ogham: not irish but english?

the list of ogham names forming the so-called tree-ogham is not a list of old irish names of trees at all. it is a children’s time-table. translations have always been based on the assumption that the names beith, luis, fearn, saille, nuinn etc were irish words, and it seems that even the writers of the auriacept were very confused about what they meant. in reality, the list cannot be translated as a tree list, as many of the names are not names of trees. it makes very good sense as a children’s time table (auraicept = hour receipt, i.e., schedule or formula, and na n’eces means of the school children). these strange ancient names are arguably best treated as old english words and translated accordingly. we know that english was spoken in ireland in the far past – in chaucer’s times and earlier.

here are my reasons for interpreting them as english words forming a children’s time-table:

* the argument

* the list

the argument:

traditionally, since the auraicept na n-eces came to light, the so-called tree ogham has been disproportionately foregrounded from all the ogham lists in it, and it is asserted in that text that this list of words associated with the ogham letters are the old irish names of trees.

however, within the text there’s a lot of confusion over which trees (luis= rowan or elm), and not all of them are trees, (ivy, fern) and there seems to be no evidence that any except a few were ever called by these names in any language, let alone irish, so there’s a reason to doubt the accuracy of statements made in the auraicept. nobody knows who the contributors to it were but whoever they were, they don’t appear to have been consistent in their evidence.

i suspect that no irish person ever called a birch tree ‘beith’ until those who (mis)translated the auraicept put it into their lexicon – nor was the irish word for an oak tree ever dur, dara or dor.Informed by scholars, native speakers from each area assumed that such tree names must have been current in some other area and so accepted them as valid, because there it was in the dictionary.

so what if they’re not trees? the key will be not in the spelling, which in old texts is likely to be idiosyncratic, culture specific and sometimes arbitrary, but in penetrating the spelling to reach the pronunciations that they’re attempting to represent. what if the ogham beith were pronounced as it’s spelt: ‘b-ei-th’, like the english word ‘bathe’ and actually meant ‘bathe’ as in wash? after all, it’s very likely that where no hard and fast spelling rules apply (and they don’t seem to in the auraicept) people are spelling phonetically.

you could object that the auraicept predates the formation of the english language from germanic dialects by a good few centuries. i would reply that the actual age of the auraicept is not known, any more than the exact age of our only remaining examples of the germanic dialects of old england, but has only been guessed at by scholars who used unintelligibility as a measure of age, without considering that a text may simply have been in a dialect not known to the scholars concerned, separated from known dialects not by time but by contemporary linguistic difference that had more to do with geographical distance than temporal. the actual text is not that old, and the current dating of its content is highly conjectural.

so what if you found that, by assuming the spelling to be practically phonetical, almost all the other words in the beith luis nin list also spell english words – albeit archaic ones, except for two that spell irish words? Then you’d probably want to object that this is a text from ireland, the text it’s embedded in is in irish and wouldn’t have included lists of english words, but however hard you wished, there they’d still be, not able to be interpreted successfully or convincingly as a tree list, but deliciously happy to be construed as a list of mainly english words with a couple of irish ones, and not just a random list, but a list denoting a sequence, undeniably a logical one, representing nothing more nor less than a children’s school-day timetable – or in olden day english, an hour receipt.

when you first see it, you might argue that the similarity of these words to english words, while undeniable, is pure coincidence; but it happens that they form a list of activities and those activities occur in a logical sequence, making a viable time-table for school children. (na n-eces does mean ‘the school children’). the probability that this could happen by sheer coincidence is vanishingly small. the odds against it are vast.

since the universal phonetic alphabet is practically unintelligible to lay readers, and anyway tends to obscure relationships between words rather than illuminate them, and is overkill at best where languages that are now extinct are concerned, i’m using my own simple techniques based on english spellings (for english words), which will be intelligible to english speakers anyway. i apologise to non-english speakers, but most people will be able to follow me.

when i was five years old i learned to spell using a system called phonics, in which each letter of the alphabet was named according to its usual sound: ‘a’ was called ‘ae’ as in ‘a-pple’, ‘b’ was ‘b@’ where @ represents schwa. u for umbrella was called ‘uh’, which sounded like the vowels of aha! it is pretty loose, but it works so i’m using it. after all our sense of how extinct languages or forms of languages were pronounced is necessarily ‘pretty loose’, and this naïve kind of phonics is after all, pretty much like what the writers of the auraicept used.

this system works well for describing the probable pronunciation of the ogham names as i understand them, so i’m using it here. there’s a lisp to take into account, a glitch associated with the p- k- problem, there’s a glottal stop, and g’s and h’s are sometimes dropped, and there are some small inconsistencies, but nothing that can’t be accounted for without much trouble. and for reasons that will become clear as we go along, i start with ailm and her five, not beith and hers.

the list:

ailm and her five

ailm is the first two syllables of aliment, pronounced as in aliment, and meaning aliment. the children’s day starts with breakfast.

onn is Iron (some people still pronounce it like that in rapid speech). it’s the only puzzling one, so bear with it. i suspect it is an iron oven. the breakfast fire has heated the oven and the bread is put in.

ur is ‘hair’. perhaps it was brushed and plaited.

eadadh is a variant of the irish ‘eadach’ meaning cloth or clothing. the children get dressed.

ioho is another irish word: dheoch, a old plural form of deoch (a drink), meaning drinks. the modern plural is deochanna. it’s initial letter is lenited (mutated) here, perhaps because it is feminine and followed the definite article when first transcribed. the h is a soft version of the gaelic ch. in irish, dh is pronounced as y for yellow before an ‘e’ or an ‘i’. So dheocha woud be pronounced very like yoho, here spelt ioho. Gives new meaning to ‘yoho ho and a bottle of rum’ doesn’t it! but let’s hope our little ógs had hot milk and honey, perhaps with an egg in it – an egg n-og?

beith and her five

beith now means bathe – that’s what the children do next.

luis according to the phonics method is ‘l-uh-i-s’ which we would pronounce somewhere between ‘lies’ and ‘lays’. that’s interesting because both mean stories that are not (necessarily) true or are not believed. from the ‘lays’ of the minstrels (which may have been true but declared false by a dominant culture) we get the word ‘lies’ meaning falsehoods. while waiting for the time of departure, the children are kept warm and out of mischief singing over their school songs perhaps for the entertainment of their younger siblings.

fearn is ‘farin’ ‘, which means travelling, in this instance, to school.

saille is these days usually pronounced as if irish: s – o- l – y – a. according to the phonics method it would be pronounced sa+i+ll+e close to sally as in ‘sallies and jests’. that word is related to the english words ‘soldier’ and ‘sailor’ and is probably derived from a word ancestral to both. the best translation might be ‘sallies’, as in ‘sallies and jests’ where ‘jests’ retains its original meaning ‘jousts’ – in other words, military training.

nuin is pronounced n – uh -i n, with a glottal stop between the vowels: nu’in’. That’s ‘nothing’ with the ‘g’ dropped. rest after strenuous exercise.

huath and her five

huath. this one comes to us from a different speaker, a lisper, and uses a different phonetic, but the logistics of the day are becoming clear and it’s fairly obvious that it’s a lisped ‘horse’. after a rest, equestrian training follows foot quite logically.

dur is ‘door’, using the same phonetic as the above. perhaps the children lined up outside the door to wait for the teachers as they still do in modern schools.

tinne is the Irish ‘tine’ meaning ‘fire’. it is derived from the english word, tin, meaning sheet metal, not specifically the mineral tin iteself. a large tin stove served as a fireplace – still often does in some situations. as soon as they got inside they lit a fire in the tin to warm the class room, just as they did in winter when I was a child, before most schools had central heating.

coll is ‘school’. It’s the base of the english college, the irish coláiste, and the ‘chool’ part of ‘school’.

quert: this one is caught up in the p- k– wrangle. there is already a hard ‘c’ in the ogham and so there’s no need for a ‘q'; but there’s no ‘p’ whatsoever. the ‘u’ is there only to support the ‘q’ as it would be in modern english. ‘quert’ should obviously be ‘pert’. and that’s a variant of ‘part’, meaning ‘part company’ or ‘depart’ – which is just what the children would do after school.

muinn and her five

muinn is ‘m+uh+inn’ with a glottal stop between the vowels (see nuin): ‘mu’inn’ meaning ‘mutton’, denoting a substantial dinner of cooked meat.

gort means ‘garden’ in some variants of old english. perhaps they put in an afternoon’s work or so after dinner working in the community garden.

ngetal is an eclipsized ‘getal’ which is really ‘gcetal’, itself an eclipsized ‘cetal’ meaning ‘kettle’ – a large cooking pot or cauldron in the olden days rather than the familiar tea-kettle for boiling water in of today. no doubt the children’s supper was served from it, and again, it’s in logical sequence with the previous activities.

straif is not ‘strife’ but ‘straw’. this is an old form of the word, retaining evidence of its kinship with the word straight, the gh having evidently once been pronounced ‘f’ as in ‘enough’, not ‘ch’ as in ‘loch’. (it’s also related to strap, stripe and strip.) it’s the straight part of a cereal plant. straw was used for bedding, so these children, having had their supper, ‘hit the straw’, or in other words, they go to bed.

ruis is ‘r-uh-is’, which rhymes with ‘luis/lays/lies’ and means ‘rise’, again the most logical next activity of the ogham school child’s day.

i realise it presents a few challenges to orthodox views of the evolution of the english language, in implying that chronologies might be askew, but since the chronologies are based on bible superstition and need revision, and in view of the improbability of the logic i find in reading it as english being purely there by chance, i can’t see that it doesn’t merit careful consideration.

more important to many people will be the implications for the use of the ogham as a divinatory tool. if the ogham names are not the names of trees, the trees have been dragged in by mistake, and that will have magical implications. if the collective will of many diviners has a magical force, and surely it will have, then the tree ogham as a divinatory system is in no danger, being independent of historical fact. my insight is that it is a firmly established, reasonably effective, fully functional magical system that needn’t fear the research that inevitably reveals the erroneousness of its origin. gaia must have needed the myth more than the fact at least for a while.