Daily Archives: October 9, 2009


Would you carve it on a stone? Would you scratch it on a bone? Would you cut it in a tree? Would you write so you can see? Yes, sir, yes, sir, Sam-I-Am, I will write in your… wait a minute. Oh dear, I see. Well, there it is. There’s no “ham” in it. It’s pronounced with a stressed first syllable and a reduced second syllable. Like “hog ’em” without the [h].

Or, if you’re talking with someone from Ireland, and you say you want to use “oggum,” you might find that you “owe ‘im.” The gh there is glided out – it was really a voiced velar fricative in the first place. And it’s their word, isn’t it? Well, yes, I’m telling you it is. And where did the Irish get it from? Well, the word, now, well, that’s an interesting one, and the truth is, I must tell you, they’re still arguing about it. Them that care, I mean. Could be from the name of a god. Could be from an Indo-European root for “furrow.” Could be from a word for “the point of a spear.” Not really sure, now.

Well, that’s fine. Who uses it now anyway? It was a good, systematic writing system, and functionally adapted to its medium – probably mostly carved into sticks, but extant examples are all carved in stone, and mainly say whose place the stone marked and what the place was called. There’s a swath of ogham stones (about 400) across Ireland and England; it was made for writing Celtic languages, though it was also used for Pictish and, at times, other languages, even sometimes Latin.

And what it is, the object of this word, is a system of writing involving a straight line running up the middle (it was typically written vertically, bottom to top) with groups of lines crossing it or sticking out on either side. It really looks like cross-hatch, scratching, blade hacking, all those choppy words with c and h in them, and maybe t too. But ogham is a rather rounder-seeming word, all voiced, and with curves all around. There are more curves in any one of the letters in ogham than there are in the whole ogham alpabet (which has exactly none).

Ogham is systematic-looking, too; the characters, for the most part, have one, two, three, four, or five cross lines, all to the right of the centre line, or to the left, or across obliquely, or (for vowels) across perpendicularly. But beyond that there is no sophisticated schematization of the phonemes; they don’t follow the phonological patterns evinced in Tolkien’s Tengwar, just as they’re not as pretty either.

But they were used by ancient Celts! So they must be magick. Clearly, right? You can find the word druid near the word ogham often enough to wonder if they’re going out together. Even the name of the actual set of letters (ogham technically refers to the style rather than the specific set) has a mystical sound: Beith-luis-nin. (That’s from the names of some of the first letters in it. And it is not related to A-naïs-Nin.) The truth of it, though, is that most of the ogham anyone’s found seems to have been used for commercial, legal, or other public declarations. You know, the things people feel a need to record in a form that will persist for a while. “Set it in stone,” as it were.