Some Observations on Bench Gallows (1)

Bench gallows are the characters transcribed in EVA as [ckh, cth, cfh, cph]. They derive their name from their appearance: they look like a gallows character [k, t, f, p] with a bench [ch] draw through it.

Within the text bench gallows characters tend to act most similar to their gallows counterparts, occurring in the same ‘slot’ in the word structure. They are only 10% to 20% as common as their counterparts, however, and are more common in Currier A than B. A few pages have no occurrences of bench gallows, and many have substantial portions of text without one.

What are they?

One of the key questions about bench gallows is their nature. Although they look as though they are two characters combined, is that the case? We know that some characters share the same strokes. The character [i] is a single stroke also found in [l, r, n, m], and [e] is found in [o, y, d, s, ch, sh], while [a] has them both. It may be that the graphical similarity is superficial with no deeper link.

However, we can be fairly sure that the gallows part of the character is actually related to gallows. Firstly, as already mentioned, when we look at the word structure of Voynich words, we can see that bench gallows work in a similar way to gallows. Next, the characters [cfh, cph] often appear in the first lines of paragraphs just like [f, p]. Last, the four different bench gallows mirrors exactly the four different gallows: not only strokes have been borrowed but a whole set of characters.

The bench part of the character is more uncertain. The strokes are simpler and there’s only a single character which has been borrowed, [ch], even though there are two benches, [ch, sh]. There’s also the fact that a bench gallows doesn’t act like a bench in the text. Yet there’s some evidence that this part of the character really is a bench.

Gallows characters are often followed by benches. Anywhere from 15% to 50% of gallows are followed by [ch, sh]. Yet for bench gallows that figure is effectively 0%. There are only 3 [ckhch] and [cthch], and 1 [cphch]. None of the other possible combinations exist, and it might as well be considered an invalid combination.

This exclusion of bench characters following a bench gallows is a positive sign that there is some relationship between the two. It should be noted, however, that the occurrence of benches before bench gallows, in strings such as [chckh], is perfectly valid. Indeed, it seems to be more common than for regular gallows, which will be discussed in another post.

Bench Gallows Variants

Although most bench gallows are of a simple type, several variants exist. One common variation is the extended bench gallows with an extra [e] stroke joined to the crossbar, transcribed as an additional [h]. About 30 [ckhh] are recorded in the transcription, along with 23 [cthh], 7 [cfhh], and 13 [cphh].

However, visual inspection of these reveal a large number of ambiguous readings. Although some are definitely correct, others are not and many are hard to judge. It is not easy to know whether a string should be [ckhh] or [ckhe], for example.

Despite this, they remain an interesting insight into the character, and question whether the bench part is a bench at all. For there are no, or almost no, examples of [cch] or [chh] in the text. Why can a bench gallows take an extra [e] stroke—even if rarely—when benches cannot? Surely we would expect to see extended benches in the same ratios as extended bench gallows?

Another common variant is the replacement of the initial [c] stroke with an [i] stroke. These variants are as common as the extended bench gallows: 33 [ikh], 26 [ith], 6 [ifh], and 8 [iph]. Once again, visual inspection reveals the possibility that at least some are misreadings or miswritings.

However, we can be sure that not only are many of these ‘i–bench gallows’ real, but that the [i] stroke really is what it looks like. The [i] stroke is the conditioning environment is the cause for the variation of [y] into [a], so we should expect that to happen before these characters. This is exactly what we see.

There are 13 [aikh], 14 [aith], 4 [aifh], and 6 [aiph]. Though the numbers are small they are significant ratios. We can also be sure that normal bench gallows don’t cause [a]: there is 1 [ackh], 2 [acth], and 2 [acph]. These are not only small numbers but tiny ratios at <1% of all bench gallows.

Moreover, like above with other variant gallows, these combinations don’t occur in benches alone. The character pair [ih] occurs only thrice, and [ci] not at all. So once again we see that bench gallows can be formed with something which is distinctly not a bench.


I am unsure of what this all means. I think that bench gallows are not simply gallows with extra strokes which are purely graphical. Those strokes are likely to be related to other characters in the script and it is thus some kind of ligature.

However, I don’t think bench gallows are strictly a ligature between a bench and a gallows. It would seem that characters are being linked together with a crossbar, like a bench, though maybe for a different reason. We can be sure that one of the characters in the ligature is a gallows, but the identity of the others is harder to understand.

I have some further thoughts about the way bench gallows are used in words, and I’ll put these in another post.


9 thoughts on “Some Observations on Bench Gallows (1)

  1. There are indeed several options what they could be, and I don’t want to claim that I know which option is most likely.
    While there is little doubt that k-ch is not the same as ch-k, it remains possible that ckh is equivalent to one of the two. If so, it is more likely to be kch. Writing a character on top of another one instead of before it, is a common thing in the arabic script. (There are a few cases where the gallows is on top of the bench rather than intruding).

    If they are indeed different, i.e. a third combination of the gallows and the bench, there is the interesting possibility that they are doing something like in English:

    th, sh, ch and ph each represent a different sound than the first character followed by the second.
    I’m not sure where that would lead us though.


  2. I think we can dismiss the possibility that [chk] is related to [ckh], as [chk] comes from y-deletion of [chy.k], where the [ch] and [k] are in different parts of the word. The string [chk] is like [chok].

    I also think that the likelihood that [ckh] and [kch] are equivalent is low. I’ve a second post in which there’s good evidence that the words where bench gallows appears are somewhat different from words where there is only a gallows. The position of the characters in the words, and their adjacent characters, is the same but the overall words are different.

    Also, the variants are hard to explain if bench gallows are a different form of [kch, tch, fch, pch].

    Marco and I once discussed the possibility that all gallows plus benches were some kind of ligature or digraph. Thus [k] would have a series of forms: [k, kch, ksh, ckh, each of which with a different value. It is a neat solution which expands the range of the script, but sadly the distributions look rather wonky. Over 80% of all [k] would be in the blank form, which is unlikely.

    I also considered that the bench through a gallows might be simply linking character on either side. So that [eke] became [ckh]. This would explain the lack of a bench after the gallows, but it wouldn’t explain why [eke] is still perfectly common as a string.

    I think the variants with [i] are important and that the right answer will explain them well.


  3. For what it’s worth, I have a reasonably strong cryptographic argument that c-gallows-h is nothing more complex than gallows-c-h visually rearranged *under certain circumstances*. So I will be very interested to read your follow-on post… looking forward to it. 🙂


    • Well, I would like to know your argument too! If it is the case then that would be one mystery solved and we could all move on to the next.


      • Well… I was planning to present a paper and a talk on this at the European Crypto History colloquium just coming up, but when they accepted only the paper, I thought they’d kind of missed the point of what I was trying to do, so turned it down.

        I’ve had the complete argument in place since late 2015, but haven’t got anywhere to put it all. Cryptologia would be the obvious choice in some ways, but it has such a tiny circulation (I have more subscribers) that it’s hard not to think that the world has changed. Tricky. :-/


          • EMSmith: I had thought that presenting it at Euro HCC 2017 would be a good compromise, but given that they turned down every Voynich-related proposal put forward, I was only able to reasonably conclude that they didn’t really have the appetite for the kind of meal I’d like to cook.

            What I’ve done is too long-form and too mainstream for a blog post: slicing a long sustained argument into 10 or 15 posts wouldn’t really make any sense or do the argument justice.

            Right now, I’m tempted to publish the research as a limited-edition (say, 100 physical copies but also as an unlimited ebook / PDF) monograph (say 60 pages), and then summarise the flow of the argument on Cipher Mysteries. There is a big gap just above blog posts that’s hard to get across, I don’t claim to have all the answers there.


  4. IMHO c*h is (almost) the same as *r. Rationale:
    1) *r where * is a gallow looks quite unpleasant (according to *r occurs only 1 time in the whole MS)
    2) Assume that word which starts with a gallow starts a new sentence. If *r combination is relatively frequent you should add something before *.

    Another sign that c in c*h is just a dummy stroke is existence of i*h ligature.The same relates to h, so maybe only the horizontal stroke has meaning there.

    As for c*hh ligature, some places in the MS show that it’s intended to be c*eh, which corresponds to *er.

    Now little off-topic if you allow. Speaking of improvements of EVA (recent post by Nick Pelling) we can easily encode some awkward symbols by assigning c (also S) value “the beginning of bench block, merges preceding {i, …}” and h value “the end of bench block, merges with preceding {o, y, …}”. We also can use say H for h which ends block, but stays unmerged and say C for unpaired c or h attached to gallow.
    For example:
    cto (f4v, 5th line) -> ctoh
    Sy (first page, after odar) -> Syh
    c*hh -> c*eh
    yskhy (f84v, near bottom picture) -> ySkhy
    shectyhy (f80v, 4th line) ->shectyHy
    co (f35v) -> coh
    koaiphhy (f88r) -> koaicpehy
    ofacfom (f71v) -> ofaCfom
    todashx (f108r, top line) -> todaiShx
    Finally, octhole (f67r2) can in fact be oCtCole.
    s and sh is still slightly problematic here, but backwards compatibility is kept in general.


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