I’ve wanted to write an article about ogham for a while now, as it straddles two of my main interests, history and language. It’s also a writing form which is little-known, at least in the UK.
Ogham is a writing system native to the British Isles, an attribute which as far as I am aware is unique. It is ubiquitous to Ireland and is nearly equivalent in scope and usage to the use of runes in Northern Europe. In Ireland, ogham is pronounced ‘ohm’ and in the UK it tends to be pronounced more phonetically as ‘oggam’. It is usually found as one long line, horizontal or vertical, with shorter lines of varying lengths perpendicular to it, some crossing the main line and some not. Sometimes, the edge of the stone is used as the main line. A few symbols are the shape of crosses or boxes.
Ogham is an alphabet with 25 letters which are split into five aicmí (Old Irish for classes or groups). Each letter has a name which represents a plant or natural feature, much like with runes. Each group is named after the first letter of in the group, hence:
- aicme b (beith, birch) ( B, L, W, S, N)
- aicme h (uath, hawthorn) (Y, D, T, K, Kw)
- aicme m (muin, vine) (M, G, Gw, Sw/Ts, R)
- aicme a (ailm, white fir) (A, O, U, E I)
- aicme e (eabhadh, aspen) (EA, OI, UI, Ia, AE)
Note there was originally no letter for P. This is because of the separation between the Q-Celtic, or goidelic, languages, and the P-Celtic, or brythonic, languages. Q-Celtic includes both current forms of Gaelic and P-Celtic includes current forms of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. They are so called because brythonic uses ‘P’ where goidelic uses a ‘Q’ (or [k]) sound. An example of this is in the names Kieron (Q-Celtic) and the patron saint of Cornwall, Piran (P-Celtic), which are ultimately the same name. A letter representing the [p] phoneme was introduced later after Latin words containing [p] had entered Irish.
Together, the letters in ogham are known as Beith-luis-nin after the first three letters, in exactly the same way that ‘alphabet’ is derived from the first two letters ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’.
When inscribed on stones, ogham was read from bottom to top and left to right. When written in a manuscript, ogham was read horizontally left to right.
History of Ogham
All the monumental inscriptions (inscribed on stone) which are currently known date from the 4th Century to the 6th Century. Judging from the form of language used in inscriptions, which is mainly in Old Irish or Primitive Irish, scholars tend to believe that it predates the 4th Century AD, possibly by a few hundred years. Outside Ireland, ogham was used to write in Latin, Welsh and Pictish. It is believed that it was also used to write on wood, though there is no surviving evidence of this.
The vast majority of ogham monumental inscriptions are in Ireland, though they are also found in the Isle of Man, Eastern Scotland (where there was a large influx of gaelic speakers), South Wales and a few even in Devon and Cornwall. The ones found outside of Ireland are thought to represent Irish settlement in the British Isles, rather than the adoption of that form of writing by native cultures. The stones seem to represent either the commemoration of a person (much as with rune stones) or the delineation of boundaries.
Ogham was also used in manuscripts from the 6th to the 9th Centuries, and is included in manuscripts alongside the Latin alphabet from then until modern times, mainly in describing the writing system.
There are many theories as to the origin of Ogham. There is a theory that it derives from a series of secret hand signals used by Gaulish druids around 600BC, which is not now widely believed. One of the two main current theories is that it was invented when the Roman Empire had conquered Southern Britain and the Irish needed a ‘cryptic’ language to use that the Romans and romanised Britons would not understand. The other, less exciting, theory is that it was invented by early Irish Christians to represent sounds in Old Irish which were hard to represent in Latin.
I’ve missed a lot out here, as this was only intended to be a short post and I’m still learning myself. I intend to visit the examples which are local to me in Devon and Cornwall and find out more, so I’ll update this article in the future…