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Old English/Runes

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Origin and usageEdit

Runic alphabets were used by the Germanic peoples from the second century A.D. or earlier: that is, even before the Anglo-Saxons came to England. The runes used by the Anglo-Saxons are known as the futhorc after its first six runes, which represented f, u, th, o, r, and c. It differs from earlier versions of the runic alphabet by the addition of runes to represent sounds found in Old English but not in earlier Germanic languages, such as the Old English diphthongs.

In all surviving Germanic languages, the runic alphabets were eventually displaced by the Latin alphabet which the various Germanic cultures imported along with Christianity.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the two systems existed side by side for several centuries, with the Latin alphabet being used for writing manuscripts, both in the Latin language and Old English, and runic often used as an alternative to the Latin alphabet in carvings, inscriptions, on coins, etc.

Two of the runic letters were used to supplement the Latin alphabet in manuscripts: the rune þ to represent "th" and the rune ƿ to represent "w"; these runes were replaced by "th" and "w" after the Norman Conquest.

An interesting aspect of runes, as seen in the table below, is that they are formed from vertical and diagonal strokes without any horizontal strokes. This served a practical function: it meant that when the runes were carved in wood, every stroke could be carved against the grain, making the runes clear and legible.

Table of runesEdit

The standard runes are given below. Each rune has a name with a meaning, unlike the meaningless noises ("ay, bee, cee ...") that we assign to our modern alphabet; the Old English word associated with each rune, and its translation in Modern English, is given in the table below.

The order of the runes is as given in the Rune Poem; variations on this order are known.

Rune Name Meaning Transliteration
  feoh "wealth" f
  ur "aurochs" u
  þorn "thorn" þ, ð, th
  ōs "mouth" o
  rad "ride" r
  cen "torch" c
  gyfu "gift" g, ġ
  wynn "joy" w
  hægl "hail" h
  nyd "need" n
  īs "ice" i
  ger "year, harvest" ġ
  eoh "yew" eo
  peorð (berth) p
  eolh "elk-sedge" x
  sigel "Sun" s
  Tiw "Tiw" (a god) t
  beorc "birch" b
  ēo "horse" e
  mann "man" m
  lagu "lake" l
  ing "Ing" (a hero) ng
  ēðel "property" œ
  dæg "day" d
  ac "oak" a
  æsc "ash-tree" æ
  yr "bow" y
  ior "eel" ia, io
  ear "grave" ea

The meaning of the word "peorð" is unknown. The Rune Poem has this to say about it: Peorð byþ symble plega and hlehter / wlancum [on middum], ðar wigan sittaþ / on beorsele bliþe ætsomne; that is: "Peorð is a source of recreation and amusement to the great, where warriors sit blithely together in the banqueting-hall." This is not sufficient to tell us what peorð actually was.

Some other runes were sometimes used to supplement the list given above. In the manuscript known as Cotton Domitian A.ix we find the following four extra runes:

Rune Name Meaning Transliteration
  cweorð cw
  calc "chalice" k
  or   stan "stone" st
  gar "spear" g

The name cweorð seems to have been formed in imitation of peorð, and has no actual meaning.