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  • 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.

This is an Ogham stone,

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    林宜悉 に公開 2021 年 01 月 14 日
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