᚛ᚈᚑᚋ ᚄᚉᚑᚈᚈ᚜ and ᚛ᚑᚌᚐᚋ᚜

This is an Ogham stone, or “ogg-em” stone, depending on
whose pronunciation you follow. The carvings on here are from an alphabet
unlike anything else in the world, an alphabet that is literally
an exception to modern rules. I’m not talking about the Roman letters
on the face: I’m talking about the markings
carved into the corner. Those markings are in Ogham — it’s a way
of writing down the early Irish language with marks like these. There are only about 400 surviving stones
like this, found in Ireland and
the western parts of the UK. This particular one is about 1500 years old, and it comes from Devon
in the south west of England. It’s on display here at the British Museum. The inscription is a name. Ogham stones
are mostly used to record names, either as a tombstone or
as a marker of land ownership. You read this along the stemline,
along the corner. Each character is made of one to five markings,
which will all be on one side of the line, the other side of the line,
through the line, or on the line. When modern scholars started to analyse this
script, they wanted to write it down on paper, and they adapted it a little
to make it easier for them: they changed it so it always went left to right, and each phrase was drawn on
a horizontal line so you could easily tell which marks were on which side. Some Ogham inscriptions, on later stones or
on other artefacts, do actually carve their own stemline into a flat surface, so adding
that line in print wasn’t too much of a stretch. And after all, trying to fold a bit of paper
and sketch markings on the corner wouldn’t be easy to work with
for academic papers. And that left us, years later,
with an interesting technology problem. When it came time to encode Ogham characters
as 1s and 0s, to fold them into Unicode, the international standard for
how to display text on a computer: Ogham became the only language in Unicode
where a space is not a space. A space character, to a computer, has three
properties: it has a certain width, you don’t display or print anything in that width, and if your text has run out of room on a line, you can go back to the previous space character
and replace it with a line break. Now, there have been well-understood variations
on those for years. Two of those rules are flouted
all the time. You can have a non-breaking space, like the one
between a word and a French quotation mark. That space has width, it has nothing displayed
in it, but you can’t put a line break there. The word and punctuation must travel together. You can also have a zero-width space, which
sounds like a ridiculous idea, but it’s a good way to tell a computer that,
if there isn’t room, it’s OK to break a long string of characters
somewhere that it otherwise wouldn’t. These are all commonly used. But until Ogham was added to Unicode, the
rule that a space character must be empty had never been broken.
Why would it? It’s a space. Well, an Ogham space includes that stemline. The line doesn’t stop between words, because
the corner doesn’t stop between words. The space is not a space…
but it behaves like one. It can be replaced with a line break. If you spread an Ogham inscription
over two lines, the space character vanishes,
same as in English. Now, Ogham isn’t the only language that uses
a separator like this. Ancient Latin used an interpunct,
a middle dot, the same way. But in modern usage that is not a space,
and modern usage wins. Ogham is the only case where
modern folks have gone, yeah, okay, it’s a space that also
involves drawing something. It’s a space that isn’t a space. There’s been an actual argument about it, down in one of the mailing lists for
linguists and computer science nerds at the Unicode Consortium. The Irish contingent had some
very strong opinions. And the final ruling: yep. It’s a space that’s also a line. This is one of the things I love about linguistics:
an ancient script, carved into stones more than
a millennium ago, is an exception to a rule that
I never even realised was there. A space doesn’t have to be a space.


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