Ancient language: Ogham sweet Ogham

Ogham has always been a bit of a mystery. The script itself and how it works are pretty straightforward, however its origins are a common topic of debate.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ogham (pronounced ohm), it is an ancient script that is thought to have been used in Ireland and Britain between the 4th and 7th centuries. Ogham is believed to have been mainly used to write Primitive Irish as well as Old Irish.

The alphabet itself is made up of twenty-five letters in total – twenty of which broadly represent Latin alphabet sounds, while the other five, added at a later date, represent Irish language sounds and are called ‘forfeda’. An example of a ‘forfeda’ is the symbol for ‘EA’ like in the Irish word ‘ealaín’ which means art.

Each sound is visually represented by a symbol made up of strokes either along or across a line known as the centre line. Inscriptions are read from bottom left upwards when carved on stones. However, when Ogham was written in manuscripts by medieval monks, it was written so as to be read from left to right. As you can imagine, this has caused some confusion for historians and archaeologists over the years who have tried to better understand the script and its origins.

Stones displaying inscriptions in Ogham, known as Ogham stones, can be found all around Ireland and even in nearby Wales, England and Scotland. There are around 400 surviving Ogham stones. Although most remaining examples of Ogham are found on these stones, the script was not only carved onto stones but also on wood that has since been worn away. Ogham was mainly used as a means of marking territory or to write names on gravestones.

Where Ogham comes from is a point of contention. Some historians attribute Ogham to the Celts. Others believe that it dates back as far as the 1st century and that it was used as a secret code. Some scholars theorise that Ogham was created by someone who had knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Runic scripts.

Although the history of Ogham is shrouded in mystery, we can still marvel at and appreciate the script, not only on a historical level but also a linguistic one as it was the earliest form of writing in Ireland.

Read more articles like this in our November issue...