2

enter image description here

The above images are of a modern metal pillar in Portlaoise, County Laois, Ireland (they both depict the same pillar, but from different angles), with an Ogham inscription.

I deciphered it to the best of my ability, and it reads (bottom to top): _ o r t l a o i s e.

Logically, the bottommost symbol I would assume to represent "p", to complete the name of the town, however, as I understand, the symbol in question is not generally used for "p", it is used for "ia". Putting "iaortlaoise" into google translate yields "postwar". This could mean, in a roundabout way, that the structure was erected to commemorate the end of the Irish war of independence, but that is very indirect, and a strange way of putting it.

Is it possible it has been indeed used for "p"? If so, why is that, despite almost all sources claiming it to be "ia"?

1 Answer 1

9

It says Portlaoise.

The original Ogham alphabet, the ‘core’, was created to represent Common Insular Celtic or Primitive Irish (or some stage in between the two), at which stage there was no /p/ – the closest value in what would become Irish was /kʷ/, which is why the earliest loan words with [p] ended up having /k/ in Irish.

Later on, after /kʷ/ had merged with /k/, the new phoneme /p/ started appearing in loan words, especially from Latin (but also from Brythonic, where /kʷ/ had merged with /p/ instead). So now a letter for /p/ was needed. The general belief now is that the result was the letter ᚘ, which was probably originally named pín (for Latin pinus ‘pine tree’ – remember that Ogham letters generally have tree names). This is the letter used in the Ogham inscription in your pictures. It is considered one of the forfeda or ‘supplementary’ letters that are not part of the core alphabet, but nonetheless were in somewhat frequent use.

Later on (but still early on in Old Irish), there arose a sort of ‘systematicist’ practice which held that the forfeda should all represent diphthongs, and pín came to be used for /ia/. Why exactly that happened, or why /ia/ in particular, no one knows, but when it did happen, the letter was transparently called iphín (‘i’-pín) because it was ‘the i-like usage of pín’. Later on, when the original use as /p/ and the name pín were lost altogether, so was the transparency of the name iphín, and it started being spelt ifín, which is the common spelling now.

Of course, using pín for /ia/ created a new hole in the alphabet which yet again had no letter for /p/. The solution this time was to take ᚁ beith /b/ and tweak it by rotating it 90°, yielding ᚚ peith(e) or beithe bog ‘soft b’.


The decision to use the very archaic pín to represent /p/ in the Port Laoise sign is somewhat unusual – particularly considering that the name is being rendered in the modern Irish spelling, using separate Ogham letters for ⟨a-o-i⟩, which in Primitive Irish would have looked completely different.

2
  • Thank you very much. Very clear answer. The only thing I am left wondering is whether there are more of these around Ireland or if it is unique to Portlaoise. Aug 6, 2023 at 10:06
  • 3
    There are quite a lot of these around, scattered around Ireland. These are modern Ogham inscriptions, most made in the 20th century (this one looks very new, probably made within the past 30 or so years), and the people who make them are not always particularly knowledgeable about how Ogham was applied back when it was in actual use. They’re often made by local councils as a sort of ‘cultural gimmick’, to signal some sort of connection to a cultural heritage, without actually being in the slightest similar to or reminiscent of ‘real’ Ogham inscriptions. Aug 6, 2023 at 10:14

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.