Applegreen Blog

The Tree Alphabet

The Tree Alphabet

In ancient times in Ireland, before people used the letters and writing we use nowadays a form of writing called OGHAM was used. We can still see examples to this very day as it was carved on the sides of standing stones in monastic sites. Some of the carved stones are still there in places such as St Declan’s monastery in Ardmore in Waterford or St Brendan;s monastery in Ardfert on Kerry. There are more on display in the National Museum of Ireland and in the Ulster Museum. This form of writing was used for five hundred years from the fourth century AD.

However it came from an earlier form of writing called the TREE ALPHABET. This was based on native Irish trees well known to everyone in a country that was very much more wooded than it is today and had twenty letters.

They generally come from the Irish name of the tree. B is from Beith – the Irish name of the Birch Tree, C is from Coll – the Hazel tree and D is from Dair – the oak tree. The Alder, (F) the Scots Pine (A), the Aspen (E), the Hawthorn (H), the Yew(I) and the Rowan (L) all have their letters as do the Ash (N), the Apple (Q), the Elder ® the Willow (S) the Holly (T) and the Blackthorn (Z) or (Ss) although they may come from the names of those trees in Old Irish.

These we still describe as trees to this day and they account for 15 letters. What is interesting is what native trees are not given letters. The Arbutus musn’t have been widespread enough to merit a letter, nor the hitebeam. The other letters go to woody plants that are not trees such as Ivy (G), Bramble(M), Heather (U) and Gorse (O), which obviously had higher claims than real trees such as the Spindle Tree or the Guelder Rose or the Juniper.

Although how they decided to include the REED in the alphabet and give it a letter we don’t have now -Ng – is anyone’s guess.

The letters J, K, P, V and W did not exist in the old tree alphabet and with the exception of P still do not exist in the Irish language alphabet today.

B (beith) Birch
L (luis) Rowan
F (fearn) Alder
S (saille) Willow
N (nion) Ash
H (huath) Hawthorn
D (dair) Oak
T (tinne) Holly
C (coll) Hazel
Q (quert) Apple
M (muin) Bramble
G (gort) Ivy
Ng (ngetal) Reed
Ss (straif) Blackthorn
R (ruis) Elder
A (ailm) Scots Pine
O (onn) Gorse
U (ura) Heather
E (eadha) Aspen
I (iodha) Yew

Blog written by Eanna Ni Lamhna
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