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MINIMS IN THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT

A minim is a short, vertical stroke for letters i, m, n, and u. They are connected to form different letters by a connecting stroke which was often so fine that it was hardly noticable. They were characteristic for the medieval Ghotic script which was very hard to read. To make it easier to read, the letters were inserted or dropped, and the dots were placed over ‘i’, and umlout over ‘u’, the leters j and v were also introduced.

Dr. Stephen Bax on Minims

Back in 2014, the late world renown linguist Dr. Stephen Bax pointed out that the minims are the greatest obstacles for properly analysing and interpreting the VM. He pointed out that one minim could stand for ‘i’ and ‘j’, two minims for ‘n’, ‘u’, and ‘v’, and three minims for ‘m’ and ‘w’.  He stated that when reading the Voynich manuscript “we need to be aware of possible multiple meanings for the same signs, and we need to accept that this was not unique in mediaeval practice.”

He pointed out how important it is to properly transcribe and translate the minims, as he wrote, unless you have the context and the word knowledge – which we don’t have with the Voynich script – it is a nightmare to tell if a letter is  ‘n’, ‘u’, ‘i i’, or in the case of three minims,  ‘i u’, u i’ , ‘m’ or even ‘w’ or ‘i v’.”

Most researchers referred to the VM minims as Eva ‘iin’ or ‘iiv’ (Currier). Bax pointed out that different combination of minims can generate 14 different sounds or letters, excluding V, as well as some Latin numerals.

Source: Dr. S. Bax

Dr. Bax also noticed the difference between the way the VM minims are connected: in some words, there is slight separation between the minims, and most of the time, the last minim ends with an upward flourish. He was wondering if the scribe did that with a specific purpose in mind. He believed the scribe intended to link some minims and separate others to indicate different sounds.

Most VM researchers even at the present time, would agree with Dr. Bax’s statement: “This analysis raises an important problem for Voynich studies, because so far we have treated all ii and iii clusters as only two ‘signs’, in our counting, in our statistics and in our thinking. Our transcriptions – and therefore all of our computer analyses, entropy, Zipf and all the rest – have been based on that assumption. If it is wrong, we need a major rethink, and a major recount.”

The untimely death of Dr. Bax prevented him from continuing his research in this area. All computer analysis of the VM text so far failed to produce any meaningful results, because they are all based on EVA alphabet which counts two minims as ‘in’, three minims as ‘iin’, and four minims as iiin. Perhaps, it would be time to re-interpret the minims and analyse the text based on new transcription.

I have updated EVA alphabet to take into account a new understanding of minims and replaced some letter designations that were most problematic for proper reading of VM text. I obtained very good results with my transcription alphabet.

As Dr. Bax pointed out, minims are characteristic for the Arabic script however they were often used in the medieval Gothic writing. Later, the minims were formed into the letters N, M, U, I and W.

Some Hystorical Appearance of Minims

The symbols with different number of lines have much older origin than the writing. They have been found on the artifacts from the 3rd millenium BC in present day Serbia. The signs with two and three minims have been used for sounds N and M in Proto-Sinaitic, Ancient Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Etruscan, Venetic and some other scripts.

The minims were used in Gothic script for M, N, U, I, V and W. The pictures below show different style of minims. Even in the Slovenian Carthusian manastery of Žiče (Slovenia), the minims were used in capital and cursive script.

The above tree samples of minims are quite different, but in all these scripts it is hard to read the letters comprised of mimims. The picture on the right already uses the letter ‘i’, but it still has the same ‘d’ as the VM. I would also like to point out to the slightly triangular loop in the letter L.

In the mid-15th century, the Carthusian monastery Žiče was one of the four monasteries that in 1415 formed the Fraternity of the Slovenian Carthusian monasteries. It had the second largest library in Europe at that time.

Minims in Stična Codex

In my previous posts, I have already explained that the language of the VM is medieval Slovenian. I pointed out to the similarity of some VM glyphs to the Stična Codex, written in Slovenian language and in Latin letters about the same time as the VM. The codex contains the formula for the general confession, which has been in use continuously with some modifications and was therefore easy to read and translate into modern Slovenian.

For the purpose of explaining the reading of minims, I will try to analise the Stična Codex. The first part was written by a Czech refugee around the year 1428, and the other two pages by his student in 1440. Since the Stična Codex was transcribed and translated by professional linguist, I cannot be accused of subjective reading.

This analysis will only include minims.

The text of the VM is less familiar to Slovenian speakers, because the author probably developed his alphabet independently from the Czech monk who wrote the Stična codex at the Cistercian monastery of Stična, Slovenia. Because the Stična codex uses German style of letters k, s, z, r, h, it is hard to get a word that could be spelled exactly the same as in the VM, however, when I substituted those letters with the Latin exquivalents of the VM glyphs, I got many exactly the same words, which indicates that the language is indeed Slovenian.

The Stična Codex already shows some solutions to the minim problems. The darker ink makes some connecting lines between minims more visible, so that in some places, it is quite possible to distinguish ‘u’ from ‘n’, but not always.

The words in the yellow square represent Slovenian word INU (and), which was used in the regions of Slovenia under German influence, while the letter ‘i’ (and) was used and a conjunction ‘and’ in the regions of OCS influence.  

The word I (and) was the remnant of the OCS language and was still used in Dolenjska region in the 16th century, however, since the author of the Stična Codex was a Czech Cistercian, he was influenced by the writing practice of Germanic priests and used the word INU. In the Stična Codex, it was also spelled as YNV, YNW or YNU, and even YNVO. In Slovenian, the word eventually evolved to IN, as Y was replaced with ‘i’, but in dialectal speech, it was often pronounced as JN or AN, which is similar to English, but with the dropped D. A similar explanation could be given to German UND: as Y was replaced with U, U was pronounced as U.

In the Stična Codex, the letters U, W and V are all pronounced as U, and since the grammatical rules were not established yet, they are used intercheangably throughout the text. ‘V’ comes from Latin writing convention which did not recognize W.  The German writers often used the letter W for V or B (In the Stična Codex, the word BUG (God) is written as WUG. The letter V in German writing practice was also often used for F (visch – fisch).

The letter W (marked with purple) was already abandoned and replaced with V or U in the Middle Ages, however it still appeared occasionally in the writing of the 16th century, particularly by German writers. It would take a scholar to recognize this confusion and try to improve the Slovenian alphabet so that it could be used by Slovenians living under Hungary, Austria or Italy.

Carthusian Nicholas Kempf was an educator and strong proponent of the use of vernacular language in liturgy. As a prior of Jurklošter and Pleterje (two of the carthusian monasteries who in 1415 formed the Fraternity of the Slovenian Carthusian monasteries, it would be feasible that he developed the Latin alphabet for Slovenian language.

In the first sample of the Stična Codex, the letters M and N have slightly rounded connecting line, while the second part the connecting line is pointy, and when pressed with a quail pen, it is usually lighter, sometimes almost invisible, like in the VM.

Some of those letters M or N appearing at the end of the words have  tails, turned downwards, however, this is not always the case. Exactly the same word, with the same Slovenian meaning, can have the letters N and M with a tail, or without it. Besides the fact that some have a flourish, there are only a few that seem perfectly written and can be correctly recognized by somebody who is not familiar with the Slovenian language. In some cases, there are four minims, that can be read as NU, UN, IM or MI. In the Stična codex they are easier to recognize, because the author put a dot over ‘i’. Also, in some Slovenian dialects, and particularly in Dalmatian Croatian, letter N was often used for M (san – sam – Dalmatian for I am, while in Slovenian, the same word meant ‘sleep’, ‘dream’). Because some regions in Slovenia used Glagolitza and Croatian liturgical books, the speech of the people in those reagions could have been influenced that dialect.

The  VM-v at the end of the words seems to be the mirror image of the Stična Codex-v, with a short slanted line with a flourish, sometimes almost rounded into O (equivalent of Stična Codex YNVO).

Frequency of letter  M

Compared to Stična Codex, M in the VM appears mostly at the end of the word. There can be several reasons for this: the M was so weakly pronounced that it was not noticed by a foreign writer; the choice of vocabulary the author used did not contain that letter; the words has an improper space after the letter M.

The frequency of the letter M at the end of the words definitelly reflects Slovenian grammar. The ending -am is still used as the verbal ending for the first person singular, present tense. This is indicated in some Slovenian dictionaries. The examples below are from the SSKJ (Slovar slovenskega knjižnega jezika).  You might also noticed the ending TI for the ending of the verbs in the infinite form. The German writers often spelled D for T. This can partly explain the high frequency of DY endings in the VM.

The letters ‘w’ (marked with purple) and ‘v’ (marked with orange) can also be found at the end of the words, just like in the VM.

The ‘-am’ ending is therefore one of the most frequents Slovenian endings, particularly in the text written in the first person. Since the text of the VM seems to contain poems, prayers or recipes (instructions), a lot of text would be expected to be written in the first person singular.

  Stična Codes – 1440

Stična Codex is written in the first person singular, which accounts for most -m endings. The manuscript is written in Latin, so I cannot analyze the minims in the same way as in the Stična Codex, but perhaps some Latin expert could figure out the meaning of the flourishes in this writing.

Unlike in the Stična Codex, where the flourishes are turned downwards, the final flourishes in this manuscript are turned upwards, although not all final minims end up with an upward flourish.

Minims in Tractatus Husite

Tractatus Husite was written in the Stična monastery (Slovenia) and partly by the same scribe that has written the Stična Codex, since this document was part of the Tractatus Husite.

J. K. Petersen rejects the idea that the upward turned flourish in the VM was used for embellishment. He claims that in the Middle Ages, in Latin, English, French, German, Italian, Czech, Spanish, and other languages, the back sweeping tail stood for whatever ending was appropriate for that language and could represent one or several missing letters. Petersen transliterates the EVA  – IIN as IIV, but I am proposing some additional readings, such as M, IN, IIW, MI, IM, IW, JIV, NV.

I agree with Petersen that a single minim at the end with a tail upwards could stand for the semivowel, which was later replaced with the vowel, and depending on the dialect, the vowel can be u, w, o, v or i (y).

Petersen pointed out that minims are most often preceded by the letter ‘a’. According to EVA and most other transcription alphabets, the letter ‘i’ is represented with one minim (s slanted line), except at the beginning and at the end of the word. It was also pointed out that the string of minims at the end of the words is most often proceeded by ‘a’ or by ‘da’, so much so that the VM researchers are referring to the EVA words DAIN and DAIIN.

The word DAM is one of the most frequently used Slovenian words, since it is used a lot in the ordinary conversation, as well as in the first-person writing.

DAM is the form of the verb DATI, 1. Person, sing. Present tense. As it is evident from the partial explanation in the Slovenian Etymology Dictionary, various prefixes and endings can be added to this word, however in the dictionary, only DATI would be listed.

dáti dám dov. lat.‛dare’ (10. stol.), dájati, dodáti, dodȃjati, dodȃtek, izdáti, izdȃjati, izdȃja, navdáti, navdȃjati, obdáti, obdȃjati, oddáti, oddȃjati, oddȃja, oddȃjnik, podáti, podȃjati, podȃja, predáti, predȃjati, predȃja, pridáti, pridȃjati, razdáti, razdȃjati, vdáti se (15. stol.), vdȃjati se, vdȃja, vdán, vdánost, zadáti, zavdáti, zavdȃjati idr  stcslovan. dati, sed. damь, hrv., srb. dȁti, sed. dȃm, dádēm, rus. dátь, sed. dám, češ. dát, sed. dám. Pslovan. *da̋ti, sed. *damь̏ ‛dati’ je dalje enako z lit. dúoti, sed. star. dúomi, danes dúodu, let. duôt ‛dati’, kar so vse tvorbe iz ide. korena *doh3- ‛dati’. (Copied from SSKJ)

The word dati was known in the Old Indian language as dádāti, Proto-Slavic as da̋ti, Greek dídōmi (dam), in Latin dare, in Old Church Slavonic. dati  (damь – 1. per., sing., present tense).

In the VM, the word DAM is used in various combination, one of the most revealing is the combination DAM DAR, which due to the flexible word order, can also be reversed (DAR DAM). Both of this combinations could be found in the VM.

The word DAM is not to be confussed with the Slovenian word DOM, which means ‘home’, however in some Slovenian dialects, the O in DOM is pronounced as A. This explains two exactly the same consecutive words in the VM: DAM DAM. The Slovenian speaking person would pronounce them differently (the first A has a long accent, the second one a short one). This is also recognizable as old Slovenian expression, litterally translated into English as HOME GIVE or GIVE HOME. The personal pronoun I is implied with the ending M. The proper meaningful English translation would be: I give (to take home).

The minims in VM f42r could easily be recognized as the 1st person writing because of the frequency of the ending -m, although the ending can also be for a noun. This text also reveals the frequency of the use of the word DAM.

Conclusion

Although Slovenian was my first language, and I am also familiar with Slovenian dialects, I still have difficulty correctly identifying the minims. Fortunately, in most cases, the misreading M for IW, and vice versa, represents only minor grammatical difference which I will explain in my next post.

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