Nick Pelling’s account – a response
In a very entertaining and stylish review, Nick Pelling recently devoted space to my Voynich paper, so let me offer a response. I’ll address it to him, as I feel that is more courteous than hiding behind academic third persons!
Nick, for the record I love your blog. It’s the best Voynich discussion forum on the net, illuminated by your sharp and well-informed sense of humour, and vast knowledge of things V. To show that I bear no ill will, let me even publicise your book, though I’m sorry to say I haven’t read it yet.
Below I look at each of your objections in turn, but first let me address what I feel was your unfair reference to Edith Sherwood’s research (your point 7). I don’t feel it is right to attack someone personally in this way, particularly someone who has worked tirelessly for many years. You might disagree with her ideas, in which case engage with them, put up arguments and evidence, but I’m uneasy with this sort of blanket personal attack. I hope you find space to apologise and withdraw those remarks about her.
As for what you said about me personally, I can’t complain! You said I had a “big brain, linguistic experience and personal ambition”. When my son saw the bit about the big brain he called across the room, “Dad, they say you’ve got a big brain, but it’s no bigger than a peanut!!” So, with teenage kids around me, I’m used to direct and frank critique. 🙂 No problem with that.
However, I believe in general that it is best to stick to arguments and avoid personal attacks, so in my response here I have tried to confine myself to the ideas and evidence. I’m sorry if that makes a less exciting read – maybe people would prefer a shout and a tussle – but I feel that the cause of Voynich scholarship is best furthered through sober and dispassionate analysis rather than passion and name-calling.
Let me take each of your objections in turn. (For those who don’t want to read it all, see the summary at the end).
Point 1: “Initial Words On Herbal Pages Should Be Names”. Errrm…
1.1 You say that it is reasonable to expect “unique-looking first word on each of the Voynich Manuscript’s herbal pages to be the name of the plant depicted on that page, because that is indeed how many medieval herbals were laid out.” Right so far.
1.2 You then jump to suggest that I am claiming that ALL the plant names will be there. This is not true. If you look again at pages 21-2 of my paper, it says explicitly that methodologically it is a good principle to look at the first words, to avoid the temptation to find any word anywhere.
In previous discussions of the VM we had too much speculation along the lines: ‘this word looks like cauliflower in Inuit, therefore the VM is Inuit’, which is unhelpful. In methodological terms it is extremely important to avoid such speculations, which is why I focus strictly on the first words at this stage. I never claimed, as you seem to believe, that all the plant names will always be the first words. This is a crucial methodological point, and is essential to the analysis, and I apologise if it confused you.
1.3 This means that when you counted up the first letters of all the herbal pages in your blog and in the comments underneath, I’m sorry to say you were wasting your time. But in the process you make some highly misleading and false claims which also should be cleared up here. One of your readers, Al Dorman commented by saying:
“I actually have to disagree with your objection #1. The gallows letters are indeed at the beginning of many of the words for supposed herbal names, but is this really a big problem? His [Bax’s] “oror” for juniper (page 15) has the gallows letter, but his “k” is NOT the same gallows letter.”
Al Dorman is absolutely correct. But in answering him you then offer a highly misleading statement :
“You and I both know that the gallows are probably different characters or tokens, but Bax is so anxious to prove that the various forms of [gallows]oror are the same word (“juniper”) that he concludes early on that all the gallows are just a single character.”.
This is completely false. I never said anywhere that the gallows characters are just a single character, and I don’t believe they are. I can’t understand where you got this impression from. It is simply false.
In my earlier paper (2012) I offered discussion that some of the gallows characters could be discourse markers, perhaps signalling the start of a page or something similar. Another possibility is that they are used in front of vowels in certain positions. Another is that they are determiners of some kind. We do not know if the more florid ones are separate signs or merely decorative versions of other signs. It is simply not possible to be sure until we have made more progress on decoding.
1.4 As I said, I do not believe that the first word on every page will necessarily be the name of the plant – only that that is methodologically the best place to start. However, in your comments underneath the blog you tell us that the symbol I identify as ‘K’ occurs as the first letter of the first word on 21 out of 115 of herbal pages in quires 1-8. By my calculation that is 18.3%.
For curiosity’s sake, I went to Gernot Katzer’s pages on herbs and spices and randomly looked at the Armenian page. (I’m not saying that the language is Armenian, though of course it could be. It was just a handy sample of a real language.)
Of the 77 Armenian names listed there, 15 out of 77 begin with a sound in the region of velar /k/. That’s 19%, around the same as your VM figures.
Perhaps this simply shows that the sound element in the region of /k/ is not uncommon in plant names in certain languages, or perhaps not. As I said before, since as I am not saying that all the first words will necessarily be the plant names, I suppose it is really irrelevant. But it also shows that it is rash to jump to conclusions about statistics, and that it is not impossible that many of the V plants will begin with a sound in the region of /k/.
Point 2: “Bax’s proposed Voynichese alphabet has three letter R’s”
2.1 First, you use the word ‘alphabet’ here, and in my view this is a mistake. We do not know if the VM script is an alphabet. The evidence in my paper suggests that it has ‘abjad’ elements, to the extent that it misses out vowels, so it is risky to imply that it is alphabetic. See page 12 of my paper.
2.2 You say that “The Voynich Manuscript has a limited and compact alphabet, with roughly 18-22 characters occurring with particular frequency.” Again, I am uneasy in assuming it is an alphabet, but that aside, you imply that this gives too few signs to allow for ‘three letter Rs’. This view is not supported by the evidence: in terms of sign count, the voynich.nu analysis lists 38 signs or clusters, with 22 common signs. This is quite enough for two signs for sounds in the region of /r/, especially if the script has the Abjad tendency I identified in my article, with fewer vowels.
Furthermore, there are also grounds for thinking that the signs we have identified in the VM might represent more underlying phonemes that we thought before. In a recent post on my website I have analysed the sequences of Voynich minims ii and iii. By analogy with 15th century Latin scribal practice, and referring also to examples from the VM, I have suggested that what we have transcribed and counted as just 2 VM signs with more than one minim, might in fact represent as many as 13 different phonemes or groups. If we find that this is true, it would mean that the Voynich sign inventory could encode several more phonemes, which makes it quite large enough to accommodate two in the area of /r/.
2.3 You hint in your comment that the idea of having more than one sound in the region of /r/ is odd in a language. However, even Spanish has two phonemes in that area, a tap and a trill, one exemplified by the word ‘pero’ (= but) and the other by ‘perro’ (=dog). Other languages too (e.g. Armenian) also have two sounds in the area of /r/, in many cases represented by different signs in the script.
In short, it is by no means impossible that the VM language could have two phonemes in the area of /r/, and two or more signs to represent them.
3. The Voynichese word “oror” = the Hebrew word “arar”, meaning ‘juniper’
3.1 First, the word I interpret as ‘oror’ does not equal the Hebrew word “arar”, as you state. You have misread the text on page 14. The Hebrew word does not transcribe as ‘oror’, though it is related to the Arabic word which is closer. I argue that it might be a borrowing, but I also note possible objections to that argument.
3.2 You seem to be making the point that because ‘oror’ includes the sequence ‘or’, which appears elsewhere, and because ‘or’ is very frequent, therefore ‘oror’ could not be a word on its own. I can’t understand the logic of this. It seems such an odd argument I feel I must have misunderstood you. Just because the word ‘the’ is extremely common in English, it doesn’t mean that ‘theatre’, ‘thesaurus’ and ‘theocracy’ cannot exist as real words. Apologies if I have misunderstood you, but as I see it, your objection is simply peculiar.
4. “Bax thinks that EVA “kydain” = ‘centaur’ – but has he not noticed “dain” everywhere?”
4.1 This objection seems to be the same as the one in point 3 above, and – if I have not misunderstood – it is equally odd and naïve. As with ‘oror’ above, you seem to be saying that because the VM uses the cluster EVA ‘aiin’ a lot, therefore it could not also occur in the word I transcribed to mean Centaur.
I’m confused, because your argument seems to be so odd that I can’t believe that you could believe it. By this logic, if I am trying to decode the word ‘C*TERPILLAR’ in a manuscript, and I see the word CAT used a lot in other words, I would have to say to myself “ the word CAT appears a lot in this manuscript, therefore, um, this word cannot be CATERPILLAR”, which would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it? Are you really saying that?
The point you seem to be making seems so odd that I wonder if I have misunderstood you? To summarise the obvious linguistic point: as with point 3 above, the fact that a cluster is used elsewhere in the manuscript has no bearing at all on whether or not the analysis of another word with that cluster in it is valid or not.
5. “doary” = Taurus. Oh, really?
5.1 Your first point seems to be that “many other people have suspected this word might represent ‘Taurus’”. That supports my analysis, instead of attacking it, surely? I’m pleased to be in good company!
5.2 You then make reference to “the late-medieval “-9″ style Tironian nota at its end, preceded by a letter that looks like “r””.You imply that the main reason people thought this word might represent Taurus is because of that last sign.
However, this is a serious misrepresentation of what those scholars said. The main reason people thought, and think, that the word might represent Taurus is nothing to do with Tironian nota. The reason is far more simple – the word sits beside a very obvious picture of seven stars which people justifiably consider to represent the Pleiades, which are in the constellation Taurus.
Early analysts then speculated that the last symbol might represent “us”, but if you read my discussion of it on page 19 carefully, you will see that I do not analyse that sign as “us”.
(BTW I now believe that it is represents a definite article or a case ending of a word borrowed or derived from the Indo-European/Semitic/Persian version Taur(u).)
In short, this objection also seems to be without foundation. You seem to misrepresent what people have said and misunderstood my text.
6. Reading EVA “keerodal” as “coriander”.
6.1 You invite us to accept the view of “people who have been working with the Voynich Manuscript’s “Voynichese” language for a few years” (without referencing their work)… “that this word is almost certainly a copying error by the Voynich Manuscript’s scribe”.
In lay terms, how on earth can you say it is ‘scribal error’ when we have no idea of the language we are reading?
In methodological terms, even when we know the language of the text. it is very sloppy practice in any manuscript analysis to explain things away by blaming ‘scribal error’ without careful analysis and argumentation. To do so when we have never before been able to read a single word of the script is simply unacceptable, bordering on the foolish. We have no idea if it is a scribal error or not.
6.2 The word we are talking about has been added as a marginal note above the main line of V text. If you are right that it contains a rare cluster in the VM, then it could be a borrowing transliterated from another language. That would explain both its position and also its unusual structure, and would put it in line with many similar transliteration glosses in mediaeval herbal. So, I’m grateful to you for the information on the rarity of the cluster, as I feel it adds weight to the analysis. We could now deduce that the word might well be a borrowing from another language, transcribed into the V language so as to form a rare cluster to encode a sound pattern not common in that V language.
7. Relying on Edith Sherwood’s hopeful plant identifications.
7.1 I have already stated my view that it is grossly unfair to attack Sherwood’s work as you have. However, you also say that I ‘rely’ on her work, which is a bad misreading and misrepresentation of my paper.
I use her work, but I subject each analysis to pages and pages of discussion, bringing in many other views from different scholars and manuscripts. It is therefore not only unfair to Sherwood, but unfair on me, and a poor reading of my paper to suggest that this aspect of the paper was objectionable.
The main sense I get from your account is that in many places (e.g. in points 1 and 2), you have failed to read the paper carefully, and have then misrepresented what I said, then jumped to the wrong conclusions.
In addition (particularly in points 2, 3 and 4) you seem to be very muddled about some elementary aspects of language, about the nature of alphabets, about how phonemes work, about how sign inventories fit with sounds systems, and about how sign clusters can repeat across words.
In point 5 you misrepresent what other scholars did and said, although you cite no references. (Indeed your whole account has no supporting references whatsoever, which is disappointing) .
In point 6 you again cite unnamed authorities in a highly speculative claim that the Voynich scribe made a mistake.
In point 7 you attack Sherwood unfairly, and wrongly imply that I rely on her work, which is not true.
One positive: In point 6 you do offer some useful information about the rarity of the sign sequence, which helps to explain the marginal note which I interpret as Coriander, so I’m grateful for that.
I have tried hard in my response to be fair, and to stick to the facts, but you will probably see from my tone that I consider your account to be weak in most respects, and extremely weak in some. It seems to me that you have simply not engaged with the arguments carefully and in detail, and not understood some fairly elementary aspects of how languages and scripts work. Sorry to be so direct about it, but I feel it is important to be clear.
Furthermore, what is missing from your account, which is the biggest disappointment, is any real analysis of the key arguments themselves. You content yourself with picking at a few minor issues here and there, but you do not engage with the key argument of the article, the step-by-step building up of the sound-sign system.
To take an example of what you could have done, look closely again at the ‘Centaury’ discussion on page 25, and in particular at the VM page f2r itself. Look at the first word of paragraph one and the first word of paragraph 2 in the VM page, which are identical except for added final letter of the first. How could we reasonably explain that word in that position if not as the probable name of the plant? To put it another way, what explanation do you offer for that repeated word in that position?
Then we see – this is a fact – that the first sign of that word matches the first sign of other words analysed as possible /k/ signs, the third matches the first sign in the ‘Taurus’ word, and so on and so on. What explanation do you offer for that? All coincidence?
A good critique would deal with each point I make with evidence from contemporary manuscripts, from different languages – and most importantly, would offer an alternative explanation of the words and patterns. That is what I hoped for, so you can see why I am disappointed by your posting.
I won’t repeat the argument again, but to my mind, if we look at the accumulation of evidence for these words and signs, even assuming that some might be wrong in certain details, the only conclusion which an unbiased and analytical reader could come to is that it is possible – I won’t put it stronger than that – that we are starting finally to crack the Voynich code in a tiny way.
I have received literally hundreds of comments from around the world which imply that many people, serious scholars of linguistics and plant science among them, accept my analysis as a possibility, even if they have doubts. They seem to appreciate the fact that I insist again and again that my analysis is provisional and partial and makes no grand claims about authorship or provenance. Many of them have engaged with it positively, offering really insightful suggestions, books to look at, languages to consider, mistakes I made, things I should change and so on, and I am most grateful to them for their positive attempts to engage, and to push Voynich scholarship forward. They seem to feel, as I do, that at last the analysis offers a base from which to move forward to a fuller decoding and interpretation.
I’m sorry you are not persuaded, and I am sure that my discussion here will not convince you, but let’s agree to disagree, and let readers decide for themselves.