From Runes to Inventing New Languages

The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they’d ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These rune-like inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of Finnegans Wake or even the languages J.R.R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 144

It’s interesting to note this explosion of linguistic energy among the newly-literate Irish. Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to language. We can’t seem to help it, we just keep on inventing new languages, whether on purpose or not.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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