Tag Archives: linguistics

L is for Languages

When I came up with this topic I’d been learning the Futhark runes and watched how people writing about the topic had different names for the runes, different spellings for common words, different pronunciation. As I studied more, I struggled with the modern addition of associations between runes and planets, colours, stones, numbers and so on. (“Wait, if Neptune wasn’t discovered until 1846, how can it be associated with runes that date from the 11th century?”)

As a native English speaker and writer, languages other than English are interesting. Cultural saturation also deems them mystical, otherworldly and potentially magical, which I’m trying to avoid. Languages which follow different graphemic or phonological rules are interesting because they make one realise that it’s part design and part accident that English works the way it does, especially with the pronunciation because of the Great Vowel Shift and the 18th Century prescriptivists and – all those things. English generally works such that a single symbol, a letter (‘A’), represents a sound (‘aaah’) but the pronunciation is dependent on its surrounding letters, your accent, the stress pattern of the words, and so on. Letters don’t have additional meaning; they’re just a written representation of a sound.

So, when one discovers a language where the symbols (runes, letters, whatever) all have their own names, meanings, colour associations, tree associations, deity associations, use in divination and so on – that’s pretty exciting. That’s like discovering a mega-language, where suddenly it has all these attachments which can juggle and make you a cup of tea when your own written symbols just… y’know.. represent phonemes. Unfortunately, lots of this stuff (tree associations, divination, etc.) turns out to be based on conjecture (i.e. lies), on guesswork (lies), and on lies (lies). Did the people who used Ogham really associate ‘beith’ with a birch tree when they were using it to mark territorial boundaries or write signs? It could be the equivalent of associating the symbol “C” with the giant blue wet thing “sea” because they have the same sound.  It’s not necessarily a semantic link.

There’s also the danger of cultural appropriation and fetishizing of non-Romanic languages because they are ‘deep’ or ‘meaningful’ simply because they’re used by people who live quite a long way away. (For instance, see this blog.)

Bearing all that in mind, then, why am I learning Ogham?

Well, whether or not it had these associations of trees and meanings and names with the runes back when it was used centuries ago, it’s grown to have those meanings now. It’s used in the Pagan community by people who want to link to Gaelic deities, which is precisely why I’m using it: to get closer to Brigid. When I write poetry to her, I can now write parts of it using Ogham, which is more private and personal. Who doesn’t want a secret language to use to communicate with their deity?


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