Does size matter?

An experiment in terror.

Every now and then, a decipherment of the VM will be attempted which is based on the disctinction of very small differences between the individual characters. (One notorious example consists of the various accents found over the “ch” letter pairs.) These distinctions expand the VM character set and hence the degrees of freedom in translation attempts.

But where is the reasonable limit for this? How much must be attributed to variations in handwriting, and how much is actually an intended distinction? Follow me to the vaults, and study a little experiment in terror…

First of all, the hard facts: The VM is about 9 inches in height, which makes it a little more than 20 cm for us metric guys. A full page of text in the VM will consists of something around 40 lines, and if we spare some space for the top and bottom margin, we find that the line spacing on average is about 0.5 cm — depsite the impresson the SIDs are giving us, the VM is actually written in a fairly small script!

Now I tried to reproduce the handwriting of the VM with my own handwriting on paper with a half-centimeter grid. I didn’t use a quill, because none was at hand, and I used latin letters rather than the VM characters, because I’m more fluent in them — as fluent as apparently the VM scribe was. And I set down and wrote a piece of text in decent speed, much like obviously was done with the VM.

And here’s the result (it should show up on your monitors in about real size):


As you can immediately tell, the same letters quite often come out in different shapes.

For example, here we have three different examples of “R”:

r_1 r_2 r_3

The middle and the right sample look certainly different, especially with the middle “R” having a loop to the left of the vertical stroke, and the right “R” with the vertical stroke standing nearly “isolated”.

The same holds for the “S”:

s_1 s_2

Certainly, these must be different characters, with the one having a top horizontal stroke and the other missing it.

It gets even worse when letters begin to run together:

ch_1 ch_2 ich k

From left to right you’ve got —

  • The letters “CH” seperated,
  • The letters “CH” running together,
  • The sequence “ICH”, and
  • The letter “K”.

To us, it’s not too difficult to overcome these ambiguities, because we can reconstruct questionable letter sequences from their context, and, most of all, because we know the character set. With the VM, we’re in a different position.

So, what does this prove?

Not a whole lot, actually. I do have a sloppy handwriting, and I could have been a little more careful to avoid the random alterations. I didn’t even use a quill. And I know fairly well that there were copyists out there in period who could have written in a minuscule and still readable handwriting.

On the other hand, how careful would the VM author have been? After all, he had set out to write quite a bunch of text, and even though he knew his character set, I don’t think he was “fluent” in his writings (in the sense that he would have been able to decipher the contents back on the fly). The whole appearance of the writing doesn’t give the impression of meticuolous crafting. In my opinion, the authoer had to design a script which would forgive “slips of the pen”. This tends to speak against “micrographical” theories which rely on minute distinctions of the handwriting.

Overall, my gut feeling is that we’re well advised to assume a rather small character set at the core of the VM, and not put too fine a point on it. (If you pardon the pun.)


3 thoughts on “Does size matter?

  1. I think that you are right because the same letters will vary in shape somewhat and people take the littlest details as a whole new letter. If i wrote a story and our alphabet was no longer remembered and people tried to decode it they shouldn’t take small things/mistakes as making a whole new letter…

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  3. Elmar – A very insightful post. I’m one of those who really appreciates lots of hard facts.

    But you lost me just at the last…

    “how careful would the VM author have been?”
    what kind of hard facts here? So none but rhetorical responses are possible, such as “what author?” or “who knows?

    We don’t know if the Vms had one ‘author’ or many or none. Who composed our popular proverbs? Who first said ‘it’s five miles to the next town?’ Until we know what the book says (in pictures and/or text’ the author-question is hardly worth the pen and ink wasted on it. It can’t be resolved.

    And supposing there was a single author … we don’t know what his/her relationship might have been to the scribe/s. I mean have we a master dictating thoughts to apprentices, or a sybil having utterances recorded (as best they can) by the audience.

    We don’t know if posited ‘author’ and scribe/s were the same, or even if (just for example) the latter were of different nationality, first- language, or centuries distant in time. We have no idea whatever, and ‘reasonable supposition’ when we have so few hard facts, is a contradiction in terms on this issue I think.

    “He had set out to write quite a bunch of text..”,

    Or not.

    Maybe a set of scribes did. If there was only one inscriber, that was his daily work. If he were a professional scribe – we don’t know if he was – he could probably write/copy as automatically as a really professional typist “In the eyes, out onto the page without pause to read”

    We just don’t know.

    For me, it is the regularity in *height* in this tiny size, which I’d take as indication of someone who had trained in scribing for a considerable number of years. Lay a ruler over the top line of your writing, then over the Vms text and you’ll see what mean.

    … he knew his character set….
    fair enough assumption – though reservations kept.

    because… a keen eye registers details per se, and is able to read forms accurately, and copy them whether as a text or as a picture, and in either case without necessarily understanding their intended message.

    Think of Rawlinson and the Behistun inscriptions. Compare that with some early efforts to reproduce the form of Hindu deities. What we do not respect, we cannot properly read (in every sense of that term).

    So maybe the person/s who inscribed the Vms weren’t professional scribe/s, but had very good eyes, and the respect needed to observe and record even ‘trivial’ differences of form (in pictures as in text).

    “I don’t think he was “fluent” in his writings (in the sense that he would have been able to decipher the contents back on the fly)”.

    But Elmar – is this ‘He’ the scribe, or the posited author of the content? Assuming the two the same is, I think, very easy but is it true?

    “The whole appearance of the writing doesn’t give the impression of meticulous crafting. In my opinion”

    – appreciate your opinion; cannot share it, see ‘ruler’ test.

    “the author had to design a script ”

    – Elmar. Shame on you.

    I see no point in hunting for a possible author until we know something at least about the sources of the text, script and imagery – all of which remain nearly as unknown as they were a century ago.

    Till then, who cares who the ‘author/s’ might have been … the book and its chemical and visual content is what we have.

    … “slips of the pen”… tends to speak against “micrographical” theories which rely on minute distinctions of the handwriting.

    “micrographical” means you need an unreasonable degree of artificial aid to even see it. As in a modern high-mag lense.

    Otherwise it is simply small, and very small differences are still detectable to the naked eye, and really can matter.

    Think of a legal document, fine print .. 7 point or so, I believe. You still notice if there is an “i” in lower case which should be in capital letter; if it is italicised or not, and even if the dot over the i has been omitted. Or some people do, some people don’t notice that. Those who don’t notice, when it is pointed out, will tend to take the position that they ‘didn’t notice’ because the detail is insignificant. But if you were paid according to accuracy in creating a document, or conversely might lose money if it were not accurate, the issue of “insignificant detail” becomes less trivial.

    Bottom line.. I try never to blame the book for what I don’t know about it.

    Now, Elmar, if you want to growl about my posts, please do. Really. I think.

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