We’re not so different, you know?

Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”

With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!

The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change. 

The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to. 

One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist. 

Italic script. The image is taken from this article, where you can also read more about the history of Italic script.

As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned. 

On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.

The Ruthwell Cross, photo by Lisa Gotthard

In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.

Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice. 

ᚺᛖᛚᛚᛟ ᛞᛖᚫᚱ ᚠᛟᛚᛚᛟᚹᛖᚱᛋ!

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!