq described the Monumentum Ancyranum (in Ankara/Turkey) as being his point of departure from Suleiman’s domain. Busbecq was returning to the Viennese court with some 240 manuscripts from Suleiman’s (Topkapi?) court. Busbecq probably felt that this was one of the shabbier, ill-written, and badly illustrated manuscripts in the pile. I haven’t yet been able to return to the university which has both Clusius and Busbecq’s correspondence with each other and other European courts (Rudolph II’s, Ferdinand, and the Louvain’s, for at least three.)


  23. bdid1dr on February 4, 2014 at 5:25 pm said:

    I still have not had the time to download f-111, but i anTiciPate a translation of the x-am-PL you’ve disPLayed fairly soon. I’ve just finished f-38 (phoenix-palm) and f-16r (Plantago ovata-psyllium seed, desert indian wheat).
    Since I’ve promised not to comment further on the “Nahuatl” discussion until you, Rene, Klaus, Stephen B, and other interested parties can reach some conclusions, I hope you have time to review my comments herein. My search for psyllium seed (f-16r) took a couple of days. It turns out it was/is more a weed than a ‘botanical garden specimen’ but very valuable in the digestive process and controlling cholesterol levels.
    Keep on keeping on, sir!

  24. bdid1dr on February 5, 2014 at 4:09 pm said:

    I’ll be attempting to get a legible copy of B-408 folio 111 (r&v) from Boenicke, in order to hand-write a translation of each of the ‘bulleted’ (flowers? asterisks? stars?) paragraphs which probably provide more detailed information for each of the specimens/recipes/prescriptions. So far, I have not succeeded in getting a decent enlargement of those pages. So, it may be a while………. 🙂

  25. bdid1dr on February 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm said:

    In re B-408, f111 (r & v): Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were the artists, scribes, and, maybe, students trying to put down in writing, sketching, and coloring, the lectures which may not have been accompanied with professorial drawings/illustrations? Perhaps the written notes were preliminary to the illustrations?
    I have noticed the ‘commentary’ which is fitted in between various illustrations of ancestry, horoscopes, astrology, pharmacology, and botany.
    There even appears to be some illustrated anatomy and physiology. If only we could get some ‘large print’ downloads from Boenicke! What I’m not seeing is any mention of the deformed “Hapsburg Jaw” which apparently was a real problem for artists when painting official portraits. So, inbreeding was a serious problem for European royalty. What would have been a mystery was why only the men suffered the malformation. The other mystery was that many Hapsburg women suffered nervous breakdowns and/or depression.
    Apparently one of Rudolph II’s favorite portraits of himself was the portrait done all in fruit. I only mention Rudolph because he would have been the last person to own Boenicke manuscript 408 before the outbreak of the Thirty Years war.

  26. Nick, I’m not sure why you insist on wax tablets. Sure they were used in commerce, and by students, but at the same time paper was easy enough to obtain, except -perhaps – in England where mills are thought to have been established only in the latter part of the fifteenth century.
    So why not paper?

  27. Diane: it’s just a strong suspicion of mine that the encipherer copied each line of text onto a wax tablet and then somehow enciphered it in situ, before handing it off to a scribe to copy. I say ‘suspicion’ because I don’t have proof: all it comes down to is that the Voynichese font seems much easier to write with a stylus than with a quill.

  28. Yes, I agree; it’s certainly pen-unfriendly. As (?) first wisely observed, what we see looks like ‘drawings of letters’.

  29. quill-pen unfriendly, at least.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation