A Few Thoughts on Grove Words

Grove Words are defined as words which appear at the beginning of a paragraph and begin with a gallows glyph: [k, t, f, p]. They make up the bulk of paragraph–initial words throughout the text. Many will have been present in the statistics I discussed concerning line start words. I wish to outline a few thoughts on Grove Words, in order that they might be better typified. This should help us to eventually explain them, and also feed in to our understanding of words at the start of a line.

For the following discussion I use a list containing all those words which begin with a gallows glyph and occur at the beginning of a paragraph at least once in the ‘Stars’ section (Quire 20) of the Voynich manuscript. There are 183 such words according to my count. The initial glyphs of these words are: [f], 13 words (7%); [k], 17 words (9%); [p], 106 words (58%); [t], 47 words (26%).

Sometimes it is observed that Grove Words are unique. About 57% of the Grove Words in the Stars section are unique in the whole manuscript, and about 85% are unique in the Stars section. But about 65% of all words in the Stars section are unique, and a potentially higher percentage for the manuscript as a whole (the figures are hard to count due to words with difficult readings). We cannot consider Grove Words to be substantially different from the text as a whole for this reason alone.

We also cannot consider Grove Words to be strictly paragraph–initial only. Some of the more common examples occur in various places, away from both the beginning of a paragraph and the beginning of a line. Together with the point about uniqueness, it is clear that more Grove Words could occur elsewhere in the text were they more common. There can be no assumptions about a word in these respects simply because it appears once as a Grove Word.

The main point we wish to answer is why do so many Grove Words occur? That is, why do the majority of paragraph–initial words begin with a gallows? On some pages in the Stars section every paragraph begins with a Grove Word. The gallows glyphs [f, p, t] (but interestingly not [k]) are over-represented at the beginning of lines when compared with the text as a whole. The cause of this is Grove Words.

Grove Words do not come about by random chance, as the number of possible initial glyphs and paragraphs in the Voynich manuscript is too great, and the pattern for Grove Words is too coherent.

Nor is it likely that the first words in most paragraphs begin with the same few glyphs due to the underlying sounds or values. That the first word on a page might represent a specific kind of thing (such as topic or the name of a plant) is possible, but the presence of Grove Words makes it seem as though all these thing begin with one of only four sounds. Although some languages, such as in the Bantu family, have noun classes with a small number of prefixes, we would expect to see a much stronger pattern of gallows-initial words throughout the text, which we do not.

There must be a process which creates Grove Words. We can think of that process broadly working in one of two possible ways. The first is that words which already begin with a gallows are brought to the start of a paragraph, the other is that word which already start a paragraph are made to begin with a gallows.

Considering the first, we would have to presume that the word order is flexible enough for a gallows–initial word to be moved to the desired position, and that such words occur in the first sentence or even in the paragraph as a whole. Yet there are many examples of Grove Words being the only gallows–initial word in the whole paragraph, and also some paragraphs without a Grove Word yet with one or more gallows–initial word.

Further, even though [p] is the most common glyph at the beginning of a Grove Word, it is no more common as a word–initial glyph than [t] in the Stars section, and less common than [k]. Indeed, [k] is only a little more common as the first glyph of a Grove Word than [f], despite being over eight times more common as an word–initial glyph in the text of the Stars section as a whole. If there was a process for moving gallows–initial words to the beginning of paragraphs we would expect to see the statistics for them to be the same as the whole text, and we do not.

There seems to be no particular evidence for the hypothesis that gallows–initial words are moved to the beginning of a paragraph to make Grove Words.

Considering the alternative, that paragraph–initial words are made to begin with a gallows, we have to think how a word might be transformed for this to occur. One is that the first glyph (or glyphs) is replaced with a gallows, the next that one or more glyphs before a gallows is removed, or the third—which is the one commonly assumed—that a gallows glyph is added to the beginning of a word.

That the initial gallows may be replacing another glyph is unlikely. The glyphs immediately after the gallows are so diverse that no one glyph could replace a gallows and result in a valid word. It would have to be that a single gallows can replace multiple different glyphs, resulting in a potential loss of information. How would the reader know what word was meant?

Further, the structure of some words, such as [fchoctheody, kchdaldy, pcholky, tchokedy] suggest that the glyphs immediately after the gallows are a normal starting syllable and should not have anything in front of them. The same goes for a small number of Grove Words where the second glyph is [y] which does not usually occur in the middle of a word.

Some of the same objections carry over into the idea that the gallows glyph has become initial after the removal of a preceding character. The longer words would look even more abnormal and occurrences of middle [y] would not be solved.

But it should further be noted that restoring a presumed initial character makes most of the words look less acceptable. We can test the idea of restoration by adding [o] to the beginning of Grove Words, as that is the most common initial glyph and perfectly acceptable before a gallows. In 70% of cases the resulting word does not exist in the whole of the text. A further 14% have only one or two occurrences. This idea outcomes in an even odder set of words at the beginning of paragraphs with greater diverging from the main text.

However, about 11% of words with an added [o] are common, with five or more occurrences, and some even into the low hundreds. But almost all of these words perform even better under the third option, that Grove Words are made by adding a gallows to an existing word. If we remove the gallows then almost 40% of Grove Words have more than ten occurrences, and about half have five or more. The words thus become more regular and more like the main text.

Yet 31% of words with the gallows removed have no occurrences, which presses for an explanation. There may be two reasons for this. One is that such words are genuinely unique. They properly do not begin with a gallows character but as their only occurrence is at the beginning of a paragraph their form as a Grove Word is the only one known.

The other reason is that some Grove Words properly begin with a gallows glyph. Whatever process adds a gallows to the beginning of Grove Words does not happen if that word already begins with one. It may be that removing the gallows from such a word does result in a more common word, even if both are still valid.

Indeed, we must not assume that a word becoming more common with the removal of an initial gallows is a great proof, as many words beginning with different glyphs show the same pattern. Glyph can often be removed from the beginning of words and result in another valid word. It must be borne in mind that the problem of Grove Words is not that the words themselves make more sense with the gallows removed, but that their paragraph–initial distribution makes it sensible to question where the initial gallows comes from. That they can often be reasonably removed leads us to a possible solution.


The existence of Grove Words calls for an explanation, which can only be arrived at once they have been clearly typified. We have looked at a few aspects of such words and found that neither their uniqueness nor their position are strictly useful for defining them. Many words in the text are unique, and some Grove Words also occur elsewhere in the text.

The main problem for Grove Words is the underlying process which consistently results in words beginning with a gallows occurring at the beginning of a paragraph. We are able to say a few things about this process which furthers our thinking.

1) A gallows character is added to the beginning of a paragraph–initial word. There is no reason to suspect that a word beginning with a gallows is moved to the start of a paragraph. The word is presumably in its position due to the logic of the underlying sentence and the Grove Word is created from it.

2) Some Grove Words already begin with a gallows character and are left unchanged (although the distribution of [f, p] on the first line of paragraphs could influence which gallows occurs). Again, such words are paragraph–initial due to the logic of the sentence, and a certain percentage of such words will begin with a gallows regardless.

3) Some Grove Words are genuinely unique even without the gallows glyph. This is statistically unsurprising but allows for the possibility that some Grove Words may represent the name of topics or plants on their page—with or without the initial gallows.

There is scope for further research on those words which appear at the beginning of paragraphs but without an initial gallows. It would also be worthwhile seeking to understand which Grove Words properly have an initial gallows and which do not.


2 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on Grove Words

  1. Some thoughts.

    1. Are the unique Grove words still unique if the gallows is retained or replaced with another gallows? If not, that would lend support to the idea that a gallows as added only if one is not already there.

    2. Moving a word to a particular position (for linguistic, not cryptographic, reasons) is not unknown in natural language. The best example that comes to mind is from the very beginning of Pāṇini’s _Aṣṭādhyāyī_ (the classic Sanskrit grammar treatise), and I hope the following explanation of how it works isn’t too boring. 🙂

    The usual form in this work is for a verse presenting a definition to put the term being defined at the end. So verse 1.1.2 is अदेङ्गुणः (aD eṄ guṇaḥ), which means “phonemes in the categories aT and eṄ are called guṇa”. Verse 1.1.1 is a definition of the exact same form, saying that categories āT and aiC are called vṛddhi. So with sandhi, we should expect 1.1.1 to be *आदैज्वृद्धिः (āD aiJ vṛddhiḥ), but in fact it’s वृद्धिरादैच् (vṛddhir āD aiC), with the usual explanation being that the pattern was broken in order to begin the work with an auspicious word (“vṛddhi” means something like “prosperity” when it’s not a grammatical term).

    That’s perhaps excessive detail, but the point I’m trying to make is that bringing a word to a particular position out of the ordinary is not *itself* impossible on the face of it. I don’t know whether the VMS actually *supports* that interpretation of Grove word fronting, though…

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