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The ‘Grammar of Legibility’:
Word Separation in Ogam Inscriptions
Abstract. The principles of Saenger and Parkes on the analysis of word spacing in Insular manuscripts
are here applied to the Irish ogam corpus. Differences in the adoption of aerated text between that corpus and the Anglo-Saxon epigraphic corpus are examined and the reasons for these differences are explored. Finally, the dating of the adoption of aerated text in both Insular manuscripts and the ogam
corpus is compared
Keywords. ogam inscriptions, Irish epigraphy, Anglo-Saxon epigraphy, word spacing, aerated text,
scriptura continua, writing, letter spacing.
Dept of Archaeology, University College Cork
Peritia 22–23 (2011–12) 281–94
Most people take written language for granted and do not stop to contemplate
how sounds came to be represented graphically. Writing evolves within a society
to fulfil a need that oral transmission can no longer meet, and then the society
‘will either evolve a script on the basis of already existing non-oral forms of information storage, such as property marks, or … accept, adapt or modify the
writing of another group’.1
The adoption of the Phoenician writing system by the Greeks occurred sometime between 1000 BC and the eighth century BC, whence the earliest surviving
Greek inscriptions. This was not entirely suited for use with the vowel-rich
Greek language: it was necessary to use the signs for certain Phoenician consonants to represent Greek vowels. In the eighth century BC, the Etruscans adapted
1. Albertine Gaur, A history of writing (London 1992) 14–15. For more detailed work on
the history of writing, see David Diringer, The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind (3rd
ed. rev. 2 vols, London 1968); Hans Jensen, Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegewart (3rd
ed. Berlin 1969); James G. Février, Histoire de l’écriture (Paris 1984). For a more theoretical
approach see Jack Goody, The logic of writing and the organization of society (Cambridge
1986); Barry B. Powell, Writing: theory and history of the technology of civilization (Oxford
© BREPOLS PUBLISHERS
the Greek alphabet and that, in turn, was adopted and adapted by the Romans
between the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Hence our modern roman alphabet.2
Until the addition of vowels to the Phoenician writing system, word separation
was standard throughout the writing systems of the ancient languages of the
Mediterranean world. Some of the earliest ancient Greek inscriptions are written
with word separation in the form of interpuncts (a dot for inter-word separation). Soon after the adoption of vowels, word separation in Greek became obsolete and the Greeks began to write scriptura continua, that is, text with no word
spacing. The adoption of vowels and of scriptura continua went hand in hand
throughout the antique Mediterranean world. The Romans eventually adopted
scriptura continua in the second century AD and abandoned the use of interpuncts.3 In consequence, scriptura continua spread throughout the Roman empire and it became the inheritance of christianity and of early medieval Europe.
It spread with christianity and its dissemination of religious texts.
The coming of christianity in Ireland brought with it the need, on the part of
the clergy, to copy essential scriptural and liturgical texts. Writing in the ancient
world was usually done by professional scribes ‘who were completely immersed
in writing conventions and who could therefore dispense with such aids to legibility’ as word spacing. Gaur states that ‘this lack of word division is also a feature of early European manuscripts’ and holds that the scribes were able to function without the aid of spacing because they already knew their texts.4 However,
since Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire and Irish was not a Latinderived language, Irish scribes developed certain strategies to help them read,
undertand, and copy Latin texts.5 Saenger notes that the ambiguity of texts ‘was
increased by ancient grammatical structures relying on parataxis and inflection
that lacked and even purposely avoided conventional word order and failed to
group grammatically related words consistently’.6 As a result, the Irish scribes
2. Gaur, Writing, 118–19, 127; Paul Saenger, Space between words: the origins of silent reading. (Stanford 1997) 9. E. Peruzzi has argued that Rome acquired writing earlier and directly
from Magna Graecia (Origini di Roma (2 vols, Florence & Bologna 1970–73), ii 47).
3. Saenger, Space between words, 9–10.
4. Gaur, Writing, 56.
5. Malcolm B. Parkes, ‘Reading, copying and interpreting a text in the early middle ages’,
in G. Cavallo & R. Chartier (ed), A history of reading in the West, tr. L. Cochrane (Cambridge
1999) 90–102: 102; first published as Guglielmo Cavallo & Roger Chartier (ed), Histoire de
la lecture dans le monde occidental (Paris 1997).
6. Saenger, Space between words, 8.
Ogam Inscriptions 283
‘adopted as the basis for their scribal practices the morphological criteria which
they had encountered in the analyses of the grammarians: they set out the parts
of speech by introducing spaces between words’ and abandoned the use of scriptura continua.7 This Irish innovation in the writing of Latin was well established
by the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth.8 Examples of
dateable surviving texts exhibiting word separation are the Iona manuscript of
Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Generalia 1 (c.700×
713),9 and Dublin, TCL, 60 olim A.1.15 al. the Book of Mulling (s. VIIex).10
Parkes considers the Antiphonary of Bangor, Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, C.
5. inf.,11 copied 680×691 as an example of word separation but Saenger sees this
manuscript as being written in ‘syllable blocks’, a form of aerated text and a precursor of canonical word separation.12 He emphasises the importance of what he
terms ‘aerated texts’, texts with periodic spacing, as a stage intermediate between
scriptura continua and complete word separation.13 He states that:
Medieval Irish scribes, within three-quarters of a century of their initial experimentation with intratextual space, developed varieties of aerated writing in which
space served as a cue to the recognition of syllables and words, establishing a correlation between space and phonemic or morphemic units. In this group of manuscripts, scribes placed space, usually of inconsistent quantity, only between words
or between syllables within words.14
7. Malcolm B. Parkes, 'The contribution of Insular scribes of the seventh and eighth centuries to the “grammar of legibility”’, in A. Maierù (ed), Grafia e interpunzione del latino nel
medioevo: seminario internazionale, Roma, 27–29 settembre 1984 (Rome 1987) 15–29; repr.
(with rev.) in his Scribes, scripts, and readers: studies in the communication, presentation and dissemination of medieval texts (London 1991) 1–18: 3-4; id. Pause and effect: an introduction to
the history of punctuation in the west (Aldershot 1992, Berkeley CA 1993) 23.
8. Parkes, ‘Insular scribes’, 4; Saenger, Space between words, 83.
9. CLA 7.998; Kenney, Sources, §214; Eric Graff (ed), The Schaffhausen Adomnán:
Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, MS Generalia 1, Irish Manuscripts in Facsimile, 1 (Cork 2008);
Parkes, ‘Insular scribes’, 4; Saenger, Space between words, 83.
10. CLA 2.276; Kenney, Sources, §456; H. J. Lawlor, Chapters on the Book of Mulling
(Edinburgh 1897); Saenger, Space between words, 83.
11. CLA 3.311; Kenney, Sources, §§87–9, 92, 568; F. E. Warren (ed), The antiphonary of
Bangor, HBS 4, 10 (2 vols, London 1893–95) (full collotype facsimile with facing diplomatic
transcript; and edited text with copious commentary); Ezio Franceschini (ed), L’Antifonario di
Bangor, Testi e Documenti di Storia e di Letteratura Latina Medioevale 4 (Padua 1941).
12. Parkes, ‘Insular scribes’, 4; Saenger, Space between words, 35.
13. Saenger, Space between words, 33.
14. ibid. 34.
He lists examples of aerated texts: the Psalter of St Columcille (Dublin, RIA, 12
R 33 al. Cathach of Columba, s. VI²/VII¹) and the Springmount Bog wax writing
tablets (Dublin, National Museum of Ireland, 1914:2; s. VII¹).15
According to him, the aerated Latin manuscripts in the seventh century are
transitional between scriptura continua and fully separated text but the adoption
of aerated text in vernacular literature, written in the Latin alphabet, corresponded roughly with the same time period as the adoption of canonical word
separation. The dissemination of word spacing in Latin manuscripts can be
traced across Europe: from Ireland to Britain, to France and Germany, and
eventually to Italy and the Mediterranean. Likewise, the spread of spacing in vernacular literature, although more gradual, has the same pattern: aerated texts
occur in Ireland and Britain first, and then spread by the eighth and ninth centuries to Germany, and finally in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to Italy.16
With reference to the innovations of the Irish scribes, Parkes writes:
The clarity and suitability of their practices must have been of considerable benefit
to their readers, and help to explain the influence of these practices in manuscripts
subsequently produced on the continent. The principal contribution of Insular
scribes was that they established the rudiments of the grammar of legibility in relation to the new scripts as well as the old, and transmitted it to later generations of
scribes for further refinement and development.17
Therefore, we can say with some confidence that Irish scribes began to use word
spacing in Latin manuscripts and that the practice was well established by the
late seventh century. We also know that vernacular manuscripts in the Latin alphabet were written as aerated text, and that from Ireland, word spacing spread
to England and throughout Europe, side by side with Irish monastic scholarship.
But how does this innovation relate to the epigraphic record? Does the same pattern hold good for the monuments as for the manuscripts? Or does it affect the
monuments at all since, by all indications, epigraphy is prone to conservatism?
Elizabeth Okasha addresses this question by applying Saenger’s analysis of the
Latin manuscripts to the Anglo-Saxon epigraphic corpus. In doing so, she divides the corpus into three categories: inscriptions that exhibit no spacing; those
15. CLA 2.266; Supplement 1684; Saenger, Space between words, 34, 311–12; Martin McNamara, ‘Psalter text and psalter study in the early Irish church (A.D. 600–1200)’, Proc Roy Ir
Acad (C) 73 (1973) 201–98: 214
16. Saenger, Space between words, 32–33, 92, 97.
17. Parkes, ‘Insular scribes’, 17.
Ogam Inscriptions 285
that have spacing by the use of dots or crosses within the inscription; and those
that exhibit aerated text proper, that is, those with some word spacing between
words but not between all words.18 Her results show a marked delay in the transfer of aerated text proper from manuscripts to epigraphy. There is a slightly
longer delay in the Old English inscriptions than in the Latin ones, and less than
half the inscriptions from the tenth and eleventh centuries exhibit any word
separation. She thinks that one or more factors may have played a part in the
slow transition of word spacing: the brevity and predictability of epigraphic
texts, as compared with manuscript ones; the lapidary’s being less closely supervised at his work than the scribe; the lapidary’s lack of concern about the readership of his text; the level of literacy of the expected readership; and finally, the
importance attached to the clarity of the text. She concludes that the same pattern that manifests itself in the writing of manuscripts can be detected in the
Anglo-Saxon epigraphic corpus, but with a delay of several centuries.19 This conclusion is especially interesting when we compare it with her analysis of the
Munster corpus of inscribed stones.
Here, in contrast to her assertions regarding the Anglo-Saxon epigraphic corpus, Okasha changes her argument about epigraphic conservatism. She states
that word separation is not common, but that it is more prevalent in the Munster corpus than one would expect, given Saenger’s analysis, and she thinks that
the readership of the Munster inscriptions needed ‘more help’ with their comprehension. She states that spacing in the Munster corpus can occur in different
ways: an actual space after a word, by beginning or ending a line of text with a
word, by using a carved decoration such as a cross to divide words, or by the use
of a single dot.20 In her opinion, the absence of word spacing in the English corpus, until centuries later, is because readers did not need aids to comprehension.
Spacing in the Munster corpus, on the other hand, is evidence that a less educated readership required clarification.21 It is possible, however, that the higher
proportions of aerated text in the Munster corpus may have nothing to do with a
hypothetical lack of literacy: rather, it may be an epigraphic manifestation of the
18. Elizabeth Okasha, ‘Spaces between words: word separation in Anglo-Saxon inscriptions’, in Martin Carver (ed), The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe, AD
300–1300 (York, Woodbridge & Rochester NY 2003) 339–49: 341.
19. ibid. 345–47
20. Elizabeth Okasha & Katherine Forsyth, Early christian inscriptions of Munster: a corpus
of the inscribed stones (Cork 2001) 17.
21. ibid.; Okasha, ‘Spaces between words’, 346.
change in Irish writing: after all, the earliest aerated manuscripts are the work of
Irish scribes and their innovation was carried by Irish teachers to Anglo-Saxon
England. In contrast to the Irish-derived manuscript practice, the epigraphic tradition of England was a vestigial remnant of the Roman period, a reflection of
the norms of Latin epigraphy. Thus, a delay in the adoption of word separation,
in combination with the conservatism of an inherited epigraphic tradition, may
account for the tardy acceptance in England of word spacing in Latin and Old
English epigraphy. Ireland, however, lacked Roman epigraphy and was free from
the constraints of the British tradition.
What, if anything, can these differences between English and Munster epigraphy tell us about the earliest written language in Ireland, namely, that recorded
in the ogam corpus?
Outside the indigeneous Irish scholarly tradition, which never lost its understanding of ogam, as the Book of Ballymote and other manuscripts testify, ogam
inscriptions were first recognised as written language, in the modern period, by
Edward Lhwyd when he recorded the Emlagh East stone from Kerry, sometime
between 1702 and 1707. Until then the significance of ogam stones had largely
been overlooked by all disciplines.22 The ogam script, as it is represented in the
monumental inscriptions, consists of twenty symbols divided into four groups of
one to five scores, carved using the arris of the stone as the stemline. The first
three represent consonants, namely, horizontal scores to the right, horizontal
scores to the left, and diagonal scores that cross the stemline. The fourth group,
the vowels, are represented by generally shorter scores, carved horizontally. A
fifth group, called the forfeda, are added to represent letters not present in the
original script. Of these, the first, X, is the most commonly attested: its early
value is equivalent to consonantal /k/; its later value vocalic /e/.23
The script is well suited to its support: monumental stone. However, it may
also have been used on perishable materials such as wood, as is suggested by passages in the Irish sagas.24 We know from ancient examples that writing on stone
is almost always simultaneous with, or preceded by, writing on perishable materials. Besides, ‘writing material is not neutral; it can shape and influence the
22. Richard Rolt Brash, The ogam inscribed monuments of the Gaedhil in the British Islands,
ed. G. M. Atkinson (London 1879) 47.
23. Damian McManus, A guide to ogam (Maynooth 1991) 79.
24. ibid. 40; Próinséas Ní Chatháin, ‘Ogham terminology in Táin Bó Cualnge’, in Próinséas Ní Chatháin & Michael Richter (ed), Ireland and Europe in the early middle ages: learning
and literature (Stuttgart 1996) 212–16.
Ogam Inscriptions 287
development of scripts in matters of general appearance, the way individual signs
are formed, and also as far as the direction of writing is concerned’.25 We do not
have an exact date for the beginnings of ogam, but McManus holds that the earlier epigraphic inscriptions can be dated to the fifth century AD, and there is a
possibility that some may date from the late fourth. By comparison with other
written languages, particularly Greek, one may conclude that the development of
a script generally predates its use in epigraphy by one or two centuries.26 This fits
well with Gaur’s statement that writing of monumental inscriptions is generally
preceded by writing on perishable materials.27 In the light of these considerations, the genesis of ogam may be placed in the third or fourth century AD, its
epigraphic application in the early fifth, and the beginning of its epigraphic decline in the late sixth century to the early seventh.28
I find that, within the epigraphic ogam corpus, spacing is for the most part remarkably consistent: the average space between scores is relatively constant, but
there are, of course, manifest variations. For example, some inscriptions have a
slightly different spacing between the individual scores that make up a letter and
the letters themselves, as is demonstrated at the beginning of the inscription
from Kilgrovan, Co Waterford (NISIGNI MAQI ER[…]I, CIIC §287).29 In this
inscription, the spaces between the scores of 1N are an average of 3.25 cm, the
spaces between the scores of 1I are 2 cm, and the spaces between the scores of S
are 2 cm. However, the letter spacing between 1N and 1I is 4 cm and between 1I
and S is 3 cm. There are also inscriptions where the lapidary obviously realised
he was running out of space for the end of the inscription, and so altered the
spacing in what remained of the text to fit the space. This is demonstrated on
the stone from Monataggart, Co Cork (VEQREQ MOQOI GLUNLEGGET, CIIC
§118, fig 1 and 5) where the larger and more broadly spaced scores at the bottom half of the photograph characterise the spacing of the first two-thirds of the
inscription. The finer and more closely spaced scores at the top of the angle
characterise the final third of the inscription, beginning with 1G. Likewise, there
are inscriptions where the lapidary is too cautious in his spacing and realises part
25. Gaur, Writing, 35–36.
26. McManus, Ogam, 40.
27. Writing, 35.
28. McManus, Ogam, 40, 97.
29. CIIC=R. A. S. Macalister, Corpus inscriptionum insularum celticarum i (Dublin 1945;
repr. Dublin (with preface by Damian McManus) 1996); reference (preceded by §) is to the
numbered inscriptions in that volume.
of the way through that he has plenty of space to finish, and so broadens his
Because of the nature of the ogam letter scores, there is also the difficulty of
differentiating between letters of the same group. For example, in the case of an
inscription containing a name with two consonants from the same group, these
could tend to run together and be difficult to decipher. The same is true of double vowels such as the OI in MUCOI. Here the insertion of additional spacing was
used between letters of the same group to clarify the reading. This is most commonly seen in the OI of MUCOI, as in fig 2, reading upwards on the example
from Monataggart, Co Cork. However, it is also demonstrated by the consonants of both the B- and the H-groups, in the inscription from Portersgate/Hook
Head, Co Wexford, which can be read SEDAN[… …]TABBOTT AVVI DERCMASOC (CIIC §46, fig 3). Notice the double consonants of BB to the left, TT to
the right, and VV at the left side, reading downwards.
The graphic use of space to differentiate between letters of the same group, or
differential letter spacing, in the ogam inscriptions is commonly accepted.
McManus gives approximate numbers for the frequency of the doubling of consonants in the corpus as: B×8, L×17, V (including AVVI)×16, S×8, N×30, D×24,
T×56, C×33, Q (excluding MAQQI)×3, M×5, G×10, and R×13.30 Other examples
of doubled consonants can be seen in the stone from Emlagh East, Co Kerry,
which Macalister transliterated as BRUSCCOS MAQQI CALIACI [ AS ] M[ AQQI
MUCOI … (CIIC §180) and in the inscription COILLABBOTAS MAQI CORBBI
MAQI MOCOI QERAI from Rockfield Middle, Co Kerry (CIIC §244). It is also
exhibited in the cross–inscribed stone from Church Island, Co Kerry, which
McManus read as BECCDINN MACI RITTECC.31 This exhibits not only the doubling of duplicate consonants, such as CC, but also consonants from the same
group immediately following the doubled letter, as is seen in D after CC. Thus,
we have three letters manifesting differential letter spacing within the first word
of the inscription. He notes that the doubling of consonants occurs with the
same frequency in the later inscriptions as in the earlier.32 Thus, it is evident that
the use of space as a graphic convention in the differentiation of letters from the
same group is well established in the epigraphic corpus. But what of the differentiation between words?
30. McManus, Ogam, 125.
31. ibid. 69–70, inscription (iv).
32. ibid. 125.
Ogam Inscriptions 289
Ogam, by its nature, does not lend itself to the use of dots or crosses to differentiate words, unlike the later corpus of Latin-letter inscribed stones from
Munster and Britain. Dots would, in all likelihood, be confused with vowels;
and crosses, challenging to carve at the arris, might also be confused with certain
scores of forfeda. The graphic use of space is the logical way to differentiate between words in an ogam inscription. McManus finds no evidence for punctuation or word division in ogam inscriptions.33 He does note, however, that scholastic ogams, normally written horizontally from left to right and in accord with
manuscript conventions, sometimes use an arrowhead as a word separator.34
He is not alone in holding that there is no word division in the ogam corpus.
Saenger contends that the ogam inscriptions in Ireland and Britain were written
in scriptura continua: bilingual inscriptions in aerated Latin text; ogam in scriptura continua.35 He does not state how he arrived at these conclusions. Okasha
also believes that word separation does not occur in ogam, but she appears unwilling to state that outright. It seems, then, that McManus, Saenger, and
Okasha think there is no evidence for word separation in the ogam epigraphic
corpus. However, such generalisations are hazardous in the case of a large and
widely dispersed corpus and limited field- and museum-work. We know that
McManus conducted such enquiries extensively but it is uncertain whether the
measurements and analysis necessary to establish the presence (or absence) of
word separation were undertaken as part of his research. As I now show, the
graphic convention of space is used in the ogam corpus to differentiate between
Not all examples of an epigraphic corpus may be suitable for word separation
analysis.36 In the case of the ogam corpus, some inscriptions may consist of only
one word; others are too damaged to determine separation; and, of course, the
inscriptions must be datable, at least within broad limits. When we combine
these criteria, the available data set is significantly diminished. Besides, once the
suitable stones are isolated, extensive, minute, and accurate measurements are required.
We find that, of known ogam stones in Ireland, only 247 with multiple word
inscriptions survive. Of these, forty-two contain multi-word inscriptions too
33. Damian McManus, ‘Ogham’, in Peter T. Daniels & William Bright (ed), The world’s
writing systems (Oxford & New York 1996) 340–41: 340.
34. ibid. 341; McManus, Ogam, 123.
35. Space between words, 97.
36. Okasha, ‘Spaces between words’, 340.
damaged to determine word separation. This leaves a data set of 205 potential
inscriptions. I have conducted extensive field- and museum-work involving the
measurement of spacing between the individual letter scores and between letters.
My initial analysis demonstrates that approximately 22 per cent of the surviving
multi-word ogam stones in Ireland indicate the use of aerated text or possible
aerated text. The ogams that exhibit aerated text are found in a variety of contexts (ecclesiastical sites, souterrains, open landscape) and their distribution
matches the spatial distribution of the corpus as a whole.
The inscriptions that exhibit differential letter spacing between words present
their own difficulties. One must determine whether the space between the letters
is greater than the spacing used in other parts of the inscription; and where there
are other instances of differential letter spacing, one must determine whether the
space between words is greater than or equal to that. For example, the inscription from Bunkilla, Co Cork, ANM MAQQ ( I )- LASIR […] E / K […] MA ( Q ) QI
BIRRAC(c)IAS37 exhibits aeration between ANM and MAQQI by using a space of 8
cm. This is double the average 4 cm spacing used between the other four instances of differential letter spacing within the same inscription. Therefore, we
can conclude that, because of the dramatic difference in spacing between ANM
and MAQQI, the lapidary intended the separation to be more evident.
It is also interesting to note that six of the stones displaying aerated text have
been dated linguistically by McManus to the later phases of ogam Irish: they
date from the middle of the sixth century to the early seventh. This is demonstrated by CIIC §118 from Monataggart, Co Cork: VEQREQ MOQOI GLUNLEGGET. It exhibits aeration between VEQREQ and MOQOI by leaving an uninscribed gap of 12 cm (see fig 4). McManus’s relative dating places this inscription in the late sixth to early seventh century.38 In addition, five of the stones
demonstrating aeration, for which McManus has not given linguistic dates, exhibit other stylistic and linguistic indications that are characteristic of a late date,
such as the use of X with the value of vocalic /e/ or the ANM formula.39
The ogam from Canburrin, Co Kerry, is an example of a linguistically late
stone (with the ANM formula) that also exhibits aerated spacing. It is inscribed
ANM CALUMANN MAQ [… (CIIC §229). It is post-apocope, and thus to be
placed from the middle to the second half of the sixth century.40 The inscription
37. This ogam was discovered after the publication of CIIC. The reading is mine.
38. McManus, Ogam, 96.
39. ibid. 79–80.
40. ibid. 80, 97.
Ogam Inscriptions 291
exhibits aeration between ANM and CALUMANN by leaving an uninscribed space
of 6 cm on the arris. It also exhibits possible aeration between CALUMANN and
MAQ, but this is less obvious, a gap of only 4 cm as compared to 6 cm. The linguistic dating of an additional five inscriptions, that exhibit possible aeration, to
the first half of the sixth century raises two questions: whence aeration in ogam
inscriptions, and did it come about at a much earlier date than our surviving
manuscript texts? If the initial use of aeration within the manuscript texts took a
century to evolve fully into canonical word separation, the same may be true of
The position of the aeration within the inscription may also be of significance
to its development as a graphic convention. Of the ogam inscriptions that exhibit aerated text (or possible aerated text), 37 exhibit it between the first two
words of the inscription. This is of possible significance in two ways. Firstly, in
inscriptions that exhibit aeration only once, the lapidary may have discovered
that he had insufficient space to fit the inscription and, at the same time, continue with aeration between words. The inscription from Monataggart (above) is
one such. Secondly, putting spacing or aeration at the beginning has the effect of
setting off or giving emphasis to the name of the person in the initial position.
This may be the person who had been the landholder, or forebear of the claimant, or his immediate relation, an important matter in the event of a dispute
over ownership of the land. One must place this in the context of McManus’s
statement that ‘the texts stress unequivocally the practical capacity of (the ogam)
inscriptions to strengthen the claims of the rightful heir’.41 Therefore, the clarity
of the inscription would have been paramount. Clarifying the name of the claimant’s ancestor in the initial position confirms the significance of ogam stones as
proof of land ownership, as the early Irish law tracts indicate.42
It might be argued that the ogams exhibiting aerated text were perhaps all
carved by the same lapidary and, as such, the spacing could represent a personal
preference. However, the stones that exhibit spacing of this kind are from several
different linguistic phases of the language and exhibit a wide geographic distribution. Thus they are well separated in time and space. It seems probable, then,
that the graphic use of space to differentiate letters was gradually adopted to clarify the reading of the ogam inscription as a whole. The reasoning for this development lies in the need for clarity in inscriptions that were important markers
41. ibid. 165.
42. Fergus Kelly, A guide to early Irish law (Dublin 1988) 204.
of land-ownership. Their significance in the laws of inheritance and title indicates that they were meant to be read and, therefore, the clarity of the text was of
primary importance. It appears, then, that developments in epigraphy in Ireland
came about through the physical characteristics of the script and the legal function of the inscriptions.
Different explanations have been offered for the adoption of word separation
in Latin manuscripts by the medieval Irish scribes. They range from the difficulty of non-Romance speakers with Latin in scriptura continua to the need for
increased clarity to aid in silent scribal reading and copying. Saenger has identified aerated texts as an important transitional phase between scriptura continua
and full word separation. However, the evidence of the Irish ogam corpus indicates that the adoption of aerated text began before the seventh century and long
before the surviving manuscript record. Evidence for aerated text in the ogam
corpus in Ireland may indicate its presence in manuscript long before the surviving evidence. It appears that aerated text was first used in ogam epigraphy, that it
spread from there to the scriptoria of Irish Latin scribes, and thence it was disseminated by Irish teachers throughout medieval Europe.43
43. I wish to thank the following: My PhD supervisor, Mr John Sheehan, and Dr Tomás
Ó Carragáin for comments and insights offered on my departmental presentation that formed
the basis for this article; and Dr Paul MacCotter, for advice and comments on its multiple
drafts. Unless otherwise specified, all photographs were taken by the author and are here reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland.
Ogam Inscriptions 293
Fig 1. (l.) Monataggart, Co Cork: VEQREQ MOQOI GLUNLEGGET, CIIC §118.
Fig 2. (r.) Monataggart, Co Cork, CIIC §118 (detail).
Fig. 3. (top l.) Portersgate/Hook Head, Co Wexford:
SEDAN[… …]TABBOTT AVVI DERCMASOC, CIIC §46.
Fig 4. (top r.) Monataggart, Co Cork, CIIC §118 (detail).
Fig 5. Monataggart, Co Cork, CIIC §118 (outline).
Courtesy National Museum of Ireland.