An Objection to Timm (2014)

In 2014, Torsten Timm published a paper, How the Voynich Manuscript was created, in which he claims to have discovered a generation method for the text of the manuscript. The work is an interesting look at several aspects of the text and any serious researcher should take the time to read it. It is at least on a par with Gordon Rugg’s work, in that it mounts a respectable challenge to both cryptological and linguistic camps of decipherment.

Timm make several points in his paper, but a simple summary of his conclusion is possible: the writer of the manuscript composed the text by taking words already written down (often only one or two lines above the one he was writing) and by making small modifications created the next word. Although the practice had some further complexities, and variety over the course of the manuscript, the bulk of the text was made in this way.

Timm further claims that there is a fairly simply ruleset for the modifications, given on page 16. For the aim of my criticism of Timm’s work in this post, rules I and II are the most important, and so are worth quoting:

I) Copy an already written glyph group and replace one or more glyphs with similarly shaped glyphs. An example is 8an 8aie 8aiy (“dain dail dair”) in line <f45v.P.4>.
II) Copy a glyph group and add one or more glyphs. An example is ohc89 4ohc89 4ohcc89 (“okedy qokedy qokeedy”) in line <f31r.P.10>.

I contend that these rules do not work without supplemental information on how Voynich words should (and do) look, undermining the claim that Timm has found a text generation method.  Let us look at these two rules critically, in reverse order

Rule II

For this rule the writer is supposed to have copied a glyph group (a word) and added characters. It would seem from the example given, and the broadness of the phrasing, that any character can be added anywhere in the word, at the beginning, or at the end. Yet few possible alterations would result in a valid word.

Take [okedy] from the example in the rule, which has 118 tokens, and add any gallows character anywhere in the word. How many such possibilities even occur once, never mind more than a handful of times? I admit that I haven’t gone through all the possibilities, but the answer is none or almost none. Indeed, add [d, s, l, r, m, n, i] anywhere in the word and you still won’t find may valid words (I think [olkedy], with 27 tokens, may be the best).

There are, in fact, only a handful of single characters which you can add to [okedy]—and then only in specific places—to make valid word. Add [q] or [ch] to the beginning, another [e] next to the existing one, [o] between [e] and [d], [ch, sh] between [k] and [e], and of course [l] before [k]. Maybe you can find more, but I doubt there are many more. It is significant that only [ch] can be added in more than one place.

An objection to this observation may be that Rule II lets you add more than one character at a time. But again, you must add the right two characters, in the right place, to make a valid word. You cannot transform [okedy] in to [kokedyk] or [oykerdy]. It seems as though there is another, deeper rule, governing this one, which dictates which characters may be added and where.

Rule I

The problems raised for Rule II arise in Rule I also. You simply cannot swap out any character and replace it with another and expect a valid new word. So [okedy] will not become [okeny] or [oksdy]. That much is obvious and there is no need to belabour the point that some unspoken rule must be operating to prevent the writer from making invalid words.

But at least here in Rule I the unspoken rule is spoken. Timm says that you can swap a character for any “similarly shaped” one. To be fair to Timm he does set out what this means on page 5, but then only as an observation about how words are related. He notes that words often different by only one character and that those characters are graphically similar (so that as [k] and [t] look alike, so [okedy] and [otedy] are both valid). This is a fairly common observation, and Timm is not wrong to make it. But the essence of this observation is left unresolved.

Timm notes in his discussion (page 36) that the script has a “design”, and that characters are individually designed from simpler strokes. But what is this design and why? It is not an idle question, as it bears hugely on the question of how the text was generated. If the writer could not simply make any alteration to any word, then it must be that each word has a small number of possible antecedents. Why would the writer limit themselves in such a way?

Moreover, there is a total set of permissible words (whether realized in the manuscript or not) which is a subset of all the possible words. And these permissible words, by virtue of the rules given on page 4 concerning “similarly shaped” characters, have a specific and definable structure. I have talked about the high level and low level word structure of Voynich words, and it is clear to most researchers that such a thing is very real. But again, what does that structure mean? And why are words structured like this?

Timm’s work does not really address the generative aspects of word structure, only the relative aspects. He points out in a novel way how words are related to one another in text, but not really how they are generated. For although he claims that most words are simple alterations of existing ones, they are alterations around a structure which existed in the writer’s mind. Simply saying that such a structure exists is not enough, unless we are to believe that it is arbitrary. And although he considers a variety of ways in which characters might have some meaning, he ultimately comes to the conclusion of meaninglessness:

In the end, the most plausible hypothesis for the Voynich manuscript is that the text generation method described in this paper was used to generate a meaningless pseudo text.

Yet the existence of an abstract set of principles which structures most of the words within the Voynich text should be the starting point of our textual analysis. It is so obvious, so rigid, and so studiable. To write it off as arbitrary just to create a meaningless text feels like throwing away some of our best evidence. Timm’s theory leaves unexplained a big piece of the puzzle, which is both intellectually and logically unsatisfying, and likely to be proven wrong.

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3 thoughts on “An Objection to Timm (2014)

  1. Hi Emma,

    you interpret the set of rules as a way to generate the text. But the rules only describe the observations made for the VMS (see p. 14: … describe the changes for similar glyph groups …). Therefore rule II “Copy a glyph group and add one or more glyphs” doesn’t say that you must add random glyphs anywhere all the time if you generate new words. It only says that you can. This is a big difference! I should have expressed more clearly that the rules are only observations and that they can’t be used as instructions to generate the text.

    Your suggestion that “the right two characters must be added in the right place, to make a valid word” is correct 97% of the time. For generating a text you have to add rules like that ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘n’, ‘r’, ‘s’, ‘l’, ‘d’, ‘m’, ‘q’, ‘k’, ‘t’, ‘p’, ‘f’ should not be consecutive (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1407.6639v3 as Timm 2015: p. 5). In fact, in most cases observation II is only used to add a prefix like ‘l’, ‘o’, ‘ch’ or ‘q’ (see Timm 2015: p. 5). Therefore on first glance it would make sense to reformulate the observations in a more strict form. But this would result in numerous exceptions like ‘otkchedy’ in , ‘okdy’ in , ‘qokdy’ in , ‘okedyd’ in , ‘dokedy’ etc.
    You could try to eliminate these exceptions by interpreting them as errors. Unfortunately they are not errors. For instance beside the word ‘qokdy’ (4 times) also a word ‘qopdy’ (1 time) exist (see Timm 2015: p. 79). Furthermore also the words ‘qokd’ (1 time) and ‘okdy’ (1 time) makes it hard to interpret the four instances of ‘qokdy’ as errors. Strict rules simply don’t work for the VMS. Therefore you can’t use them. With other words, that for the VMS anything can happen doesn’t mean that anything will happen all the time.

    The explanation is your point that “if the writer could not simply make any alteration to any word, then it must be that each word has a small number of possible antecedents. Why would the writer limit themselves in such a way?” Indeed the scribe could have done any alternation to any word. But in the VMS we only see the changes he has made. The scribe did not limit himself to some rules he only repeated the same ideas most of the time. But he is not limited to a given set of rules. This can be shown by ideas used only one or two times. One example for such an idea is the change for the bigram “or” into “on” on page (see http://arxiv.org/abs/1601.07435 as Timm 2016: p. 5). There are numerous other examples. See Timm 2015 p. 31-34 for some of them.

    By the way, you can try it yourself and search for the source words for “errors” like ‘otkchedy’, ‘okdy’, ‘qokdy’, ‘okedyd’, ‘dokedy’ etc. Most times the source word is obvious in my eyes. For instance the word before ‘dokedy’ is ‘qotedy’, in the line above ‘otkchedy’ a word ‘qokchedy’ can be found and so forth. For me the examination of the exceptions was the key element to understand what is going on within the VMS.

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  2. Hi Torsten, thanks for the reply, it clears up a few issues. But my main objection is still outstanding: there is a set of rules which governs the structure of most Voynich words which is not adequately explained.

    We either agree there is an underlying structure—which you seem to hint at (2014, p5)—or there is none. Both leave things open to question. When you say that “we only see the changes he has made” or “he only repeated the same ideas most of the time”, you seem to be hedging yourself. You admit that a structure is apparent but that it is actually arbitrary. Can you understand why this is unsatisfying? Given his supposed freedom to alter words, why did he not take it?

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  3. Hi Emma,

    because he was free to do anything he was liking. This also implies that he was free not to do certain things.

    If his intention was to write something similar to language he was limited to his concept of language. In the same way he was limited to his concept of aesthetics, to the limitations of the writing material and to the limitations of the copying process.

    For instance because of his concept of language he preferred words of a certain length. Because of his concept of aesthetics he added line initial gallow glyphs and preferred certain glyph combination and avoided others. Because of the limitations of the writing material he had to shorten the words at the end of the lines. Because of the limitations of the copying process all the words in the VMS are more or less similar to the most frequent word ‘daiin’ (see footnote 11 on page 7 in http://arxiv.org/abs/1601.07435). The length of ‘daiin’ by using the EVA transcription is 5. That the words are connected to each other also determines the distribution of the word length. Etc.

    That he is not limited to a given set of rules also implies that he was able to learn during the writing process. This results in a shift from the language used at the beginning of the writing (Currier A) to the language used at the end (Currier B). For instance at the beginning he was using the bigram ‘od’ whereas at the end he preferred the bigram ‘ed’ for the same words (see p24 in http://arxiv.org/abs/1407.6639). The shift from language A to language B therefore also implies that the VMS is the work of one scribe.

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