History: Runes

Runes are angular characters designed to be carved into wood or stone and were used in north-west Europe until they were superceded by the Roman alphabet. The Runic alphabet used by the Vikings was known as the futhark, after its first six letters. It was probably brought to the British Isles around the 5th Century AD and was modified to suit Old English through the addition of extra letters. The Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet is often referred to as the futhorc.

Lots of examples of runic writing have survived, including inscriptions on jewellery and weapons, official documents and even graffiti like that on the Piraeus Lion. Memorial runestones are particularly common in Scandinavia, where the futhark was used until around 1200. The picture on the left is a runestone from the Upplands region of Sweden dating from the 11 Century and dedicates a bridge to the memory of a dead woman. The inscription reads Gillög had the bridge made for her daughter Gillög's soul, wife of Ulf. Öpir cut [the runes]. You can find this stone and several others in front of the main university building in Uppsala, but closer to home the Ashmolean has two runestones either side of the shop entrance.

In England, the Roman alphabet began to replace the futhorc from the 7th Century when Christianity arrived, and the two scripts remained in use side-by-side until the 11th Century (with runes normally only being used for inscriptions or coins). The Anglo-Saxons also retained certain runic characters for sounds that had no equivalent in Roman letters. Thorn (Þ, þ) and eth (Ð, ð) were used for hard and soft th sounds, respectively, throughout the Old English period and wynn (Ƿ ƿ) was borrowed to represent the w sound. (In Old English texts you will also come across the character ⁊, used as the equivalent of the modern ampersand. This is not a rune, but is borrowed from a Roman system of shorthand called Tironian notes).

You can read more about the history and development of runic alphabets here, courtesy of omniglot.com. Also well worth a look is the website for the Kiel Rune Project, an academic project which aims at establishing a linguistic database of inscirptions written in the Elder Futhark.

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