The Alphabet System

The Alphabet System is based on two historical sources -- first, mnemonic methods used in the very early Middle Ages by Irish monks, and second, the late medieval Irish literature on the Ogham alphabet, which was part of the training of Irish bards. Details of the first can be found in Mary Carruthers' "The Book of Memory," and you can get more info than you want to know about the second from George Calder's translation of the "Auraicept na n-Eces," a 14th century handbook of Ogham. As far as I know I'm the first person in modern times to catch the connection, though I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

I. The Original Method

Irish monks in the early Middle Ages used a memory system that had little in common with the classic "ars memorativa" developed in ancient Greek and Roman schools of rhetoric. They took a convenient fixed sequence of things -- the 150 psalms were a favorite -- and simply assigned one thing they wanted to remember to each part of the sequence in order. Simple enough, but it has its limitations -- mostly that you have to add a new sequence if you want to remember more than 150 things.

The Ogham alphabet was a set of 20 letters in the form of tally marks, divided into groups of five. The letters followed an idiosyncratic order: BLFSN HDTCQ MGNgZR? AOUEI. The basic Ogham assigned each of these to a tree. There were scores of other Oghams, which were groups of 20 things of some specific kind, with the initial letters of each spelling out the Ogham sequence. So you had the color Ogham, with "ban" (white), "liath" (gray), "flann" (red), and so on; you had the bird Ogham, with "besan" (pheasant), "lachu" (duck), "faelinn" (seagull), and so on; you had fortress Ogham, with the famous fortresses at Bruden, Liffey, Femen, and so on; and so on.

If those weren't enough, you could also make up Oghams using the division of the alphabet into four groups of five. For the first group ("aicme" in Irish), you had one watchdog for B, two watchdogs for L, three for F, and so on to five for S. For the second group, it was one to five greyhounds; for the third, one to five herd dogs; for the fourth, one to five lapdogs.

There have been all sorts of arguments about what this baroque collection of imagery might mean, but one thing that's clear to me is that it makes a helluva mnemonic system. Each set of images is linked mentally with 20 images representing information you want to remember. When you run out, you bring in another set, and since you've got the basic framework of the alphabet to fall back on, you can invent an immense number of sets at will. As long as each set has a distinctive theme (birds, fortresses, dogs, or what have you), they're easy to keep straight.

II. A Modern Method

The same thing can be done with the English alphabet. Drop X out, since very few words begin with it, leaving you a nice round 25 letters. Divide them into five groups of five: ABCDE FGHIJ KLMNO PQRST UVWYZ. Commit those groups to memory, and practice until you can name where each letter is at a moment's notice (J is the last letter of the second group, S the fourth letter of the fourth group, and so on).

Now start assembling your first few image alphabets. Like the Oghams, they can either assign a distinct image to each letter, or use from one to five of each of five images. So you might have a Middle-Earth alphabet: Aragorn, Bilbo, Cirdan, Denethor, and so on. Or you might have a college alphabet: one to five administrators, professors, grad students, undergrads, and janitors. The first type is easiest to work with at first, since you've got the initial letter to prompt you.

Once you have those, you can start assigning things to be remembered to your image alphabets. If it's a grocery list, Aragorn gets the flour, Bilbo the milk, Cirdan the onions, Denethor the nasty rubber novelties, and so on. If it's the presidents of the US in order, George Washington goes with one administrator, John Adams with two, and so on. Use all the standard tricks of memory images to make them stick -- you might have George Washington chopping down one college administrator as though the latter is a cherry tree, John Adams ladling great ladles of Adams Peanut Butter on two college administrators, or what have you. If you have particular administrators in mind for this sort of maltreatment, use them in the imagery -- it'll make it more memorable for you.