Blog post written by Audrey Nickel
Every so often, I get requests for something written in “Old Irish” or in “The Old Irish Alphabet.”
In today’s post, I’m going to clarify a few terms, and talk a bit about why this request is more difficult to fulfill than many people realize.
Which “Old Irish” are you looking for?
One of the first things to be clarified is, what do people mean when they ask for “Old Irish” phrases or spelling? Usually it breaks down into one of five possiblities.
- Actual Old Irish: Actual “Old Irish” is the ancestor of Modern Irish, as well as Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and was in use from the 6th through (roughly) the 10th centuries. It is very different from Modern Irish — a different language, for all intents and purposes — and most Irish speakers today couldn’t begin to help you with it.
- Modern Irish: Often people mistakenly refer to Modern Irish as “Old Irish,” probably because they think of Irish as the “old” language of Ireland and English as the “new” language.
- Pre-Spelling Reform Irish: Sometimes people who request “Old Irish spelling” are looking for word forms from before the spelling reform of the 1950s, which greatly simplified Irish spelling (you can read more about that here).
- Seanchló/Cló Gaelach: Sometimes, when people refer to the “Old Irish Alphabet,” they’re referring to what we call Seanchló (“old font”) or Cló Gaelach (“Gaelic font”). We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
- Ogham: Sometimes, when people ask for the “Old Irish Alphabet,” they’re referring to Ogham — a very ancient style of writing, which we’ll also talk about a bit below.
You can see why there needs to be a bit of clarification before this kind of request is addressed!
Ancient, modern, and in-between.
If people are actually looking for Old Irish, there’s not much I can do to help them, other than suggest they contact the linguistics department of an Irish university. Old Irish hasn’t been spoken in centuries, and it’s as different from Modern Irish as Old English is from Contemporary English.
(And, if you want to see just how different Old English is from Contemporary English, check out this site, where you can see the epic Old English poem “Beowulf” in both the original Old English and in a contemporary translation).
Pre-Spelling Reform Irish
This request is a little easier to address, as there are still examples of pre-spelling reform Irish available, as well as people to ask who learned their Irish before the changes took effect, or who chose to learn the older spellings.
A feature of pre-spelling reform Irish is that there are a lot more “silent” letters than with contemporary spellings. For example:
Pre-reform: sidhe (“fairy mound”: pronounced: shee), Brighid (a woman’s name: pronounced “breej”)
Contemporary: sí, Bríd (same pronunciation)
Typically pre-reform Irish would be written in Seanchló (see below), with dots over the consonants replacing the “h’s,” but it can be written as above as well.
What many people mean when they ask for “the Irish alphabet” is actually what we call Seanchló (SHAN khloh) or Cló Gaelach (kloh GAYL-ukh).
The thing is, though it looks a little different, seanchló isn’t actually a different alphabet. In fact, the letters are the same Roman letters used to write English…they’re just shaped a little differently.
With the exception of “R” and “S,” it’s pretty easy to tell which letter is which (and, with practice, “R” and “S” aren’t so hard either). Here’s a chart comparing seanchló letters to contemporary letters: http://www.nualeargais.ie/foghlaim/seanchlo.php
Most Irish learners right up through the 70s would have learned to write Irish using this style of letter, and it’s still pretty popular for signs, engravings, and other places where a more stylized font is attractive. It is not, however, a “different alphabet.”
This is a request that’s pretty easy to fulfill, as there are plenty of old-style fonts available for download by searching the web…some very traditional; some hybridized.
Occasionally, when people ask for “the Old Irish alphabet,” they’re referring to a truly ancient system of writing called Ogham (pronounced “OH-um”).
Ogham is the closest thing to a truly “old” Irish alphabet. It was used to write “primative Irish,” which actually pre-dates “Old Irish.” Based on a system of slashes on a vertical line, it closely resembles, and may be descended from, Norse runes.
There are several problems with transcribing contemporary Irish to Ogham, however:
- Ogham was phonetic, and we don’t know how closely modern Irish phonics correspond to primative Irish phonics (though given how languages shift, we can assume “not very closely”).
- Ogham was never used for extensive writing. In fact, before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, very little writing was done at all, with everything from geneologies and histories to poetry and folklore being transmitted orally. As nearly as we can tell, Ogham was used mainly for grave and property markers.
- Very few people outside of universities really know how to write Ogham properly. There are sites on the internet that purport to offer “Ogham translations” (actually “transcriptions,” as Ogham isn’t a language), all of which should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism.
What it all comes down to is, Ogham can be fun to play around with, if you’re not too concerned with authenticity, but if you really want to use it and do so accurately, you’ll need to consult with Irish studies/linguistics department of a university.
However you write it, it’s still Irish
An important thing to keep in mind is that there is no “superior” or “better” way to write Irish. It’s not somehow more “authentic” if you use older spellings or Seanchló. Certainly do so, if you like the look of it, but Irish is Irish, whether it’s written in Ogham, Seanchló or Comic Sans.
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