A game of tag

Among the huge amounts of feature in the VM which have stumped its students, there is one which is perhaps of even bigger stumpitude than the average stumpster, and this are the tags or “labels” which the author/illustrator of the VM so copiously added to the book. But perhaps these labels aren’t words as is usually thought.

Here is an example of the use of labels in the VM, a snippet from f100r:


The general assumption is that the labels, as seen here between the two paragraphs of text, are identifiers for items depicted — the names of plants or, on other occasions, places, people oder stars.

The problem with this is that none of those labels could be identified as yet to the statisfaction of the majority. (Some success has been claimed on the issue of the notorious Pleiades and the nearby star Aldebaran on f68r, but this stems mostly from the fact that those researchers will assume a simple substitution cipher where “qo” stands for the plaintext syllable “Al-“. Since every other word in the VM begins with “qo”, and every other star name (they being mostly arabic in origin) begins with “Al-“, there is a natural tendency to find matches.)

Now one idea of mine is that the labels perhaps don’t represent complete words. (As you will have noticed if you read about my pet theory of “the strokes“, I anyway surmise the Voynich “word” is not equivalent to a plaintext “word”, but only to about two letters of the plaintext.) Perhaps they represent only the fragment of a word and don’t serve themselves to explain the items depicted, but are used as a pointer into the accompanying text where the explanation of the feature is given. (No, I don’t expect you to understand the concept immediately. Please bear with me.)

As an example, take a look at the following image from the Sachsenspiegel, a German collection of laws dating back to around 1220. (The image is from a book written around 1300.)


This example pages shows the procedure for the election of the German king. In the top row, the prominent members of the Church have their say, in the middle row the mundane dukes tag along, and in the bottom row the rest of the Yes-men do their job. You will notice the initials in the illuminations, in various colours — “I”, “V”, “S” and “S” again. The letters themselves mean nothing, but they are repeated in the text to the right (with the same colours) and link the image of the procedure (left) to the corresponding explanation (right). This is simply the other way around to what we are used to, when we deal with a subject in the text and put a reference to the accompanying illustration with something like “see Fig. 3.2”. Of course, the different colours are required to resolve possible amibuguities.

Perhaps something similar is going on with the VM labels, and they just link the pictures to the text, which themselves mean nothing but are simply two letters taken from the plaintext and repeated here.


2 thoughts on “A game of tag

  1. Hi Elmar,

    For what it’s worth, I’ve also wondered whether many labels might simply contain the initials (or a hugely contracted version) of the name of whatever it is they happen to be labelling. Remember that we observe quite different statistical and grammatical properties of labels’ “language” (such as initial y-gallows pairs): this effectively constitutes “Currier L”, even if its hasn’t really been put forward as such to date. :-)

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

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