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The letters of the alphabets of the old Germanic peoples (Norse, Celtic) were called runes. They were also used in divination and magic. Unlike the English letters, they have inherent meanings.

Origins of the Runes

The Runic alphabet was created by speakers of Germanic dialects in order to write their languages. Although some scholars claim the runes to be entirely of Greek (Morris in Odenstedt 359) or Latin (Odenstedt 362) origin, most scholars view this alphabet as a script of mixed origin. Seebold5, Krause3, Jensen (571) and Coulmas (1996: 444 ff.) think that the Runic alphabet is a mixture of North Italic/Alpine alphabets with additional Latin influence. This most frequent school of thought is certainly more realistic than the monogenetic explanations provided by Morris and Odenstedt. Some letters are obviously Latin in origin, for example the runes for /f/ and /r/, others remind clearly--at least on a formal level--of Alpine letters, for example the /h/-rune. There are also symbols that could be either Latin or Alpine, for example the /i/-rune. Bernal (36) thinks that there was also some substrate alphabet involved; Miller (62) claims that the origins of the runic alphabet are archaic-Mediterranean. Both fail to detail reasons for their beliefs. In the same work, Miller also writes that the phonetic parameters on which the runic alphabet is based are ultimately clearly Semitic and links them to the scripts of Byblos and Ugarit as well as the Phoenician alphabet. Several different Runic scripts developed, including an Anglo-Saxon system that even had different symbols for /k/ and /c/ (modern English /tS/). The latter was symbolized by the old /k/-rune; a new symbol was created for Anglo-Saxon /k/.

Use of Runes

Runes were normally used for inscriptions in wood, metal, or stone. The runes consist mostly of vertical and diagonal marks, with notably less horizontal marks or curves (and in some versions of the runes, none at all). It is speculated that runes were designed this way to aid carving in wood. The words would be written along the grain of the wood, meaning all the marks were cut across the grain. This is good because cuts along the grain might cause the wood to split, or might close up if the wood absorbs moisture.

The earliest surviving runes are tentatively dated to about A.D. 200. These early runes up to about A.D. 650 appear to all use the same "futhark" with about 24 runes. Most of these older inscriptions are very short and cryptic, and in most cases it is hard to translate them or even be sure what language they are.

At later dates the runes varied from country to country. The size of the futhark declined to about 16 or 18 runes in Norway and Sweden, where the vast majority of the later runes are found. In England the futhark increased to about 28 runes (plus a few more only used for foreign proper names).

Almost all runes which have been decyphered were used for writing Germanic languages, such as Norwegian, Swedish, Old English, and in the case of many older runes, languages that appear Germanic but are difficult to identify more precisely. The only use of runes for identified non-Germanic languages I am aware of is a few Latin inscriptions written with English runes, or with a mixture of Latin letters and English runes. Perhaps there are a few other cases, but they would be rare.

Runes appear to have fallen into disuse around A.D. 1000 except in Scandinavia where they continued to be used for a few more centuries. There have been occasional revivals over the centuries, mostly by people wanting to seem old-fashioned in some way. The current wave of enthusiasm seems partly inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien and partly by New Age mysticism.


1Bernal, Martin, 1990, Cadmean letters. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

2Jensen, Hans, 1970, Sign Symbol and Script. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Translation of Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. 1958, as revised by the author.

3Krause, Wolfgang, 1970, Runen. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

4Miller, D. Gary, 1994, Ancient scripts and phonological knowledge. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

5Seebold, Elmar, 1991, Die Stellung der englischen Runen im Rahmen der Überlieferung des älteren Fuþark In: Bammesberger S. 439-569.

Was the first article actually written for Nupedia or copied from a reference work? Do we know who wrote the original version? --LMS i WROTE THE FIRST ARTICLE. Wathiik

I think Larry is complaining (as am I) that the reference numbers are unclear. Please use footnotes that reference directly into the bibilography of the article itself, and mark page numbers as such. I've given one example that I think is correct, but you'd know better how to match up the references. --LDC

The HTML code looks quite a mess right now, and I'm not sure how to integrate it into the article above, but here's the Runic alphabet courtesy of Unicode. The HTML is all laid out nicely in a non-line-wrapping monospaced text editor, I swear.

Rune Runic Letter Rune Runic Letter Rune Runic Letter
Fehu Feoh Fe F Wunjo Wynn W Berkanan Beorc Bjarkan B
V Haglaz H Short-Twig-Bjarkan B
Uruz Ur U Haegl H Dotted-P
Yr Long-Branch-Hagall H Open-P
Y Short-Twig-Hagall H Ehwaz Eh E
W Naudiz Nyd Naud N Mannaz Man M
Thurisaz Thurs Thorn Short-Twig-Naud N Long-Branch-Madr M
Eth Dotted-N Short-Twig-Madr M
Ansuz A Isaz Is Iss I Laukaz Lagu Logr L
Os O E Dotted-L
Ac A Jeran J Ingwaz
Aesc Ger Ing
Long-Branch-Oss O Long-Branch-Ar Ae Dagaz Daeg D
Short-Twig-Oss O Short-Twig-Ar A Othalan Ethel O
O Iwaz Eoh Ear
Oe Pertho Peorth P Ior
On Algiz Eolhx Cweorth
Raido Rad Reid R Sowilo S Calc
Kauna Sigel Long-Branch-Sol S Cealc
Cen Short-Twig-Sol S Stan
Kaun K C Long-Branch-Yr
G Z Short-Twig-Yr
Eng Tiwaz Tir Tyr T Icelandic-Yr
Gebo Gyfu G Short-Twig-Tyr T Q
Gar D X
Single Punctuation
Multiple Punctuation
Cross Punctuation
RuneGolden Number
Arlaug Symbol (Golden Number 17)
Tvimadur Symbol (Golden Number 18)
Belgthor Symbol (Golden Number 19)

The meanings of the runes are given on this page: