Linguistic Archaeology of Ireland
THE OGAM ALPHABET
Beginning in the last half of the 20th Century, archeological discoveries have revealed the existence of Pre-Columbian contacts that were made in America by explorers from Europe, Asia and Africa. Many of these explorers left written pectographic inscriptions of their experiences in America using a phonetic “Stick Writing” that is often called Ogam. These writings, developed in Europe, are found all over North America. However, there are few who have the linguistic skills to translate them. New discoveries of such inscriptions are being made regularly but the academic community has been negligent in giving them the attention they deserve. This is of course history of importance to all of us. It was only recently that anyone merely suggesting that any form of written language existed in America was labeled a heretic, fool or worse. However, today we are reading detailed accounts of the Maya and their civilization from numerous inscriptions that were found at archeological sites in Mexico and south.
Fell in 1982 submitted detailed translations of Ogam inscriptions in America (see Report). He compared American inscriptions with those that had been found in Northern Europe dating back to the Bronze Age. The Horse Creek Petroglyph of West Virginia is the most recent translation of the largest Petroglyph known to exist in North America. The author, Edo Nyland, suggested that Ogam came to Ireland from North Africa with the first Gnostic missionaries who preached the early Irish Christianity. However, very recent linguistic studies have pointed to the possibility that a phonetic alphabet reached North Africa from visitors from North Sea and Baltic Sea civilizations much earlier. Indeed Nyland mentions inscriptions found in Ireland on a Bronze Bowl. Nevertheless, the Gnostic missionaries believed in magic, just like the pre-Christian Irish inhabitants did. As Anthony Jackson (1993) discovered, this magic took the shape of numerical wizardry with letters (see the Saharan Language). It is not known if the original Ogam had an organized alphabet but it is likely. The Gnostic missionaries used the script to spread the Gospel by marking their Biblical phrases on Neolithic standing stones to convert the people to Christianity. Around 650 A.D. Benedictine monks and their grammarians came to Ireland with instructions to create a distinct language to replace the "iron" language of the Irish, which they called Cruithin. They found it necessary to augment the early alphabetic script with five diphthong characters, called Forfeda and further develop it to accommodate their linguistic and literary activities. There is no doubt that these people were linguistic professionals.
To explain how Ogam inscriptions are translated, Nyland has provided a detailed process with examples (see Translate). Nevertheless, for most persons not trained in linguistics it is difficult to fully understand. Nyland’s explanation is as follows:
“The Ogam alphabet is … composed of 15 consonants followed by five vowels. This is the only alphabet known which organizes consonants and vowels in this manner. The Benedictines' operation manual, the "Auraicept", parts of which appear to have been written as early as 700 A.D., in the very early years of Irish Judeo-Christianity, described the Ogam alphabet as follows:
Translation by Calder:
“ This is their number: five Ogmic groups, i.e., five men for each group, and one up to five for each of them, that their signs may be distinguished. These are their signs: right of stem, left of stem, athwart of stem, through stem, about stem. Thus is a tree climbed, to wit, treading on the root of the tree first with thy right hand first and thy left hand after. Then with the stem, and against it and through it and about it. (Lines 947-951).”
McManus clarified this:
"This is their number: there are five groups of Ogam and each group has five letters and each of them has from one to five scores and their orientations distinguish them. Their orientations are: right of the stemline, left of the stemline, across the stemline, through the stemline, around the stemline. Ogam is climbed as a tree is climbed..." (McManus 1.5).”
“ By the time the fifth column of Forfeda symbols had been added, the script was written horizontally, from left to right but the above quote still appears to record the original way of vertical writing, read from the bottom up. The original 20 symbols are shown in both the original vertical as well as the later horizontal way of writing. Most of the early inscriptions on stone in Scotland and Ireland are written in the vertical form. The Ogam texts in books such as the Auraicept and on the petroglyphs in West Virginia are written in the horizontal literary tradition. At first sight, the peculiar arrangement of the letters in the Ogam alphabet appears to be completely unrelated to the pre-existing Greek and Latin alphabets. McManus searched elsewhere for the origin and found that "there is a clear connection with the North Etruscan alphabets". However, anthropologist Anthony Jackson from Edinburgh University discovered that the arrangement was directly related to the ordinal numbers of the letters in the Latin alphabet. “
N 13 + Q 16 = (1x29) R 17 + I 9 = (2x13) 5x11
S 18 + C 3 = (3x7) Z 10 + E 5 = (3x5) 3x3x4
V 6 + T 19 = (5x5) NG 15 + U 20 = (5x7) 3x4x5
L 11 + D 4 = (3x5) G 7 + O 14 = (3x7) 3x3x4
B 2 + H 8 = (2x5) M 12 + A 1 = (1x13) 1x23
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___
50 + 50 = 100 61 + 49 = 110 210
10x5 10x5 (10x10) 1x61 7x7 (10x11) 2x3x5x7
B L V S N / H D T C Q / M G NG Z R / A O U E I.
“The sequence of the letters within each column appears to be in relation to the primary numbers, but the calculations go further than is presented here. (Please see Jackson's monograph, chapter 7.)
Note that the "f" in the horizontal script should be a "v" as it is in the vertical script.
“The reason why all 15 consonants are listed first in the alphabet and the 5 vowels following, has to do with the special arrangement of the words in the monk's dictionary. The primary organization of their dictionary is according to the consonants. Half of the Basque language is made up of words starting with vowel-consonant-vowel (VCV, sometimes VCCV). It is mainly this half of the language that the monks used in the construction of the Romance languages and English. These words were then arranged according to the first consonants in the words, each consonant was then subdivided again into 25 VCV combinations such as under D: ada, ade, adi, ado, adu; eda, ede, edi, edo, edu; ida, ide ..... etc. Under each such VCV were then listed all those words with their translations which started with these three letters. This arrangement is still the best way for us to decode Ogam writing.”
“From this it must be apparent that such a special arrangement applies only to a language that is organized in the VCV style and Basque is the only language that fits the type. The syntax of modern Irish (i.e. Gaelic or Celtic) is very unsuited to this VCV system and consequently this language cannot be written in traditional Irish Ogam. Therefore, all Ogam writing anywhere must have been in the Basque language, which means that the "iron" language of pre-Roman-Catholic Ireland was the universal language we call Saharan or Basque today. This explains why "Celtic" scholars have been unable to translate even one single Ogam inscription correctly.”
“The Forfeda revision made by the Benedictines, the addition of the five extra diphthong characters, was almost certainly accomplished in Ireland. Ogam was originally designed for record keeping and the sending of short messages, not for literary expression. However, this is what the Benedictine monks of Ireland used it for. One of the primary purposes of the Benedictine Order was the replacement of the ancient pre-Christian, gylanic oriented, language with a church-approved one. The syntax of the Basque language was ideally suited for the agglutination of new words, which then appeared to have no relationship to the original language. The VCV formula made this possible. However, traditions governing this ancient formula did not allow two vowels to be written side-by side without a space separation, which demanded separate words. This rule created problems and restrictions for those writing in the script. The monks wished to simplify the rules of writing. They created words and names with diphthongs in them, the invention of five new "Forfeda" characters permitting the combination of: ea, oi, ui, io and ae, the use of which then also allowed these to be part of the creation of new words starting with eha, ohi, uhi, iho and ahe. The design of the characters they created was totally out of style with the original script. McManus observed that they "missed the opportunity of completing the symmetry of the system by having the fifth series mirror the third in the way that the second mirrors the first" (McManus 1.2).
“To consider what "forfeda" really means, the monks obviously were not very happy to be forced to use the "heathen" Ogam script, but found nothing quite as clever, brief and useful to replace it with, until they had invented their new Celtic language. In the following analysis of "Forfeda", the first "f" has to be a "b", a common letter shift; (the second "f" is correct).”
“The word "forfeda" breaks up into four three-letter VCV roots, ebo-ori-ife-eda, each composed of vowel-consonant-vowel (VCV), with the vowels interlocking to form a chain of interdependent roots. This joining is the main characteristic of Ogam writing, is basic to all Ogam inscriptions and is indispensable in deciphering. Any missing (purposely removed) vowels in the words analyzed, are represented by a dot until identified. Forfeda symbols are never eliminated. The monks later overstated this word to "Foirfeadha", to make it look as if the word had originated with the "Celtic" language, which is characterized by an excess of unnecessary vowels and h's. Some remarks in the Auraicept pertain to the creation of Forfeda characters such as:
IN LEBOR OGAIM. in.-.le-ebo-oro-oga-ahi-im.; (5465 etc)
(Note: there is no break in the interconnected vowels, even though the text is broken into three "words".
Ogam translation requires the following steps:
University decided that it should read:
Step 2. All Ogams in Ireland are based on the Basque language, however, Basque does not have a "C" or a "V",
so the inscription will now read
Step 3. When fitting the letters in the VCVCVCVCV format, it appears that only one, the first vowel, is missing,
which must therefore be represented by a dot. The inscription to be translated now reads:
Step 4. There are four consonants so this VCVCVCVCV line is then broken up by hyphens into four three-letter
VCV's in which the V's on either side of the hyphens are the same (called interlocking): VCV1-V1CV2-
V2CV3-V3CV, which therefore represents four words:
Step 5. With the preliminaries out of the way, the next step in decoding an Ogam inscription is to list the possible
meanings underneath each VCV. In the case of the one missing vowel, all five possibilities must be tried
(aku, eku, iku, oku, uku) as follows:
Step 6. To discover the hidden sentence we must match up the words that obviously belong together, starting with
the complete VCV's. For instance take the pair aba and ato and immediately out pops priest and come!,
"the priest says: Come!". Why would he say come!? "To stimulate" (aku) your "boredom" (una). The
translation of CUNAVATO is therefore
"The priest will stimulate your boredom; come!"
“The completed words are: akuilatu (to stimulate) unadora (boredom) abade (priest) ator! (Come!). That is exactly what one would expect a missionary to say, it's his job.”
“Infrequently more than one reasonable meaning appears in which case there is a problem. Postpone this and return to it later as often new insight will be obtained and the proper translation might be obtained. From the following it will be apparent that this is not an exact science. Guessing the mood of the monk who made up the word can be entertaining.”
Following is the decoding of an Ogam inscription that has two vowels missing (MacAlister # 364):
Step 2. barkuni
Step 3. .bar.kuni
Step 4. .ba-ar.-.ku-uni
Step 5. Three VCV's have a vowel missing. Each of those represents five VCV's e.g. .ba can be aba, eba, iba, oba or uba.
The last one, uni, is complete and only has a few possible meanings.”
Step 6. When assembling the sentence built into the inscription, keep in mind who the people were that carved it. The words that pop out immediately are "evangelist" and "priest" under eba, which goes together with "prayer" under are: "the evangelist's prayers" . What do they do? They give peace of mind, under eku. The sentence therefore reads: "The evangelist's prayers (give you) general peace of mind". The four words completed are then: ebanjelari (evangelist) arren (prayer) ekurutasun (peace of mind) unibertsal (general).
“The decoding of the more complicated Ogam inscriptions is difficult to fit into the internet restrictions. However, the reader now has the idea how decoding is accomplished. A third example is considerably larger and will therefore be presented in a different manner, which has the disadvantage of not being able to show how the missing vowel is recovered.”
“McManus (page 132) and Maclister (#1086, 1949) show the second word as Cogracetena, which is incorrect. Both inscriptions are found on a bronze-hanging bowl, likely an incense burner, dug up from a swamp in County Kerry. "They are inscribed along the upper surface of the rim and on one of the escutcheons" (McManus7.6)”
Step 3. .B.lad.nak. .kog.radedena and .B.lad.nak. .kuilen
Step 4. .B.-.la-ad.-.na-ak. .ko-og.-.ra-ade-ede-ena, and .B.-.la-ad.-.na-ak. .ku-ile-en.
Step 5. This time I place the given VCV's along the left border:
.B. abe abe cross
.la ela ela story
ad. ade adelatu to prepare
.na ena ena that
ak. aka akabu ultimate, superior
.ko ako akorduan euki to remember
og. ogi ogizatitze breaking of the bread
.ra ira iragan to suffer
ade ade adelatu to prepare
ede ede edergi to confide in
dena dena Deuna Lord
Step 6. The story of the Cross prepares us for that ultimate remembrances while preparing for the
breaking of the bread (for His) suffering (while we) confide in the Lord.
.ku eku ekurutasun peace of mind
ile ile ilezin everlasting
en. ene eneganatu to come over me
The story of the cross prepares me for that ultimate everlasting peace of mind (which will) come over me.
“All words and many names in any invented language have known meanings. This is not the case with the words written in Ogam and this fact does not make the job of decoding any easier. In addition, no effort was made to allow easy pronunciation. On the contrary, all ingenuity was aimed at insuring that the writing looked as awkward as possible so that only specialists would be able to interpret it. This disguising was done mostly by applying the VCV Code and the removal of vowels, as many as possible. This followed the example of Hebrew where often no vowels are left at all; such as the name Talmud (Oral Law) being written as "lmd", originally from tala-muda, tala (watch out) mudatu (to alter): "watch out for alteration", or freely translated: "pass on unaltered", which is what an oral law is all about. The meaning of the word Talmud today has been accepted as something like "instruction".
“In Scotland, several of the Christian Ogams were inscribed aggressively over pre-existing animal- and geometrical symbols/totems which had been carved in the 7th century. These symbols organized marriages and other co-operative arrangements between groups of (usually) four tribes (Jackson) and ever since had been regarded with great respect by the population. The over-writing was probably done to destroy the "magical powers" of the "heathen" symbols. Deciphering the Ogams usually poses no real problem as long as the inscription is complete and legible.”
“In analyzing Ogam inscriptions and names or words, especially those from which too many vowels have been removed, it may be helpful to know which consonants are easier to decode than others. Nyland devised a rating system that I found helpful. It involves writing down all the possible VCV combinations and then counting only those that are found in Aulestia's dictionary. For instance take "F":
AFA efa IFA ofa UFA
afe efe IFE ofe ufe
afi efi JFI OFI ufi
afo efo ifo ofo ufo
afu efu ifu ofu ufu
“Out of the 25 VCV possibilities of "F", only the six capitalized VCV's in red are the first letters of existing Basque words: afa (pleasing, supper), ifa (north), ife (infernal, hell), ifi (from ibi, to be, to go), ofi (craftsman, official), ufa (panting, blowing, scornful). The rating of the consonant "F" is therefore 6, making it the second easiest of all letters to find meanings for. The ratings of all the consonants are as follows:
Ñ-5, F-6, J-7, NG-13, Z-17, B-18, M-18, D-20, G-20, S-21,
“The use of the letter "R" in the inscriptions poses somewhat of a problem because no distinction is made between "R" and "RR", each having its own set of 23 VCV combinations. Also the large number of words associated with each combination of this letter makes it sometimes difficult to select the appropriate word. The analysis of the "R" or "RR" is therefore usually kept to the last.”
For further detail, please refer to:
Nyland, Edo. 2001. Linguistic Archaeology: An
Introduction. Trafford Publ., Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Nyland, Edo. 2002. Odysseus and the Sea Peoples: A
Bronze Age History of Scotland Trafford Publ., Victoria,