Three Letters to F. J. Sypher
1. 22 March 1980
Dear Mr Sypher,
I’m much obliged for your interesting letter of 29 February, which finally reached me this morning. I congratulate you on your evident mastery of Mason 2/1695—by no means an easy system, I find, and not a very common one either so far as my own experience goes. Your transcription of the passage you cite seems most commendably complete. It looks quite characteristic to me in its insistent onward flow of piety, of which I’ve seen a great many examples—infinitely more than I would have wished had the choice of subject matter been in my own hands!
My impression, for whatever it may be worth, is that shorthand in the 17C and 18C is not for concealment but for convenience, and that the outbursts of piety are simply a reflection of what people’s inmost feelings actually were, expressed in a cursive system which I believe enhances the freedom and fluency of the natural flow of thought. The diarists I have studied seem to fall into no special category of status or faith: it seems rather that their minds were just as marinated in pietistic theology as those of medieval monks. I’m no historian (a musician, if anything): but I sometimes wonder whether historical specialists always take sufficient account of what seem to have been the basic cast of mind and attitudes of the entire literate population! No doubt that impression is somewhat exaggerated: but the mode of pious discourse in shorthand does appear to me so prevalent and so habitual as to suggest a deeply ingrained theological outlook.
With renewed thanks
2. 14 June 1982
Dear Mr Sypher,
I’m much obliged to you for sending me the American Antiquarian Society offprint about your 17C shorthand diary. Congratulations on a fascinating piece of work and an impressive account of it. The system (p. 104) interests me; it looks like an amalgam of early 17C systems, notably that of E. Willis c. 1618. Doesn’t it have a œ, though? Otherwise the main omission is SH, which first had a separate symbol in Willis and for which I’d certainly have expected to see an equivalent. And it’s even more unusual to include WH: I’ve never seen any other example of that. It suggests that the deviser or adaptor of the system, whoever he was, was very conscious of his WH sounds and no doubt pronounced them strongly HW as in some speech today. It’s mainly high-Scottish now, I think: most of us pronounce white (say) so nearly w’ite as not to suggest any special need for a separate WH phoneme equivalent. But perhaps the US traditions and practices are different?
[Note: In fact, the system does have, as Sams suspected it should, a symbol for sh, but it so closely resembles the symbol for s that I overlooked the distinction. A correct representation of the system would show two separate shorthand characters for s and sh. Words spelled wh- are often pronounced as hw- in American English.]
3. 14 May 1994
The Brahms, Fauré and Sullivan birthday celebrations are over, but, dear me, what a whirl it’s been; dance a cachuca, fandango, bolero indeed. Now I’m out on the road again, in quest of convivial gatherings with dear friends. Yesterday I heard of someone I haven’t been at all in touch with since our university days. Now I hear he’s crippled with arthritis, and hence quite unlike the lively lad I recall so clearly and so wrongly. Quantum mutatus ab illo.
The quoting vein leads to the Voynich ms, about which I say, like that sagacious beast in Aesop, that many tracks lead in to that cave but none come out; I prefer not to enter.
I say this with the more conviction as I recall hearing from someone—David Kahn, perhaps, whom I met a time or two (the best cipher journalist, I reckon, as Schoenbaum is the best Shakespeare journalist): or it might have been the ms. dealer Albi Rosenthal—that the Voynich ms had been the constant companion and preoccupation of Col. William Friedman, one of the two great cryptanalysts of all time, who spent months, if not years on the wretched thing before finally confessing defeat. And since Friedman was always several leagues (in every sense) in advance of us paper and pencil people, the Aesop moral is plain. All I had in common with the master was an obsession with the method rather than the message; thus my comrades were not as impressed as I was with the hard knotty thought I had put in to the decryptment of ‘wir sind kaput. Heil Hitler’. Well, I think you are right about the genesis of Voynich. But I further think that there are grave obstacles to the demonstration that it’s not really meaningful. I think it might be possible to show it’s not a substitution cipher in any living European tongue, working from the details published in a good cipher manual (Dover have one, I’m sure). But the spider argument (of ‘I have looked, and not seen the spider’) is compelling. I should hate to be the chap who had proved that Voynich was insoluble just before someone solved it. How would one live that down?—Except by moving in some Shakespearean world of scholarship where ludicrous self contradictions and general absurdity are no barriers, more like entrées to eminence and expertise.
But the facsimile reprint with introduction is a GREAT idea. I think you could safely offer a sizeable prize for a solution (plus a suitable entrance fee!)
Yours as ever
P(P)S. I agree with your P(P)S.