ᚺᛖᛚᛚᛟ ᛞᛖᚫᚱ ᚠᛟᛚᛚᛟᚹᛖᚱᛋ!
Hello dear followers!
Welcome back from summer vacation! Sabina here and, boy, do we have a treat for you today! Today, we’re going to talk runes! When people see this fascinating little writing system, they tend to think of Vikings, so I guess it makes sense that one of our nordic contributors write this post. For me, runes were the initial introduction to linguistics (though I didn’t realise that at the time), and they are still very dear to my heart, so if I get a bit caught up in it, please forgive me.
Though it might make quite a bit of sense to think about Vikings when seeing a runic inscription, the runic writing system actually comes in many varieties and was used in a number of Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet.
First off, let’s check out some things that differ between the Runic writing systems and the one we are using here today (i.e. the Latin alphabet). There are, of course, a number of them, but let’s check out some basic differences for now.
Let’s start with looking at the material on which most Runic inscriptions are found (it’ll be important in a sec, I promise): Rather than paper, most runic inscriptions are found on wood, stone, or even metal. This may just be due to easy access; it was certainly a lot easier to get a hold of a piece of rock than parchment in the days when runic writing was used.
Now, this is where the material becomes important: runes distinctly lack a rounded shape, most of them being angular. One could argue that this may just have been easier to carve into the hard surface, but some believe that the angular shape actually reveals something more about the origins of the runic writing system. You might be thinking, “it must be somewhere in Scandinavia” because you got hung up on Vikings. That, however, may be far from the truth (though, as in most things concerning historical linguistics, we simply can’t know for sure). Some argue that the lack of rounded shapes in the Runic alphabets may be an indication of an Old Italic origin (remember, Latin is an Italic script). Some Old Italic scripts, e.g. Etruscan or Raetic, share this angular property with the Runic alphabets, and some scholars argue that the Runic alphabets are derived from these, probably through early contact between the Germanic languages and the Old Italic ones. Some even believe that runes might actually derive from the Latin alphabet itself. So, while you might be inclined to think that there is a world of difference between the symbols used to write ‘ᚺᛖᛚᛚᛟ’ and ‘hello’, the symbols used in the former may be derived from an ancestor of the latter! (I love writing systems, have I ever said so? Well, it’s worth saying again).
Now, two more things to be noted about the Runic alphabets, before we dig into an overview of the ones that have been used: firstly, in the earliest Runic inscriptions, they didn’t have a fixed writing direction. This means that, unlike our modern script, the earliest Runic inscriptions could be written (and read) either left-to-right or right-to-left (trust me, you want to keep this in mind if you plan to study early runic inscriptions to any great extent. It can get really confusing otherwise, since the writing direction may actually change within the same inscription). It stabilized into a left-to-right pattern later on, though.
Secondly, word division is not commonly used. Basically, itmeansthatrunesarewrittenlikethis. Kinda hard to read, huh? (alright, I was kinda nice to you guys and put in some word division in my hello today but, really, something like this: ᚺᛖᛚᛚᛟᛞᛖᚫᚱᚠᛟᛚᛚᛟᚹᛖᚱᛋ would be more correct) Check out the Franks Casket, an amazing little relic with an Old Norse poem written in runes on it, here to see an example of how this may look. Actually, check out the Casket even if you don’t want to see this specifically; it is still awesome. Sometimes word division was indicated by one or more dots, but that was somewhat unusual.
Now, let’s dig into the most famous Runic alphabets, shall we?
Some of you may think that there was just one kind of runic alphabet – you’re in for a treat! There were, in fact, several. We will mention three today: the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark and the Futhorc. Notice the names are very similar? Well, that’s because the alphabets are named after the first six letters, which just happens to spell out ‘futhark’ (or futhorc).
The Elder Futhark is the oldest recorded variety of the runic alphabets, used approximately between the 2nd and 8th centuries AD. It consisted of 24 characters, typically divided into three ættir (compare with Swedish ‘ätter’ meaning ‘family/clan’), each ætt including eight characters, as below.
As you may know, runes were also considered to have certain magical properties, and the very word ‘rune’ means ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’. Though we won’t go into detail here, the first ætt is typically considered to be the ætt of the Norse fertility deities Frey and Freya. The second is the ætt of Heimdall, the guy who watches for the start of Ragnarrök (the end of the world, in case you missed the movie), while the third is considered to be the skygod Tyr’s1.
Now, the Elder Futhark eventually gave way to the Younger Futhark around the 8th century. The Younger Futhark is a reduced version of the Elder Futhark and only contains 16 letters. The Younger Futhark is the Runic alphabet most people think about when we’re talking Viking runes. However, even in the Viking-countries (i.e. the Scandinavian ones), the Younger Futhark varied. In Denmark, we can recognise so called ‘long-branch’ runes:
While in Sweden and in Norway, we see ‘short-twig’ runes:
Let’s complicate it just a liiiittle bit more because in Sweden, you have yet another set called the Bohuslän runes, used specifically in the west coast region (Bohuslän), north of (and including) the city of Gothenburg (coincidently, my hometown). Interestingly enough, this is a set of not 16 letters but 26; 2 more than the original Elder Futhark.
Alright, now that we’ve covered the Elder and Younger Futhark, let’s step over to the Futhorc. Notice the difference in name? Based on what we’ve said previously on language change and the early Germanic dialects, do you think you could guess who used these runes?
Do you have an answer in mind? Is it perhaps the Anglo-Saxons? In that case, you are absolutely right!
The Anglo-Saxon runes, or the Futhorc, is an extended, rather than reduced, version of the Elder Futhark. Instead of the Elder Futhark’s 24 letters, the Futhorc has between 26 and 33 letters (yeah, I know, but I can’t give you a definite number!). How they wound up in the UK (where you can find them on, for example, the Franks Casket mentioned above or the Kingmoor ring, which is inscribed with a magical formula) is still much discussed, though one hypothesis is that it was developed in Frisia. The language of Frisia, Old Frisian, is a closely related kin to Old English and, indeed, we do find that these runes were used also in Old Frisian. Another suggestion is that the Vikings brought them over and the Anglo-Saxons modified them a bit and then spread them to Frisia.
Anyway, the Futhorc was used from approximately the 5th century and was used in England all the way up to the 10th or 11th century. Its use was in decline from about the 7th century, and it largely ceased after the Norman Conquest. Despite this, you can actually see a couple of the old runic symbols tagging along during the Middle English era, as well, specifically the letter wynn <ƿ> and the letter thorn <þ>. Now, while these might look similar, do not mix them up! In Modern English, the former is the letter <w> while the latter is the digraph <th>, so you may get very confused if you do. Also, if you are to read a Middle English manuscript you might come across a letter that looks suspiciously like <y>. Don’t confuse that one, either. It may be either wynn or thorn, and the scribe just missed the line that connects the rounded shape to the vertical line. In fact, this kind of confusion is exactly where we get ‘ye’, as in ‘ye olde’, from.
Right, sidetracked. Getting back to it.
Anyway, the Futhorc looks like this:
Quite a difference from what we saw in the Elder and Younger Futhark, huh? Like everything else in language, variation is the spice of life; it just adds a bit of zest, don’t you think? (Though, admittedly, making it all the more difficult to learn.)
I’ve hammered you with runes for quite a bit today, haven’t I? I did try to restrain myself, honest, but runes are just so awesome, I couldn’t help myself.
Until next time, ladies and gents. I hope you enjoyed our little runic talk! Come back to us in two weeks when our amazing Riccardo will be here to talk to you about the endangered languages of Italy!
1Check out our reference D. Jason Cooper’s more in-depth account on the different ættir here
Most of our references today are from a marvellous little page called Omniglot. You’ll find our source regarding the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark and the Futhorc right there as well as some general info on the runic writing systems. Also, the original runic pics modified for the purposes of this post are to be found on Omniglot, in the links that have been provided. Take a look and be dazzled! Also check out the Futhark on ancientscriptscom, our second source for the different hypotheses regarding the origin of the runic writing system. Enjoy!