The Tironian et…

Last week I had my last Irish language lesson at Level 1. Although I struggled to find the time to do anything outside the actual classes, and am consequently struggling generally with the language, I have enjoyed it a lot and do intend to go again next year to try to learn a bit more and get better at the basics.

One thing that came up in passing last week was the abbreviation “srl” which I’d seen a few times but although I didn’t understand it I didn’t ask – largely because there were so many other things I didn’t understand. Anyway, it turns out that “srl” is short for agus araile which means “and others”, so is the Irish equivalent of “etc” (et cetera in Latin).

In English “etc” can be abbreviated to &c, where the ampersand is a ligature of the e and t that make up “et” and so stands for “and”. After some googling and discussions on Twitter I learn that Old Irish had quite a lot of special symbols for abbreviations which are no longer used in modern Irish. In fact “srl” used to be “⁊rl” where the “⁊” is not a seven (7) but a Tironian et. It looks like 7 in modern typefaces but in older Irish script it looks more like the ligature “koto” found in Japanese (ヿ). Thys symbol is not entirely extinct – I’ve seen it a few times (e.g. above) and also on old post boxes. Here’s another example from a pub sign in Galway.

This is not a name, by the way. The sign means “bar” and “restaurant” (bialann = bia +-lann, the suffix “-lann” meaning place, usually an enclosed space, so it’s literally food place; the Irish word for “library” is leabharlann, srl.)

The Tironian et is one of the characters in a system of shorthand invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, the slave (subsequently freed) who worked as private secretary to Cicero (aka Marcus Tullius Cicero). This system was used extensively in monasteries until the mediaeval period, which explains how its use came into Irish through Irish monks. It went out of fashion when printing presses became widely available and the Tironian et is one of the few still in use in the age of computers – it does have a unicode and is available in various fonts that come free with most operating systems in use today.

I think one of the reasons I am struggling to learn everyday Irish is that I keep going off at tangents like this, something I tend to do in all kinds of contexts.

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