Monday, October 17, 2011


This is the Vitalianus stone, a bilingual
stone in Wales. It's very hard to see the
characters, but you can kind of make
them out right above the shadow.
Ogham (it sounds so pretty) is the name of the alphabet used in Ancient Wales (along with the Latin alphabet), although it originated in Ireland. There is debate over its origins, with some scholars arguing that it was created as a way for the Irish to communicate secretly so those who could read Latin couldn't understand them. The Romans occupied Southern Britain and this could have been a measure against a conquest of Ireland. A second theory is that the language was started by early Christians in the area that wanted an easier way to communicate, since it was difficult to transcribe Irish into the Latin alphabet. A third theory, which I think is very interesting, is that the alphabet was started by Irish people living in Western Wales who intermarried with Welsh people with a knowledge of the Latin alphabet. This is evidenced by the fact that there are several examples of bilingual Ogham stones, with both Ogham and Latin translations inscribed.

It is an alphabet consisting of a lot of straight lines, which like Dr. Petersen was saying in class, makes them easy to carve into stones. For this reason, Ogham was used in gravestones, memorials, etc., and now there are many Ogham Stones that can be found across Wales and Ireland. The letters referred to as a whole were called "feda" (trees) or "nin" (forking branches) because of their shape. The letters themselves are named after plants and trees. These names may have actually come after the original invention of the alphabet, actually given later simply because the letters are shaped like trees and based off of the collective names. The alphabet consisted of 20 characters grouped into four families based on their formation. As you can see in the picture, one family is strokes on the right side of the stem line, one is on the left, etc.

Ogham was carved into gravestones or stones that marked a certain territory, and it was written around the edge of the stone. It was read from bottom left up, then across the top, then from the top right down. So kind of in the shape of an arch. There is a book from the 13th century that goes into great detail about Ogham and its proper formation called "In Lebor Ogaim". Sounds kind of like a dictionary. This is a fascinating aspect of written language to me; that you use written language to preserve written language. It's self sustaining. When we forget how to spell a word, we don't just make our best guess (unless we're just feeling kinda lazy), we go to a dictionary or to Google to find out how to spell it. That's part of the reason the Lord knew it was so important for Nephi to take the Brass Plates to the Promised Land. As long as we have written language, we have written language. Kind of paradoxical.


  1. I had a question: how far back does this written alphabet originate? It seems fairly advanced, with only 20 characters, so I was just wondering the earliest time that we've seen this language. It's also interesting to note that in the picture you provided with the symbols, almost all of the meanings relate to different types of trees. During Late Summer Honors, my professor was Scandinavian and said that language is heavily influenced on the culture in reference to the environment. For example, in Swedish, when giving directions, they would tell you it's 300 meters beyond the birch instead of saying it's past the tree. It's interesting to note those cultural and environmental effects on the language. I wonder if it was the same in ancient Wales.

  2. The earliest examples of it were dated to the 8th century but historians believe it originated around 550 or so.

  3. Yeah, that makes sense, I know the Quran originated around that time as well, and Arabic had to in play before then even.

    I also liked the paradox, we need a written language to have a written language. Very insightful.

  4. I think it's interesting too that oral language and written language can be very separate things, though not usually. I was just thinking of the chapter on Libraries in Reinventing Knowledge and how in Chinese the characters do not help at all with how to pronounce something, so in that way the two don't really correspond.

  5. So true, Rachel. I actually took Chinese my senior year, and it was like learning a couple different languages. You had to learn the spoken part of the language, the "English" written version of the speaking (which used different pronunciation than you would normally use for the same English characters), as well as the characters. I love how the characters don't represent an actual word, but more of an idea or a feeling. The characters are composed of several smaller characters (the elements and things in nature) than mean something else. For instance, the character for "female" or "woman" had the smaller character for "fire" in it.