Friday, April 11, 2014

L Is for Language & Lore

#10 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

L: Luis, Rowan in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet. (See below.)

If you’re wondering what happened to the letters J and K, they are not part of the Scottish Gaelic alphabet. 

J is often approximated as an I (ex., Jesus, pronounced “Eesa”) or the sound “sh”, as in Shona, the Anglicisation of Seònaid [pronounced shohn-EHT], the Gaelic name for Janet. Se, followed by a vowel, is a “sh” sound. C is pronounced as a “k” sound, so why use the letter K? Actually, in orthography, the standardized system of writing a language, those two letters are pretty much latecomers.

Most languages were oral before finding a written form to approximate sounds. If one understands the rules of such a system, spelling is often much simpler to master. If you’re skeptical about this in English, well, we’ve adapted a lot of words from other languages which use different rules, hence all the confusion in how to spell or pronounce a word.

Beith, or Birch, 1st Ogham letter
The first writing system used for Gaelic, Irish and Scottish, was in Ogham, the ‘tree-alphabet” devised in possibly the 1st Century, although extant examples date from the 4th. Scholars dispute its origins; ogham refers to the script; the letters are referred to as the Beith-luis-nin, after the first letters, rather as we speak of the ABCs (although nin also means “forked stick,” similar to their shapes, so that may mean “Beith-luis letters.”)

Luis, or Rowan, 2nc Ogham letter
But these were used by the elite, whether scholars or seers. Most knowledge was passed orally from one person to another, the lore (learning) of daily life. This encompassed herb-lore, plant-lore, weather-lore—when you were a farmer or fisherman, that was vitally important—and information pertaining to various crafts.

Here’s some lore about the rowan:

Rowan Pomes
The rowan is very sacred in Scotland. The Druids saw it as a symbol of rebirth, using it on sacred fires and in herbal cures. The pomes (what look like its berries are actually small fruits) are used in wines and jellies; the wood for centuries was used for spindles and spinning-wheels. Planted near doors and houses, that might be one reason why it was called “the wayfarer’s tree,” although birds distributed the seeds, and it grows in high altitudes. It was most powerful when found near stone circles, where the fairies danced. Sometimes a seed will be dropped by a bird in a cranny where some dirt or dead leaves have accumulated in another kind of tree, and it will grow into a “flying rowan.”

Rowan twigs were used to ward off evil, often being placed above doors or carried on one’s person, as recorded in countless Scottish folktales. I vaguely remember Granny saying, “Alas, she realized that the rowan twig had fallen out of her pocket. Hoo she wished she’d mended it!” (This may have been when she was teaching me to mend; I preferred to go out and play.) 

I also recall, the first time I saw a mountain ash tree on a vacation trip in the Rockies, I thought it must be a rowan, and was confused when Mother said no and Dad told me that rowans are members of the rose family. They were right; people have been confusing rowans and mountain ash for years!

Whether or not you have a rowan twig in your pocket, may you become learned in lore!

Fox & Rowan


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