Proof of Linefirst Transformation

Some time ago I wrote about linefirst words. The first letter of words which appear at the beginning of lines is statistically different from those of words which occur elsewhere in the line. Specifically, the characters [p, t, s, d, y] are much more common.

While we can put down the commonness of [p, t] to Grove Words—in whole or in part—the over–occurrence of [s, d, y] still needs to be explained. My belief is that when a word begins a line one of these three characters is often added to the beginning (or switched in the case of [y]).

I call this phenomenon Linefirst Transformation, and I do not understand its cause. But I believe that I now have some proof beyond statistics.

In Quire 20 (where the statistics I have been using come from and where Linefirst Transformation is strongest) one of the folios has some kind of flaw which made it a poor writing surface. The outer upper part is misshapen, and it is obvious from the shortened lines and faded writing that the writer found the surface unusable.


In most cases the writer came to the end of a word which was already fading or indistinct and decided to start a new line. In a few cases he tried to start a new word on the same line but gave up after writing part of the first character. This is where our evidence for linefirst transformation comes from.

I count four cases on f112r where part of the first letter of a new word has been written but then abandoned. The writer continued on a new line, and it is a good assumption that the writer simply began the new line with the word he tried to write at the end of the line above.

In two of these cases the writer gave up after an initial stroke which resembles [e], and that stroke is indeed part of the first character on the new line. In a third case the writer seems to have written [y], though the ink is very faint. The first letter of the new line is [d]—one of the characters added to linefirst words—but the evidence is ambiguous. The [y] could be a word in itself, if it is indeed a [y].

However, a fourth example occurs at the end of the first line. It consists of two strong, but unshapely, blobs after the word [chcphy]. It is hard to know what writer intended here, but two things are clear: there are two blobs (and thus at least two strokes), both of which keep within the median, being neither descending nor ascending. These facts are important.


The image above shows that the marks are illegible as characters, but also clearly their number and basic shape. Whatever the writer abandoned here they must have gone to write on a new line. However, these two blobs are not compatible with the first word on the following line, which is [saiin].


The writer cannot have meant to write [saiin] as the abandoned word at the end of the first line. To write the character [s] you must first write a stroke like [e] and then add a long curved ascending stroke from its top end. So, two strokes, the second of which is ascending. We have already stated that neither of the two blobs at the end of the first line are ascending, and the fact that there are two mean that the writer cannot have abandoned an [s] after a single stroke.

The two blobs at the end of the first line are compatible with trying to write [aiin]. Either they represent the two strokes of [a] or the first two characters [ai]. I expect that the latter is most likely given the spacing between them.

The conclusion that I wish to draw is that while [aiin] was the intended word, linefirst transformation cause it to be written as [saiin]. As said above, [s] is one of the characters which occur more often at the beginning of lines. Moreover, words beginning [sa] are strongly linefirst, especially in Quire 20. (In fact, of 144 occurrences of [saiin], 56 occur at the beginnings of lines.)

The statistics for words beginning [s] found at the start of a line suggest that those which begin [sa] and [so] are overrepresented. If the evidence outlined in this post is accepted, then I propose that most such words actually begin [a] and [o], respectively. And that there is a real process adding characters to the beginning of words which occur at the start of lines.


10 thoughts on “Proof of Linefirst Transformation

  1. Very clever to look at this page, Emma.

    In my opinion, the line first characters are just ornate forms for other characters. The S is an e with a top flourish. Are you sure that the intended word cannot have been eaiin instead of aiin? That would make more sense to me the way I understand the system.

    Also, I do think you are right about this part of the page having been unsuitable for writing, but can we be sure that whatever writing was on there hasn’t been washed away by some spilled liquid?


    • The word could not have been [eaiin] as that word does not occur elsewhere in the manuscript.

      Also, the unsuitability of the writing surface was present during writing. The writer often finishes words here with [m], which is usually found at the end of lines. The writer knew that he couldn’t fit another word in before the surface became bad, so treated it as the end of a line.


      • I had a closer look at the page and agree that everything points towards unsuitable writing surface.

        I still have doubts about the other point though. [eaiin] was not the best example, but what about [laiin], which does occur? How do we know that the S was added to [aiin] and not replacing the L in [laiin]?


        • The blobs don’t seem to have a descender, so [l] seems unlikely.

          Furthermore, there are 56 linefirst occurrences of [saiin], while only 13 total occurrences of [laiin].

          On the other hand, there are 470 total occurrences of [aiin] not one of which is linefirst. Indeed, of nearly 2,000 words which begin [a], only 25 are linefirst.


  2. Emma: for what it’s worth, when I looked specifically at folio 112 at the Beinecke back in 2006, I observed nothing different or unusual about the writing surface at the empty edge on either side of the page. But your two dots observation is neat, even if the core point about line-initial s- words has been made many times in the past.


    • Has anybody ever proposed that there is a system of transformations which would take [aiin] and make it into [saiin] line initially?

      I’m genuinely interested because I’ve never read a serious proposal about it.

      Also, thanks for the personal experience regarding folio 112. There’s obviously something wrong with the writing, so it’s curious that the surface appears normal.


      • Emma: on pp.99-100 of Curse, I discussed f112 – specifically that the paragraph stars on f112v wander across into the space, thus showing that the space is perfectly writable – and concluded that f112 was a copy of a vellum document where the original had a vellum flaw (probably a vertical rip or tear) that the original text had worked around. That is to say, I think that we are looking at a copy of a flaw rather than a flaw itself.

        As to possible systems of transformations that might insert an extra letter at line-starts, Philip Neal proposed that these might be vertical ‘keys’ (cryptographic or otherwise), hidden in plain sight, though he didn’t feel comfortable speculating beyond that. (There are also “Neal keys’ embedded between pairs of matching gallows on the top line of pages or paragraphs.) I further speculated that these two types of key (vertical and horizontal) might be linked with the two major types of gallows (k and t), i.e. in some kind of in-page transposition cipher.

        Alternatively, it’s conceivable that both keys might be some kind of hidden non-cryptographic page title: but that arguably seems even more of a stretch. Regardless, I think the most useful starting point is to accept that these two types of key are indeed present, even if we remain unable to make sense of what they do.


  3. Interesting idea, but I have a hard time seeing those two “blobs” as an attempt to write . It looks more like to me. In fact I think we can even faintly make out a trace of the connecting stroke.

    I’ve also been convinced for a while that the VMS is a copy that preserves the formatting (including line breaks) of the original. So if a word couldn’t be written due to an imperfection in the vellum then most likely that word was simply omitted. Whether the line-initial modifications were present in the original or are unique to this particular copy is something I wonder about, since in some (but not all) cases they seem to have been written after the rest of the text was already laid down, though generally I suspect they were there in the original as well.


    • My EVA was deleted due to the use of angle brackets. I meant to write: “Interesting idea, but I have a hard time seeing those two “blobs” as an attempt to write ‘ai’. It looks more like ‘ch’ to me. In fact I think we can even faintly make out a trace of the connecting stroke.”


      • I don’t think it is reasonable that somebody would go to the hassle of copying out a long document but omit words purely because the writing surface was bad. I’m not sure there is a huge amount of evidence that the manuscript is a copy of an original, especially one preserved line for line. A scribe who couldn’t read the original would be unlikely to make a copy, yet one who could read the original would be unlikely to keep the same lines.

        I agree with you that the initial characters at line beginnings sometimes seem disjointed. I expect that this is because the writer knew them to be not truly part of the following word but was unsure how exactly to handle them.


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