The Transformation Theory

I’m not a smart woman, and the distinction between hypothesis and theory often defeats me. It seem as though the dividing line is acceptance though I’m not sure exactly where that should be drawn. I often say ‘hypothesis’ when I’m writing to mean a little explanation of an observation, something which only matters for a small part of the text. Now I would like to use the word ‘theory’ to mean a big explanation. I want to put forward an explanation for the whole text. Not a solution, as I can’t read a single word, but an explanation of why Voynich text is like it is.

My theory brings together a lot of the things I’ve been researching over the last months. I have certainly hinted at it here and there and many of the details will already be known. I must admit that I’ve been using this theory to guide my views of the text for some time yet I’ve selfishly kept it to myself.

The Transformation Theory is that the words of the Voynich text have undergone transformations which altered their shape and the characteristics of the text, resulting in the ‘transformed text’ of the manuscript which is somewhat different from the ‘normal text’ as mentally composed by the author. This transformation was not a deliberate ploy to obscure or deceive, but part of a linguistic process as the composition moved from individual words to integrated text.

In the Voynich text, words which might have an ‘ideal’ spelling in isolation are altered in relation to their neighbouring words and their place in a line. This results in a word having multiple different spellings, but which are regular and predictable in a known environment. The cause of this is the interaction of different sounds across word boundaries and prosodic (broadly, speaking patterns) effects in a sentence.

This kind of transformation can be seen in multiple languages. French has liaison, where certain words gain a consonant when followed by a vowel: the ‘s’ in mes is ideally silent, but pronounced when follow by a vowel, such as in mes amis. Welsh has mutation, when the first sound of a word changes according to the last sound of the word before: diod is pronounced with an initial /d/ sound in isolation, but in the phrase fy niod it has an /n/ sound. Greek had movable nu where an /n/ sound was inserted to prevent a word ending in a vowel being adjacent to one beginning with a vowel. Sanskrit has a whole heap of such rules which affect words throughout the text—just as in the Voynich manuscript.

Evidence of transformation can be seen in several places. The most important, though little studied, is in first–last combinations: pairs of characters at the end and beginning of adjacent words have preferences. Transformation Theory states that one (or even both) of these characters may have been altered from the normal text according to a rule governing their interaction. So, for example, if a word ends [r] and the next word begins [k] in the normal, a character such as [o] or [y] may be inserted to give the transformed text. Similar processes could affect a large portion of the text.

A more limited process in scope, but one where the evidence of transformation is much stronger, is line start transformations. The characters at the start of lines have different statistics to those elsewhere in a line. The word beginnings [sa, so, ych, ysh, dch, dsh] are much more common here. Even though these transformations have not been fully explored, it seems likely that words beginning [sa] is the result of [s] being added to the beginning of words starting [a]. The line end, with its preference for words ending [m], is similar though with an even narrower scope.

I would also like to add that words ending with [iin] potentially fit into the Transformation Theory. When we look at words containing [i] we can see some specific patterns: they occur mainly in one and two syllable words and in words which have fewer tokens. Given that [a] is a variant of [y] before certain characters, we have pairs, such as [dy] and [daiin], which effectively differ by the presence of an [i] sequence. There’s some evidence (I’ve never presented it, however) to suggest that words ending [y] and [aiin] have different distributions within the line. If so, such variant pairs may have [y] as their normal spelling, with [aiin] the result of a transformation to show some linguistic property (most likely prosodic).

Transformation Theory has the potential to explain multiple aspects of the Voynich text which are so far unexplained. The first and most important is the lack of word order. If words are subject to transformation from an underlying normal text, then they might be expressed in different ways in depending of their environment. A phrase such as [oty qokeedy] might be the same as [taiin okeedy] in a different environment. Or a phrase like [okedy ar qotaiin], if it breaks over a line, could become [okedy sar qotaiin]. (Note that these are examples for exposition, and not necessarily true.)

The theory explains labelese—the different word statistics associated with label words—by putting such words effectively outside the transformation the text undergoes. If transformation works by altering words according to their environment then labels, which have no environment because they are usually isolated, should not be transformed. Labels are then the normal text. Of course, some labelese words are found in the main text, but there is no reason why every word in the transformed text must be altered, if the environment does not cause it.

Currier A and B, the different languages or dialects present in different parts of the manuscript, are partly the result of different transformation rules. If the writer changed the way words interact—or rather, changed how such interaction was shown—then the text would look significantly different. Though it is doubtful that this can explain the whole origin of the Currier languages, it at least takes the difference away from a substantial change in language and puts it more in control of the author.

Lastly, it is sometimes said that the Voynich contains an overabundance of unique words, more than would be expected. (I do not know if this is true, but I take it as a suggestion.) Transformation Theory would deal with such a problem very easily. If every word has the potential to alter in a number of ways depending on its environment, and the number of possible environments was large, then the outcome would be lots of unique words. There must be some limit on the number of variants each word could have, but it would not have to be great.

If the Transformation Theory is accepted then the path for future research is immediately obvious. We should interrogate the text to discover all the transformations which are present and their scope and scale. Every transformation discovered and properly understood would give us the power to undo it and reveal the underlying normal text. This normal text should show greater evidence of word order and grammatical constructions, and even more and longer repeated phrases.

Thus, it is hoped that the normal text would be amenable to ordinary efforts at decipherment.

The Transformation Theory is most useful to those researchers who favour or study the possibility of a linguistic solution to the Voynich text. It answers some common objections and gives a clear way forward. It is certainly, as I said above, the way in which I have viewed the text for some months now. Yet if any researcher can take something from the theory and build on it, that is to be welcomed.

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11 thoughts on “The Transformation Theory

  1. Yes… I think you are definitely thinking along the right lines.

    When I started researching the script about a year and a half ago, I intuitively assumed a form of transformation had to be in play. But I’ve always seen it as a transformation of the glyph rather than of the sound. Think capitals and flourishes.

    So when an “a” is in a certain position it gets a long tail and becomes a 9, EVA “y”.

    Now I see no reason why the transformation may not be in sound instead. It would explain a few things that are hard to explain with just glyph variation. Like the addition of o’s. Though those may still be articles…

    Might a test lie in the labels? If those do show Voynichese in its naked form – as they should – then what can we learn from them?

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    • Labelese isn’t something I’ve studied a lot myself, though the large number of words beginning [o] seems significant if we take those words as the unaltered ‘normal’ text.

      In the main text, words beginning [k] or [t] are more common than expected after words ending [o], while words beginning [o] are much less common.

      What if, when two [o] were separated by a space, one was often simply deleted?

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  2. For what it’s worth, I think of Voynich “hypotheses” as interesting notions that have yet to be tested, and of Voynich “theories” as stories that are taken so much as a point of faith by their proponents that whenever they encounter facts or history that contradict them, the inconvenient facts or history are presumed to be wrong, and/or actively explained away.

    Which explains why there are so many Voynich theories and so few Voynich hypotheses.

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  3. This sounds like a promising approach. Is the following simplification correct: each word is comprised of a kernel and then pre and post fixes each of which depend on the preceding and following words? Are the pre and post fixes then vocal sounds (phonemes?) which do not alter the meaning of the kernel word? I may have the wrong end of the stick!

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    • I think there must be an unalterable ‘kernel’ yes, but that it may have sounds before and after it which are part of the normal word but are transformed.

      So, for example, a normal word might be [oky] and the transformed word [yky]. The [o] has been altered into [y], rather than the [y] simply added.

      The alterations, and the causes of the alterations, are sounds, and I don’t see a reason why they would change the meaning of a word. Like ‘a pear’ and ‘an apple’ in English: ‘a’ and ‘an’ mean the same thing but are conditioned by different environments. (The difference is phonemic rather than morphemic.)

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  4. Emma May – I call an hypothesis a temporary intellectual construct, to be discarded if subsequent evidence shows it incompatible with the facts. Hypotheses are the ‘theories’ of most Voynich studies and they tend to resist contrary evidence, explanation or argument.

    I define a ‘theory’ in the conservative sense. First one collects the data, observations and statistics, and then one offers a single explanation underlying the facts.

    So I see you as having here proposed the first-ever theory about the Voynich manuscript’s written text.

    Theories can be superseded, modified and so on. But everything which comes later has to take the theory and the informing material into account.

    My congratulations.

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  5. Thank you, Emma! Your ideas are very exciting!
    As you write, a substantial validation would be the appearance of repeating phrases in the “normalized” text. Another possibility seems to me the presence of more matches between the normalized paragraphs and the nearby labels, in particular in the “balneological” and “small-plants” sections. You do open up new research paths!

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    • Indeed, I think there are a number of possibilities. If it’s correct there should be signs of that.

      However, I need to work on the transformations, as so far there’s only one I am definitely sure of. The rest rang from being likely to being merest hints.

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