“C’est ne pas un mot”

Edit: I’ve just added a whole page dedicated to the “Face Value-Fallacy“, because I feel it’s important more people are aware of it.

One of the pitfalls of VM research is the presumption to take its text at face value — these letters that make up the text look so very much like latin letters (except… not quite ;-)), that it’s tempting to presume that each ciphertext letter indeed does represent one plaintext letter. And from that starting point the next logical step is to presume that each chipertext word corresponds to one plaintext word.

But upon closer inspection, this presumption is not borne out by observation, except by the fact that the letters are grouped into small sequences, seperated by visual spaces. A lot of features speak against this assumption or “words”,*) namely —

  • The words of the VM show a high internal structure: Many letters appear only word-initial, some only word-terminal, and many show a high dependency on their neighborhood. While these features are not unheard of in natural languages — compare “q”, which is always followed by “u” in most western languages, or the German “ß”-s which has a strong tendency to appear word-terminal — no language exhibits so many of these features and such a strongly regulated word-internal grammar.
  • The letters aren’t evenly distributed on the page. It’s common knowledge that the gallows characters are concentrated on the page tops and paragraph starts. While this could be explained by them being ornamental versions of regular characters, Julian Bunn’s analysis from 2016 shows a bunch of certain characters “crowd” in line-initial or line-terminal positions, which is a pretty odd feature, if one character really represents one plaintext letter.
  • Unless we are very wrong about the character set used for the VM, one VM word simply doesn’t have enough information content to encipher a plaintext word.**)
  • “Sentences” often differ by only slight changes from word to word or show word repetitions or show word repetitions, so that it almost looks like words are not independent but “morphing” one into the other, and the true information content doesn’t lie in the words themselves, but in the changes introduced between them.***) This is also difficult to reconcile with the idea that each VM word corresponds to a plaintext word.

No. There is much too much going on in the encipherment of the VM. A ciphertext word is not a plaintext word, and a ciphertext letter does not correspond to a plaintext letter, I’m willing to bet on both.

It’s still my convinction that the fiendishness of the VM encipherment doesn’t lie in it’s complexity, but in it’s seeming simplicity: Taken at face value, it looks like something dead simple to solve, and so even a moderately complicated scheme escapes the eye of the beholder. We’re missing the forest for the trees which look like shrubbery.

*) Subsequently I’ll use the term “word” for “a short sequence of glyphs in the VM, seperated from the rest by visual breaks.

**) It could be that the VM character set is much more complicated than presumed and contains many more fine details which discriminate between different character, but I doubt this for reasons of practicability: The VM characters are already quite small, and it would have been impossible for the author to write down his letters so exactly on rough vellum that small nuances would have been legible for a reader. (Not to make too fine a point on this.)

***) Wouldn’t it be fascinating if the word sequence “walter winter” would be used in such a manner to encipher the word “in”?

4 thoughts on ““C’est ne pas un mot”

  1. Hi Elmar,
    I totally agree with you. But if the VMS “letters” are not letters of the plain text, what they are? My feeling is they are numbers. If each plain text has a correspondent (cipher) number, that number can be represented in many ways, using VMS symbols. Many of them will be represented by one, two or several VMS symbols connected by mathematical operation…
    I agree with you we are complicating something that is relatively simple. If there is a cipher, it must be a simple one. Or at least enough simple to be “READABLE”, i.e. one can memorize it and after the VMS can be read without making complicated deciphering manipulations.

    Best regards,

  2. Hello Adrian,
    Of course, you ask the big question… :-)
    My personal idea is still that the cipher text encodes the graphical elements of the plaintext — the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, the arcs and circles which make up the individual letters. Ie, EVA might represent a short vertical line, is a long vertical line, and is a circle, or some such scheme I’ve outlined my ideas here: https://voynichthoughts.wordpress.com/stroke-theory/in-a-nutshell/ While this would explain a number of statistical features of the VM, I still haven’t been able to come up with a method of actually deciphering the VM in this way.
    As for the numbers, the problem I see is with the large number of different symbols in the ciphertext. Ten different digits are more than enough to make up arbitrarily large numbers, why does the VM use some 20 to 30 symbols?

  3. Hello Elmar,

    Your idea is interesting. In this case, VMS is a long set of instructions to draw letters. This should be fantastic and should represent a drawing program “avant la lettre”, as we use today for computers. I had a similar idea in the past but I had no progress with. I will have a look in the link you sent.
    About the numbers hypothesis. Some of the VMS symbols have a very uneven distribution in the ms, e.g. from page to page. Some high frequency symbols are rare or even missing in some pages. A numbers based code with multiple possible representations for the same plain text letter is my best guess to get this coding flexibility. Another possibility I see is a combination of letters with numbers, where numbers are some kind of “deviators”. E.g. the “word” 3D is D-3=4-3=1=A
    I use “code” not “cipher” because I’m convinced that VMS is readable for somebody who knows the code. A cipher (with more complicated way to get the plain text) can be a reasonable option for a short text but not for a book this length.

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