Observation on Double Dealers

Stolfi put the characters [d, l, r, s] together in a loose grouping he called ‘dealers’. The characters do not all act alike, nor do they look alike. They have some similarities, however, including the ability to occur both at the beginning or end of words.

In this post I want to mention briefly an observation on these dealers characters. Unlike gallows, which almost never occur next to one another, the dealers do so. And the patterns by which they do are interesting.

Below is a table for all dealers bigrams in the Voynich text:

1st \ 2nd l r d s
l 28 40 452 162
r 18 2 43 6
d 82 14 23 21
s 5 4 32 6

(The rows show the first characters in a pair and the column the second character.)

Note that the two most common bigrams [ld, ls] begin with [l], and the third most [dl] ends with an [l]. Of course, bigrams with [d] are also common, so we should not read too too much into these numbers.

However, because these bigrams may occur anywhere in the text we cannot be sure they are not split over syllable boundaries. This is an important consideration if we wish to judge which combinations are valid and which are not. Consider that the English word ‘weightlifting’ does not show that the combination /tl/ is valid: the /t/ is the end of one syllable while the /l/ is the beginning of another.

We can dodge this problem by only counting those double dealers which occur at the beginning and ends of words. In this way we can be assured that the bigram is unlikely to be split over a syllable boundary.

Below is a table for double dealers at the beginning of words:

1st \ 2nd l r d s
l 12 5 44 9
r 1 0 0 0
d 18 2 6 7
s 1 0 1 2

As we can see, many combinations simply don’t occur, and none beginning [r, s] can be considered valid. We again see that [d, l] are the characters with more frequent combinations, though the numbers overall are very, very low. Even the most common [ld], occurs just 44 times, and more than half of these are at the end of lines—a position which means they may be atypical.

The next table is for double dealers at the end of words:

1st \ 2nd l r d s
l 6 17 34 106
r 12 2 5 2
d 29 9 1 11
s 3 3 12 2

These are somewhat better results. The most common bigram [ls] occurs enough that it is seen a few times (though just a few!) in all sections of the manuscript. Even so, it is still a word which occurs markedly at the end of lines.

This last table also shows that [l] is clearly the most common combining character, far more than [d, r, s]. Again, I want to stress that these numbers are low, and the bigrams can only be marginal to the text as a whole. But when we consider that [l] also combines well with other characters [k, t, ch, sh]—at least as the first character of the pair—we can see that it is exceptional in some way.

Naturally, my thoughts turn to considering what sound might be able to combine in this way, especially in a word structure which is often quite rigid. There is one, but that will have to wait for another day.


11 thoughts on “Observation on Double Dealers

  1. I tend to think of EVA l as an s-sound, which might fit your observations since s combines readily. I guess it could also be a vowel but that seems unlikely.

    The fact that so many examples occur at the end of lines is fascinating. One could say it’s a coincidence because of the low numbers but I doubt that. Do you have any idea at all what might cause this?


    • Hi Koen, you’re not wrong 🙂

      I’ve had it in mind for a few months now, though [l] as /s/ has been proposed before. Most recently by Derek Vogt.

      The problem lies in proving it.

      I put no trust in the idea of simply assigning a meaning to a word, guessing at the reading, and then jotting down the resulting values. It is fraught with problems.

      If we’re going to show that [l] is /s/ (or, at least, a sibilant) it has to be by linguistic methods, with an argument that can be properly criticized. I want to point out the ability of [l] to form clusters with other characters and its apparent violation of the sonority hierarchy. Even though it will only gain us a single sound value it is worth the time constructing that argument.


      • Yes, definitely. It is good to start by looking for some glyphs that *might* behave like specific consonants, since sounds like /s/ will almost certainly be expressed. I didn’t think it would be possible to tackle the VM by means of good old linguistics, but you are certainly on the right path 🙂


  2. You might want to be careful of -dl words: to my eyes, very many of these look halfway between -dl and -dy (when there is surely good reason to think that -dy was intended).

    My point being that I wouldn’t be comfortable building much of a theoretical view on top of something that may simply not be there.


    • You’re quite right. I try to check images of the manuscript to see if a fair portion are actually as transcribed. Usually the transcription is good in aggregate but can be poor when we’re dealing with small numbers like these.


  3. For me, any tentative explanation of what Eva-l represents, has to say something about Eva-r at the same time. If Eva-l represents a sound, in this case a sibilant. then Eva-r also has to represent a sibilant. A different one or the same one.

    That isn’t a problem. Languages tend to have several.

    A problem I see is that sibilants are quite happy to occur at the start of words, but Eva-l and Eva-r are not.
    Unless they are preceded by Eva-a or Eva-o.


    • Hi Rene,

      I would have agreed with you some time ago about the link between [l] and [r]. I used to think they were very closely related because they match quite well at the end of words. However, my view has changed.

      I think that although they match at the end of words they often don’t match elsewhere. While the bigram [ir] has about 750 occurrences, [il] has only about 50 despite [l] being more common. Similarly, [lk] is common is Currier B but [rk] has only 20 occurrences; [lch] and [lsh] have about 730 and 280 respectively, [rch] and [rsh] have 140 and 50; and [ld] is ten times more common than [rd].

      Lastly, and quite interestingly, [l] as a word initial character is more of Currier B phenomenon, even excluding words beginning [lk], and so is [r] to a lesser degree. Conversely, we find fewer final [l] and [r] in Currier B than would be expected. The number is not substantial, but it may be a sign that word initial characters and word final characters are not totally different things. We already have seen suggestions that the influence each other.


  4. Small remark on EVA-s. When this glyph is the last one or the first one of the word it’s sometimes written at some distance from other letters. The first word of the manuscript is the most obvious example, also a lot interesting examples with EVA-s and “small spaces” can be found on f2r (“s!aiin saiin” being the most peculiar one for me). Veryverywide s is found in the last part on 106v, I also recommend to search for “os” and examine spaces between o and s.

    I believe these small spaces are very important. Most probably they highlight suffixes and prefixes, and may change glyph’s default value.


    • I definitely agree that the odd gaps between words and their first or last letters has some underlying cause. Were there some way to measure how often, which characters, and where these gaps occurred we might be able to say something more about it.

      My best guess is that the gaps are places where extraneous sounds have been added to words. The writer knows they’re not the true, underlying sounds and shows that with a gap. The gap may be more wariness than orthography, however.


  5. Hello Emma,

    I think this is more a question of scale or level of detail. While l and r tend to occur in the same environments, the frequencies are different. They should also not be expected to be very similar.
    The argument seems to be hovering between qualitative and quantitative.

    Comparisons with English don’t really work, because the word structure is not nearly as rigorous.
    Comparisons with Mandarin Chinese could be interesting, but from what little I know about it, its structure is even more rigorous than Voynichese, and basically all consonants tend to appear in the same environments, with the possible exception of liquids.
    Thai, a language I know reasonably well, has a less rigorous structure than Mandarin Chinese, but
    the observation about liquids vs. all others applies as well (only l and r), and it has lots of other fascinating features, especially a divergence between speaking and writing.
    It may seem as if I have wondered off the topic, but a typical aspect of these Asian languages is the very restricted set of consonants that may appear at ends of words. A bit like Italian, but largely monosyllabic.

    In Voynichese, Eva-l and -r (and a few more) work in the opposite way.

    I think my main point was really that sibilants should not be expected to occur much more at word (or syllable) ends, than at the beginnings. But this is just from personal observation, so I wonder if you could confirm it.

    My second point is an impression that has grown over the years. Namely that, whatever they are, they should be taken together with the preceding a or o.


    • Rene, you are quite right about the over-occurrence of [r, l] at the ends of words rather than the beginning. And I take you point about needing to explain this.

      It is usual within languages that the onset of a syllable has more variety in permissable sounds than the coda. This is true also for the Voynich text, but less so than we might like. We already have [n, m] which are usually word final, and the statistics for [l, r] place those two characters word-finally much more often than not.

      It is something to think about.

      On you second point about the relatedness of [l, r], I admit to having some statistics that I’ve not yet shared (for unrelated reasons), which I feel I really ought to. I’ll make up a post anon.


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