Words & Stuff

OOO: Leaving Marks

(16 July 2000)

At the end of a previous column, I mentioned the challenge of choosing a set of names for a set of networked computers, given that more computers will almost always be added to the set later. (Pity the poor novice system administrator who obtains a set of nine servers, names them after the planets or the positions in a baseball team, and then acquires three more to add to the set.) I closed by noting that my ISP, Pair, uses ogham letters for names of some of its servers.

This week I'm going to talk about ogham. But first I want to note that despite picking an extensible theme for its server names (starting with Greek letters and moving on to other alphabet systems), Pair has probably run out of ogham letters by now. They may have to move on to the kana from Japanese, or perhaps Sanskrit, or Hebrew, or Tengwar...

The term ogham (pronounced variously /'o @m/, /'Ag @m/, or /'og @m/—and honestly, it's really easy to learn enough of the ASCII IPA to read those pronunciations) is used for several different things. (Note that it's not generally capitalized.) It can refer to a couple of different alphabets, or to the types of trees that the letters correspond to (which were supposedly the trees sacred to the Druids), or to a particular calendar. But the term most commonly refers to a twenty-letter alphabet (later expanded to twenty-five) used by the Celts in ancient Ireland and perhaps elsewhere in the British Isles for inscriptions on stone and probably wood, from the fourth century onward. The ogham alphabet is also called beth (or beith) luis nion, after the names of three of the ogham letters. The original twenty letters—fifteen consonants and five vowels—look something like this:

In order, the names of those letters are: Beth, Luis, Fearn, Saille, Nion, Huath, Duir, Tinne, Coll, Quert, Muin, Gort, Ngetal, Straif, Ruis, Ailm, Onn, Ura, Eadha, Idho. The initial sound of each name roughly corresponds to the sound of the letter, though Straif may have a /z/ sound, and I'm not sure what sound Quert has, or exactly which vowel sounds those vowel names represent. The dots represent notches, sometimes alternatively shown (in transcriptions of ogham) as long vertical straight lines crossing the center line. The groupings of five characters of the same form are known as aicme. There are five other letters—known as forfeda, which apparently means "extra letters"—that were apparently added to the alphabet later; those are much more complicated letters, and do not form a regular set:

Like the Germanic runic alphabet (futhark, or futhorc in its Anglo-Saxon incarnation), and for that matter like the early Greek and Latin alphabets, ogham was designed to be carved in stone—though it took the idea of an alphabet composed entirely of straight lines a little more seriously than those other alphabets did. The center line shown with the letters is a representation of the edge of the stone or wood into which the letters were carved; as I understand it, the line was not part of the inscriptions, but is used in modern two-dimensional representations to make clear where the object's edge would have been in the original inscription. If I understand that right, ogham is thus the only alphabet I know of which was designed to be written in three dimensions (that is, on two surfaces at right angles to each other). To add to its multidimensionality, I should note that ogham was often written up and down along a vertical edge as well as left and right along a horizontal one.

It's a remarkably regular set of letters, the sort of alphabet that might be designed by a lazy science fiction writer or a computer programmer, clearly invented as an ordered set (unlike the Mediterranean alphabets, which started out without a particular pattern to the shapes and didn't get any more orderly as each letter evolved differently over time). But it was used by real people. Though there are only a few hundred known samples of ogham as it was actually used, the vast majority of them in Ireland (and almost all of the rest found in Wales); most are simply people's names.

The word ogham apparently derives from the Irish god Ogma (also known elsewhere as Ogmios), corresponding to Hercules but, unlike Hercules, a god of eloquence. (Britannica says that he was sometimes portrayed with chains attaching other people's ears to his tongue.) It's not clear where the ogham letters originally came from; there are several conflicting theories. Given that two of the letters represent /h/ and /z/ sounds, though, it's unlikely that ogham was created entirely by Irish speakers, since Irish Gaelic doesn't contain those sounds....

A lot of the information widely cited about Ogham was provided by Robert Graves in The White Goddess, a work whose scholarly veracity is, um, somewhat controversial. (Which is to say, some people claim Graves outright fabricated large portions of that book.) It's not clear to me whether Graves' discussions of the correspondences between ogham letters and trees is generally accepted by scholars. Graves did put forth an interesting theory, though, about alphabetical order: he apparently claims that the Phoenicians (who developed the alphabet that ours can be traced back to) had a religious ordering to their alphabet, but that they rearranged the letters in their commonly written alphabetical order to avoid insulting a particular deity. (There's a Web page that provides a set of pronunciations and tree correspondences for the ogham letters; but that information appears to come largely from Graves, so I'm not sure how much to trust it.)


This brief overview of ogham derives from a number of overlapping sources, mostly Encyclopedia Britannica articles. If you want more information about ogham, be sure to visit the Every Ogham Thing on the Web site, which includes downloadable fonts for Macintosh and Windows. (Note that it may be difficult to produce all of the characters using a Macintosh keyboard; the characters are mapped to the official ISO mapping for ogham characters, which is to say the characters in the top 32 positions of the ASCII character set, not all of which can be reached using Shift+Option keys on a Macintosh.) The other source not mentioned above is the lovely, if somewhat erratic at times, The Alphabet Abecedarium, by Richard A. Firmage.


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>