Scribes, Shorthand and How to Save on Parchment

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Most of you have probably heard of Ogham, [oɣəm] in Gaelic and [oːm] in Irish, and seen the Uncial script still used mainly in Ireland, for ornamental purposes. We'll have a look at Ogham and also some tricks from medieval scribes which can help you write Gaelic more quickly, when you're in a rush.

Oggham? Are you going Terry Pratchett on me?

No, though I'm a fan. Ogham. It represents the earliest writing system for Goidelic. We'll not go into who invented it. It consisted of strokes, dots, and other shapes carved on the faobhar (edge) of not-so-easily carried items such as slabs of stone and sticks of wood. Who can spot the drawback? Anyway, here's the most commonly found symbols:


That tree thing

Whoever named the Ogham symbols decided to name them after trees, hence all the talk about the tree-alphabet. They are arranged so that if they're grouped according to their basic shape they do not end up in the a b c order which we're so used to. The a b c order was borrowed from the Romans who had borrowed it from the Greeks who had nicked it from the Phoenicians who had picked the brains of some Semitic tribe. For us, the particular ordering of Ogham isn't obvious because it doesn't seem to have a phonological framework the way Korean Hangul has, for example, except that all the vowels are in one group. Anyway, we'll put it down to too much sitting in stone huts with stones on your chest.

Since we're talking 5-6th century AD, the names have changed slightly. So, here's another list, regarding the above letter, of what we think the sound values were, what the names meant and what their modern counterparts are (the last series doesn't have tree names):

Ogham IPA Irish Gaelic Gaelic IPA Meaning
beth b bj beith beith [beh] birch
luis L lˠ Lʲ l luis luis [Luʃ] rowan
fern f fj fearn feàrna [fjaːRNə] alder
sail s ʃ sail sail [sal] willow
nion N nˠ Nʲ n nuin nuin [NuNʲ] ash
huath h uath uath [uəh] whitethorn
dair d dʲ dair dair [darʲ] oak
tinne t tʲ tinne teine [tʲenə] holly
coll k kʲ coll coll [kɔuL] hazel
cert kː (?) ceirt ceirt [kʲeRʃdʲ] crab apple
muin m mj muin muin [muNʲ] vine
goirt g gʲ gort gort [gɔRʃdʲ] ivy
ngetal ŋ ŋʲ ngéadal ngeadal [ŋʲedəL] broom
straif z straif straif [sdraf] blackthorn
ruis R Rʲ(?) ruis ruis [Ruʃ] elder
ailm a ailm ailm [alam] elm
onn o onn onn [ɔuN] gorse
ur u ur ur [ur] heather
eadad e eadhadh eadha [e.ə] aspen
idad i íodha iodh [jɤɣ] yew
éabad ea éabhadh èabhadh [iəvəɣ]
or oi ór òr [ɔːr]
uilen ui uileann uileann [ulaN]
ifin ia / io ifín ifinn [ifɪNʲ]
eamancholl ae eamhancholl eamhancholl [ɛvanxɔL]
peith p pj peith beith bhog/peith [be vog] [peh] dwarf elder

Is that it?

Easy tiger... simple stuff first. The two ette symbols in the picture, which aren't in the list, are called ite 'feather' and ite thuathail 'reverse feather'. They were usually placed at the beginning and end of a line of squiggles.

Now, a single letter was called a feadh 'a few' (Old Irish fid) (cf. modern feadhainn) and a whole category of letters was an aicme 'a race'. An aicme was named after the first letter in that group, so you got beith aicme, and so on. Originally there were only 4 groups. The fifth and sixth groups, called the iar-fheadhainn 'extra ones' (Old Irish Foirfeda), were added later.

Notice how p stands out as an oddball. Of course, we all expect that since we know that Goidelic lost Indo-European p early on.

Do you know the most annoying thing about all this? Gaelic is one of the few languages of Europe which not only had their own alphabet, with its own order, but Gaelic also had names for all the letters. Yet, 20th century "educationalists" decided to completely ignore this wonderful resource and insist we spell Gaelic and Irish the English way. Why? Beats me. Fear of our own heritage I suppose. Just think... our own Alpha Bravo Charlie and we're not using it!

So what happened?

After a few unsuccessful attempts by Queen Meabh to send her husband out with a slab of a shopping list, this system was abandoned, and monks introduced Latin writing. Which is actually unfair because there are a few isolated incidents of Ogham in manuscripts, so it could have been adopted for writing on vellum obviously. But it wasn't.

We've already discussed the genius behind the system elsewhere, so we'll ignore that and have a look at this business of shorthand, straight away. This system used 18 letters from the Latin alphabet, a few diacritics, and quite a number of abbreviations because vellum, or parchment, was expensive, really expensive:


To all of us, the accented letters are nothing new. The first new-old bit is the bottom row. When it was first written, lenition was not always shown in the writing because everybody who wrote Irish could speak it so it could easily be inferred from the context or knowledge of the language. Ingen 'daughter' for example was pronounced [in̻ɣen], as if it were spelled inghean. For the most part, when people began to mark lenition, consistently, they didn't stick in an h; instead, they just put a dot over the consonant to show it was lenited. Doing that saved space and even allowed writers to "update" texts, long after they were written. In Scotland, manuscript writers used this system up until the 18th century, and there's a document in the National Library of Scotland which is signed William Mc̄ ṁuracħ - William MacMhurchaidh. That system was also the norm in Ireland up until the Second World War.

oifig an tsolathair.jpg

Then, some Irish civil servants got their hands on it and decided to replace the dot with "normal" letters. They abolished the sèimheachadh symbol, or séimhiú as the Irish call it, and came to use an h at the same time. Which made every written or printed text about 1/3 longer.


I was promised shorthand you know...

So ... first thing you could do when writing in a hurry would be to replace every h that stands for lenition with a dot above the consonant. Note also that the Gaelic ı strictly speaking has no dot, so there's another opportunity to save on your ink: sèıṁeaċaḋ.

But, the old scribes had more tricks in store than just a dot. Here are a few more of their most common shorthand symbols:


So what do we have? Apologies for the old fashioned font, I couldn't find a modern one that has Old Irish abbreviation symbols! We see a fused rr for a double rr, a tilde over a vowel to show m, a tilde plus a dot for mh, a macron for an n, double for double nn, a macron with dot for any vowel + bh, dh or gh, an a with a descender and little stroke for ar, two strokes for double arr, a with a descender and ascender and little stroke for air, i with a descender and stroke for ir, and the thing that looks like a long r with a bar to stand for achd or chd.

The last one is my favourite. It's the so called agusan [agəsan] or "Tironian ampersand". It's an old abbreviation for and which was used for a long time throughout Europe until the & symbol bounced back. The only people left using it, in the 20th century, were the Gaels. It's a really handy symbol as it involves a lot less struggle to create than the & symbol.

Obviously, not all of these symbols are 100% adequate for modern "shorthand", but quite a few of them might come in handy.

Incidentally, a full shorthand system was devised for Gaelic in the 1880's but never seemed to reach a wide audience. Watch this space, we might present it at some point.

Beagan gràmair
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