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This paper proposes a novel similarity measure between vector sequences. We work in the framework of model-based approaches, where each sequence is first mapped to a Hidden Markov Model (HMM) and then a measure of similarity is computed between the HMMs. We propose to model sequences with semicontinuous HMMs (SC-HMMs). This is a particular type of HMM whose emission probabilities in each state are mixtures of shared Gaussians. This crucial constraint provides two major benefits. First, the a priori information contained in the common set of Gaussians leads to a more accurate estimate of the HMM parameters. Second, the computation of a similarity between two SC-HMMs can be simplified to a Dynamic Time Warping (DTW) between their mixture weight vectors, which significantly reduces the computational cost. Experiments are carried out on a handwritten word retrieval task in three different datasets-an in-house dataset of real handwritten letters, the George Washington dataset, and the IFN/ENIT dataset of Arabic handwritten words. These experiments show that the proposed similarity outperforms the traditional DTW between the original sequences, and the model-based approach which uses ordinary continuous HMMs. We also show that this increase in accuracy can be traded against a significant reduction of the computational cost.