Learn about the ancient Irish alphabet - discover the roots of Ireland’s oldest writing system with a deep dive into Ogham and the first language it was developed to express - what is known as Primitive Irish.
I know... the term isn't great to be honest, and plays into the notion of 'Gaelic Barbarism' that the Irish have worked hard to move away from after it was put on us by colonisers.
So when we talk about Primitive Irish, bear in mind please that it is an academic term being used for clarity, not a value judgement. The Irish have always been pretty advanced as a people. 😉
Here we trace the history of how the ancient Irish alphabet (Ogham) was written to express one of the earliest known forms of the Irish language, and learn about it was used in monumental records from centuries past.
Please note, we use the non religious affiliation of BCE (Before Common Era) for everything before the year 0, and CE (Common Era) for everything after that.
It is widely accepted among linguistic scholars that all modern Indo-European languages have a common ancestry in a single language known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This ancient language was spoken by a people who lived between approximately 4500 and 2500 BCE and, unfortunately, left no written records of their language. However, the features of PIE have been reconstructed through linguistic analysis of the documented Indo-European languages that have descended from it.
One notable descendant of PIE is Proto-Celtic (from around 1000 BCE), which was once widely spoken across Europe but is now primarily confined to its northwestern region. From Proto-Celtic, several modern languages have emerged, namely Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, and Manx.
What is Primitive Irish?
Primitive Irish is one phase of the developments and evolution of the Irish language as we know it. It's generally agreed that the periods are divided, in academic terms, into the following time frames:
- Proto-Goidelic - before the 4th century, or prior to 300s CE
- Primitive Irish - around the 4th to 6th centuries, or 300 to 500s CE
- Archaic Irish (or Early Old Irish) - circa 7th century, or 600s CE
- Old Irish - 8th to 9th centuries, or 700 to 800s CE
- Middle Irish - circa 10th to 12th centuries, or 900 to 1100s CE.
Generally, everything up to Middle Irish can be simply called Early Irish, and many people just use the terms Early Irish (up to approx 700 CE), then Old Irish (up to approx 1200 CE). Just noting that here because it can get confusing when folk use the same term for slightly different time periods.
Modern Irish as we know it was in use from about 1200 CE onwards, but is also helpfully sub-divided into the following phases for clarity:
- Classical (or Early) Modern Irish - 1200 to 1650 CE
- Dialectally Differentiated Modern Irish - 1650s to present day.
It should also be noted that the period of 1650s to Present Day also brought a whole lot of changes and historical challenges for the Irish language!
As you can see, there has been much development of the Irish language into the form we know and love today, and it is all worthy of awareness and acknowledgement.
(The above classifications are based on the excellent work of David Stifter)
Developing the Ancient Irish Alphabet
Where does Ogham fit in?
Decoding the transcription of Ogham from its origins with Primitive Irish can be a challenging task, as there really are no certainties, unfortunately.
When trying to figure out the earliest development of the ancient Irish script we have to focus on the ‘orthodox’ Ogham stone inscriptions which survive in the archaeological record, which can definitively be dated only from the 5th to 7th centuries (400 to 600s CE).
These monumental inscriptions contain names, and tribal or family affiliations, which appear in two forms, and express the evolution of the Irish language through this period. So, Irish Ogham Stone inscriptions can be seen in:
- The Early Primitive Irish form, which expresses the earliest phase of Ogham writing from perhaps late 300s and early 400s CE.
- The Old Irish form, showing the development up through to the late 700s CE.
We know the Ogham script was developed as an alphabet to express the sounds of this early Primitive Irish language, which would have been in common use across the island at this time.
Unfortunately, we have difficulty in determining the correct pronunciation of each Ogham letter, due to archaic language conventions. To attempt accuracy, the original inscriptions and other recorded sources have been studied for context, and there are now accepted academic pronunciations (more or less), of Old Irish at least... but honestly, these are educated guess. Extremely educated guesses, but approximations nonetheless!
Writing in Ogham
Ogham is written in a system of lines and strokes, or orthographic marks. Orthography is a common linguistic term - the prefix ortho means 'proper' or 'correct', and graph simply means 'writing'. So, orthography means 'correct writing'.
In Monumental Ogham, i.e. that which is inscribed on stone monuments, the letters are written from bottom to top along the edge or stemline of the stone itself. When they reach the top of a stone, they can continue across it from left to right, and back down the other side, using the carved edge as the central line which the letters are carved against.
In Manuscript Ogham, i.e. that which continued to be recorded into Medieval manuscripts from about the 8th century (700s CE) onwards, was written from left to right, along a drawn central or stemline.
When working with Ogham in a modern context, we do recommend that our students at the Ogham Academy make use of the Irish Language in it's modern form and most recent evolution or phase.
While it is (clearly) important to understand and remember the extensive development phases of this ancient Irish alphabet and the language it was developed to express, we do not believe there is any benefit in getting stuck there.
Irish Gaeilge is a living language, and we honour our Irish ancestors, from those whose names are memorialised on Ogham Stone inscriptions, to the scribes who took great pains to record the script on precious vellum with hand ground inks, to the bards and poets who continued to use the Ogham right through to the 16th Century... by continuing their traditions of active use and integration to the genuine Irish culture and identity that exists today.
- Mac Mathúna, Liam. "On the provenance of the Early Irish topographical lexicon." Proceedings of the Seventh Symposium of Societas Celtologica Nordica, Uppsala Universitet. 2007.
- Mallory, James P., and Douglas Q. Adams. The Oxford introduction to proto-Indo-European and the proto-Indo-European world. Oxford University Press on Demand, 2006.
- Stifter, David. "Early Irish." The Celtic Languages (2009): 55-116.
- Stifter, David. Sengoidelc: old Irish for beginners. Syracuse University Press, 2006.
- Vykypěl, Bohumil. "The Celtic languages. Edited by Martin J. Ball and Nicole Müller." (2012): 290-291.
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