What is the Ogham Alphabet and why is it important in Irish culture?

By Judit Sadurni / October 8, 2020
Ogham stone

Maybe you have never heard about Ogham before or maybe you have seen some rocks with weird lines and wondered what it could be? If you are curious and want to learn about Ogham keep reading! 

Pronunciation

Before we get into the definition and understanding of how this ancient alphabet works, let’s clarify the pronunciation of its name. The tricky thing here is that the spelled “gh” sound in Modern Irish/Scottish Gaelic was, generally, in Old Irish, spelled as “g”, so Ogam and Ogham are pronounced the same way. However, in many dialects of present-day Irish, the sound “gh”, when  not found at the beginning of a word, is not pronounced. So Ogham is pronounced like this: “Ohm” or “O-um”. 

What is The Ogham Alphabet?

Ogham, as we know it know, is a alphabet of just 20 letters. Some time later, 5 new letters were added in the manuscripts. It appears as an inscription on stone monuments, dating back to the 4th to the 6th century AD. It can be found in written form  in manuscripts dating back to the 6th to the 9th century. Ogham became known as “Primitive Irish”. This language became Old Irish and, consequently developed into the three contemporary Gaelic languages: Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic.

A quick summary of its history:

Dr Conor Quinn has studied the language and its history. He notes that its origins are uncertain – there are at least two separate stories, says Dr.Quinn. One theory is that it was created by the Scythian king Fenius Farsa and his scholars, after the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). They would have chosen it as the best of all the languages. Ogham would become that language’s writing system.

The other theory focuses on Ogma, a deity in Irish legend, often associated with Ogmios a Gaelic God. The Ogma Tract dictates that he created the language with his sword. It is believed that his name come from the Indo-European root “ak-” or “ag-” meaning “to cut”, which is how Ogham is written – it is cut into stone.

What about the grammar?

It is one of the few alphabets written and read vertically, from bottom to top. Its letters are called “feda”, and are grouped in 4 “aicme”, which means “family/tribe”, of 5 letters each.  Each letter is made up of a cluster of straight lines in groups of one to five, scratched from a centre or root line straight up and down (usually the edge of the stone) outwards, angled straight across, up or down.

These are the families: 

  • The first one comprises the letters B,L,V/F,S and N lines are drawn to the right edge and down.
  • The second is formed by H,D,T,C and Q, it’s lines are drawn to the left edge and up.
  • The third family is composed by M, G, NG, ST and R, it’s lines are diagonally across both sides
  • The fourth by the vowels A,O,U,E and I. These can be drawn as shorter lines, or a straight line across both edges

A much later manuscript tradition adds in a fifth “aicme” called “forfeda”. It uses more complex symbols to write a mix of consonants and vowels/diphthongs from the much later Old Irish period. 

How and why did they write the inscriptions?

The writer of an Ogham inscription needed tools, such as a hammer and chisel, to inscribe the message into the stone. The inscriptions are typically someone’s name. So they were usually used to  mark a persons grave: but they also used this language to mark ownership, territories.

Although most of the inscriptions of Ogham today are carved in stone, it may have been more common for them to do so on sticks, stakes and trees. It was used as a way to write down Primitive Irish and some Pictish and a small bit of Latin. 

How do you read the inscriptions?

To understand it, one has to know the meaning of each line and recognize the meaning of the location of each of them. You also have to know how to differentiate consonants (chiseled lines to the left, right or across the edge of the surface), from vowels (perforations in the root line). You also have to know that the message is read vertically, from the bottom to the top of the surface. If you want to delve into the meaning of each letter you can consult this article

If you would like to see what your name would look like written in Ogham, use this website.

Locating the inscriptions:

Dr. Quinn also added in his argument that it is correct to call Ogham an Irish Alphabet. Although stone artifacts with writing in Ogham have been found in Wales and Scotland, It is is probably a creation from southern Ireland. You can find the most of the four hundred surviving Ogham stones in Kerry, Cork and Waterford. Outside of Ireland samples can be found in England, Scotland, The Isle of Man and Wales. 

Where can you find them in Ireland?

Carlow
Cavan
Clare
Cork
Galway
Kerry
Kilkenny
Limerick
Leitrim
Mayo
Meath
Roscommon
Tyrone
Waterford
Wexford
Wicklow

Knickeen Ogham Stone, Wicklow

About the author

Judit Sadurni

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