You say ogham, and I say Ogam

By David Stifter, OG(H)AM’s Irish Principal Investigator

Image 1: From the tale Scél asa·mberar combad hé Find mac Cumaill Mongán ‘Story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Find mac Cumaill’. At the end of the tale, the grave of an ancient warrior is described: ⁊ atá coirthe oca ulaid ⁊ atá ogom isin chind fil hi talam din chorthiu “And there is a standing stone by his tomb and there is an ogam inscription on that end of the standing stone which is in the earth”. (Royal Irish Academy Manuscript 23 E 25 = Lebor na hUidre, p. 134, image © Irish Script on Screen; the text is edited by Nora White in Compert Mongáin, Maynooth 2006.)

What is ogam?

Ogam is the name of a singularly original writing system consisting of strokes and notches across a stem-line that had its heyday in Ireland and Britain in the early middle ages, but that continued in use for a much longer time, espe­cially in Scotland. In fact, the script and knowledge about how to read and write it was never completely forgotten. Unlike many other ancient or medieval scripts, ogam therefore did not have to be deciphered from scratch. That is not to say that all of its aspects are perfectly understood. It is one of the objectives of the OG(H)AM project to shed new light on the origins and the development of the script, and what it meant to the people who used it in different epochs. We hope to say much more about how to read and interpret the ogam script, and how to write it yourself, in later blog posts, but today I want to focus only on the name and what it refers to.

In medieval texts, the word ogam can refer both to the script itself as well as to inscriptions in this script. Ogam is not the name of a language. The language for which the ogam script was originally devised is the earliest attested stage of the Goidelic (or Gaelic) branch of the Celtic languages. In the middle ages, Early Gaelic is best known under the names Old Irish (c. 7th‒9th cen­turies) and Middle Irish (c. 10th‒12th centuries). Today it is represented by Irish and Scottish Gae­lic (and their several regional varieties) and by the Manx language on the Isle of Man. Historical linguists call the earliest period of the Goidelic languages, which encom­pas­ses rough­ly the 4th‒6th centuries, ‘Primitive Irish’. Not uncommonly, ‘ogam’ is used almost as a synonym for Pri­mitive Irish, even though it is not really correct to do so. As we hope to show in later blog posts, throughout its history ogam has also been used for a variety of other languages, mainly younger stages of the Gaelic languages. Even today, it is still quite commonly used, especially in Ireland, for very specific purposes and even to write words in English.

How do I spell it and how do I pronounce it?

Perhaps you have wondered about the H in brackets in the name of our OG(H)AM project to study this ancient Gaelic writing system? Two alternative versions of the name are in fact in use in scholarship. There are those who speak of Ogam/ogam and those who call it Ogham/ogham. All versions are correct. Ogam is the spelling in Old Irish. The g in its middle is pronounced like g in Spanish or in Dutch, i.e. almost like English h, but a bit raspier (almost as if you were gargling). For those familiar with linguistic terminology, this is a voiced velar fricative, or in IPA [ˈoɣəm]. Therefore many scholars, especially of Early Irish, prefer the spelling with a plain g. There is in fact quite a lot more spelling variation in Old and Middle Irish sources. One can also find the word written as ogom and ogum, but the form with a in the second syllable has been adopted as the convention among modern scholars of Old Irish. The different letters a, o, u are just alternative ways of repre­senting the same indistinct vowel sound (schwa) in the second syllable.

Image 2: From the tale Immram Brain ‘Bran’s Voyage’. At the end of the tale, Bran is said to record the story of his travels in ogam on wooden sticks: ⁊ scríbais inna rundu so tre ogum “and he wrote these stanzas through ogam”. (British Library Manuscript Harley 5280, f. 44v, image © British Library; the text is edited by Séamus Mac Mathúna in Immram Brain, Tübingen 1985.)

On the other hand, in Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic ortho­graphy the spelling is ogham. In pronunciation this rhymes approximately with English home or foam (IPA: [ˈoːm]). This spelling and pronunciation is more common among speakers of Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic and scholars who do not primarily study medieval texts, for example archaeologists. Not uncommonly, however, one can hear the spelling pronunciation [ogam], which is just plainly wrong. At no period of the Gaelic languages ever did authentic speakers pronounce it so.

With a capital letter or not?

Another question is whether to write Ogam or Ogham with a capital letter or ogam or ogham in lower case. Again both practices are found, not least because there are no clear guidelines in English spelling rules for how to treat names of writing systems, whether they are regarded as proper nouns (in which case a capital letter would be used) or as generic nouns (small letter). Following the practice in the study of Germanic runes, we have decided to write the word in lower-case in the project. Ultimately, both the spellings ogam and ogham and both the pro­nun­ciations [ˈoɣəm] and [ˈoːm] are equivalent and equally correct for the OG(H)AM project’s ob­ject of investiga­tion. One should just stay consistent in one’s own use. While other colleagues in the project prefer ogham, I ‒ as a scholar of Old Irish ‒ will continue with ogam.

What did the word sound like when the script was invented?

If my theory about the origin and meaning of the word is correct (more on this in my next blog), the word would have been written ᚑᚌᚋᚐᚄ OGMAS in the 4th century, the time when I suspect the script was invented (but some scholars prefer an even earlier date for this). Depending on one’s theory about when and how important changes in the Primitive Irish language took place, the word was pro­nounced either [ogmas] at the time (i.e., more or less like it is written) or [oɣmah], again with the raspy h-sound in the middle. Personally, I rather tend towards the latter, but no definite proof for either exists.

And where does the name come from?

Well, if you want to know something about the origin of the word ogam, you will have to wait for my next blog post where I hope to discuss (warning: very technically!) the various etymologies that have been proposed, and I want to present my own explanation of the word. I hope you will tune in again.

3 comments

  1. “[I]n Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic ortho­graphy the spelling is ogham. In pronunciation this rhymes approximately with English home or foam (IPA: [ˈoːm]).”
    May be the pronunciation in Irish, but in Scots Gaelic it is as that given for ogam – have never heard it, or would expect to hear it, with a silent gh (and if I was to, I’d predict a distinct diphthong) 🙂

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