Old English/Runes

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Origin and usage[edit]

Runic alphabets were naited by the Germanic peoples from the second century A.D. or earlier: that is, even before the Anglo-Saxons came to England. The runes naited 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 sundry Germanic cultures imported along with Christianity.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the two systems existed side by side for manifold centuries, with the Latin alphabet being naited 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 runes[edit]

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
Rune-Feoh.png feoh "wealth" f
Rune-Ur.png ur "aurochs" u
Rune-Thorn.png þorn "thorn" þ, ð, th
Runic letter os.svg ōs "mouth" o
Rune-Rad.png rad "ride" r
Rune-Cen.png cen "torch" c
Rune-Gyfu.png gyfu "gift" g, ġ
Rune-Wynn.png ƿynn "joy" ƿ, w
Rune-Hægl.png hægl "hail" h
Rune-Nyd.png nyd "need" n
Rune-Is.png īs "ice" i
Runic letter ger.svg ger "year, harvest" ġ
Rune-Eoh.png eoh "yew" eo
Rune-Peorð.png peorð (berth) p
Rune-Eolh.png eolh "elk-sedge" x
Rune-Sigel.png sigel "Sun" s
Rune-Tir.png Tiƿ "Tiw" (a god) t
Rune-Beorc.png beorc "birch" b
Rune-Eh.png ēo "horse" e
Rune-Mann.png mann "man" m
Rune-Lagu.png lagu "lake" l
Rune-Ing.png ing "Ing" (a hero) ng
Rune-Eðel.png ēðel "property" œ
Rune-Dæg.png dæg "day" d
Runic letter ac.svg ac "oak" a
Runic letter ansuz.svg æsc "ash-tree" æ
Rune-Yr.png yr "bow" y
Rune-Ior.png ior "eel" ia, io
Rune-Ear.png 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
Rune-Cweorð.png cƿeorð cƿ
Rune-calc.png calc "chalice" k
Rune-Stan.png or Rune-Stan2.png stan "stone" st
Runic letter gar.svg gar "spear" g

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

Provided below is a translation of the latin alphabet to runes (using unicode characters) of the Beowulf prologue:

Latin Alphabet Anglo-Saxon Runes
Hƿæt! Ƿe Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest ƿearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
ƿeox under ƿolcnum, ƿeorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghƿylc þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt ƿæs god cyning!
Ðæm eafera ƿæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat

þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hƿile. Him þæs liffrea,
ƿuldres ƿealdend, ƿoroldare forgeaf;
Beoƿulf ƿæs breme (blæd ƿide sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.

Sƿa sceal geong guma gode geƿyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde eft geƿunigen
wilgesiþas, þonne ƿig cume,
leode gelæsten; lofdædum sceal

in mægþa gehƿære man geþeon.
Him ða Scyld geƿat to gescæphƿile
felahror feran on frean ƿære.
Hi hyne þa ætbæron to brimes faroðe,
sƿæse gesiþas, sƿa he selfa bæd,

þenden ƿordum ƿeold ƿine Scyldinga;
leof landfruma lange ahte.
þær æt hyðe stod hringedstefna,
isig ond utfus, æþelinges fær.
Aledon þa leofne þeoden,

beaga bryttan, on bearm scipes,
mærne be mæste. þær ƿæs madma fela
of feorƿegum, frætƿa, gelæded;
ne hyrde ic cymlicor ceol gegyrƿan
hildeƿæpnum ond heaðoƿædum,

billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg
madma mænigo, þa him mid scoldon
on flodes æht feor geƿitan.
Nalæs hi hine læssan lacum teodan,
þeodgestreonum, þon þa dydon

þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
ænne ofer yðe umborƿesende.
þa gyt hie him asetton segen geldenne
heah ofer heafod, leton holm beran,
geafon on garsecg; him ƿæs geomor sefa,

murnende mod. Men ne cunnon
secgan to soðe, selerædende,
hæleð under heofenum, hƿa þæm hlæste onfeng.
ᚻᚹᚨᛏ! ᚹᛖ ᚷᚪᚱᛞᛖᚾᚪ ᛁᚾ ᚷᛠᚱᛞᚪᚷᚢᛗ,
ᚦᛇᛞᚳᚣᚾᛁᛝᚪ, ᚦᚱᚣᛗ ᚷᛖᚠᚱᚢᚾᚩᚾ,
ᚻᚢ ᚦᚪ ᚨᚦᛖᛚᛁᛝᚪᛋ ᛖᛚᛚᛖᚾ ᚠᚱᛖᛗᛖᛞᚩᚾ.
ᚩᚠᛏ ᛋᚳᚣᛚᛞ ᛋᚳᛖᚠᛁᛝ ᛋᚳᛠᚦᛖᚾᚪ ᚦᚱᛠᛏᚢᛗ,

ᛗᚩᚾᛖᚷᚢᛗ ᛗᚨᚷᚦᚢᛗ, ᛗᛇᛞᚩᛋᛖᛏᛚᚪ ᚩᚠᛏᛠᚻ,
ᛖᚷᛋᚩᛞᛖ ᛇᚱᛚᚪᛋ. ᛋᚣᚦᚦᚪᚾ ᚨᚱᛖᛥ ᚹᛠᚱᚦ
ᚠᛠᛋᚳᛠᚠᛏ ᚠᚢᚾᛞᛖᚾ, ᚻᛖ ᚦᚨᛋ ᚠᚱᚩᚠᚱᛖ ᚷᛖᛒᚪᛞ,
ᚹᛇᛉ ᚢᚾᛞᛖᚱ ᚹᚩᛚᚳᚾᚢᛗ, ᚹᛇᚱᚦᛗᚣᚾᛞᚢᛗ ᚦᚪᚻ,
ᚩᚦᚦᚨᛏ ᚻᛁᛗ ᚨᚷᚻᚹᚣᛚᚳ ᚦᚪᚱᚪ ᚣᛗᛒᛋᛁᛏᛏᛖᚾᛞᚱᚪ

ᚩᚠᛖᚱ ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚱᚪᛞᛖ ᚻᚣᚱᚪᚾ ᛋᚳᚩᛚᛞᛖ,
ᚷᚩᛗᛒᚪᚾ ᚷᚣᛚᛞᚪᚾ. ᚦᚨᛏ ᚹᚨᛋ ᚷᚩᛞ ᚳᚣᚾᛁᛝ!
ᚦᚨᛗ ᛠᚠᛖᚱᚪ ᚹᚨᛋ ᚨᚠᛏᛖᚱ ᚳᛖᚾᚾᛖᛞ,
ᚷᛇᛝ ᛁᚾ ᚷᛠᚱᛞᚢᛗ, ᚦᚩᚾᛖ ᚷᚩᛞ ᛋᛖᚾᛞᛖ
ᚠᚩᛚᚳᛖ ᛏᚩ ᚠᚱᚩᚠᚱᛖ; ᚠᚣᚱᛖᚾᚦᛠᚱᚠᛖ ᚩᛝᛠᛏ

ᚦᛖ ᚻᛁᛖ ᚨᚱ ᛞᚱᚢᚷᚩᚾ ᚪᛚᛞᚩᚱᛚᛠᛋᛖ
ᛚᚪᛝᛖ ᚻᚹᛁᛚᛖ. ᚻᛁᛗ ᚦᚨᛋ ᛚᛁᚠᚠᚱᛠ,
ᚹᚢᛚᛞᚱᛖᛋ ᚹᛠᛚᛞᛖᚾᛞ, ᚹᚩᚱᚩᛚᛞᚪᚱᛖ ᚠᚩᚱᚷᛠᚠ;
ᛒᛇᚹᚢᛚᚠ ᚹᚨᛋ ᛒᚱᛖᛗᛖ (ᛒᛚᚨᛞ ᚹᛁᛞᛖ ᛋᛈᚱᚪᛝ),
ᛋᚳᚣᛚᛞᛖᛋ ᛠᚠᛖᚱᚪ ᛋᚳᛖᛞᛖᛚᚪᚾᛞᚢᛗ ᛁᚾ.

ᛋᚹᚪ ᛋᚳᛠᛚ ᚷᛇᛝ ᚷᚢᛗᚪ ᚷᚩᛞᛖ ᚷᛖᚹᚣᚱᚳᛠᚾ,
ᚠᚱᚩᛗᚢᛗ ᚠᛇᚻᚷᛁᚠᛏᚢᛗ ᚩᚾ ᚠᚨᛞᛖᚱ ᛒᛠᚱᛗᛖ,
ᚦᚨᛏ ᚻᛁᚾᛖ ᚩᚾ ᚣᛚᛞᛖ ᛖᚠᛏ ᚷᛖᚹᚢᚾᛁᚷᛖᚾ
ᚹᛁᛚᚷᛖᛋᛁᚦᚪᛋ, ᚦᚩᚾᚾᛖ ᚹᛁᚷ ᚳᚢᛗᛖ,
ᛚᛇᛞᛖ ᚷᛖᛚᚨᛥᛖᚾ; ᛚᚩᚠᛞᚨᛞᚢᛗ ᛋᚳᛠᛚ

ᛁᚾ ᛗᚨᚷᚦᚪ ᚷᛖᚻᚹᚨᚱᛖ ᛗᚪᚾ ᚷᛖᚦᛇᚾ.
ᚻᛁᛗ ᚦᚪ ᛋᚳᚣᛚᛞ ᚷᛖᚹᚪᛏ ᛏᚩ ᚷᛖᛋᚳᚨᛈᚻᚹᛁᛚᛖ
ᚠᛖᛚᚪᚻᚱᚩᚱ ᚠᛖᚱᚪᚾ ᚩᚾ ᚠᚱᛠᚾ ᚹᚨᚱᛖ.
ᚻᛁ ᚻᚣᚾᛖ ᚦᚪ ᚨᛏᛒᚨᚱᚩᚾ ᛏᚩ ᛒᚱᛁᛗᛖᛋ ᚠᚪᚱᚩᚦᛖ,
ᛋᚹᚨᛋᛖ ᚷᛖᛋᛁᚦᚪᛋ, ᛋᚹᚪ ᚻᛖ ᛋᛖᛚᚠᚪ ᛒᚨᛞ,

ᚦᛖᚾᛞᛖᚾ ᚹᚩᚱᛞᚢᛗ ᚹᛇᛚᛞ ᚹᛁᚾᛖ ᛋᚳᚣᛚᛞᛁᛝᚪ;
ᛚᛇᚠ ᛚᚪᚾᛞᚠᚱᚢᛗᚪ ᛚᚪᛝᛖ ᚪᚻᛏᛖ.
ᚦᚨᚱ ᚨᛏ ᚻᚣᚦᛖ ᛥᚩᛞ ᚻᚱᛁᛝᛖᛞᛥᛖᚠᚾᚪ,
ᛁᛋᛁᚷ ᚩᚾᛞ ᚢᛏᚠᚢᛋ, ᚨᚦᛖᛚᛁᛝᛖᛋ ᚠᚨᚱ.
ᚪᛚᛖᛞᚩᚾ ᚦᚪ ᛚᛇᚠᚾᛖ ᚦᛇᛞᛖᚾ,

ᛒᛠᚷᚪ ᛒᚱᚣᛏᛏᚪᚾ, ᚩᚾ ᛒᛠᚱᛗ ᛋᚳᛁᛈᛖᛋ,
ᛗᚨᚱᚾᛖ ᛒᛖ ᛗᚨᛥᛖ. ᚦᚨᚱ ᚹᚨᛋ ᛗᚪᛞᛗᚪ ᚠᛖᛚᚪ
ᚩᚠ ᚠᛇᚱᚹᛖᚷᚢᛗ, ᚠᚱᚨᛏᚹᚪ, ᚷᛖᛚᚨᛞᛖᛞ;
ᚾᛖ ᚻᚣᚱᛞᛖ ᛁᚳ ᚳᚣᛗᛚᛁᚳᚩᚱ ᚳᛇᛚ ᚷᛖᚷᚣᚱᚹᚪᚾ
ᚻᛁᛚᛞᛖᚹᚨᛈᚾᚢᛗ ᚩᚾᛞ ᚻᛠᚦᚩᚹᚨᛞᚢᛗ,

ᛒᛁᛚᛚᚢᛗ ᚩᚾᛞ ᛒᚣᚱᚾᚢᛗ; ᚻᛁᛗ ᚩᚾ ᛒᛠᚱᛗᛖ ᛚᚨᚷ
ᛗᚪᛞᛗᚪ ᛗᚨᚾᛁᚷᚩ, ᚦᚪ ᚻᛁᛗ ᛗᛁᛞ ᛋᚳᚩᛚᛞᚩᚾ
ᚩᚾ ᚠᛚᚩᛞᛖᛋ ᚨᚻᛏ ᚠᛇᚱ ᚷᛖᚹᛁᛏᚪᚾ.
Nᚪᛚᚨᛋ ᚻᛁ ᚻᛁᚾᛖ ᛚᚨᛋᛋᚪᚾ ᛚᚪᚳᚢᛗ ᛏᛇᛞᚪᚾ,
ᚦᛇᛞᚷᛖᛥᚱᛇᚾᚢᛗ, ᚦᚩᚾ ᚦᚪ ᛞᚣᛞᚩᚾ

ᚦᛖ ᚻᛁᚾᛖ ᚨᛏ ᚠᚱᚢᛗᛋᚳᛠᚠᛏᛖ ᚠᚩᚱᚦ ᚩᚾᛋᛖᚾᛞᚩᚾ
ᚨᚾᚾᛖ ᚩᚠᛖᚱ ᚣᚦᛖ ᚢᛗᛒᚩᚱᚹᛖᛋᛖᚾᛞᛖ.
ᚦᚪ ᚷᚣᛏ ᚻᛁᛖ ᚻᛁᛗ ᚪᛋᛖᛏᛏᚩᚾ ᛋᛖᚷᛖᚾ ᚷᛖᛚᛞᛖᚾᚾᛖ
ᚻᛠᚻ ᚩᚠᛖᚱ ᚻᛠᚠᚩᛞ, ᛚᛖᛏᚩᚾ ᚻᚩᛚᛗ ᛒᛖᚱᚪᚾ,
ᚷᛠᚠᚩᚾ ᚩᚾ ᚷᚪᚱᛋᛖᚳᚷ; ᚻᛁᛗ ᚹᚨᛋ ᚷᛇᛗᚩᚱ ᛋᛖᚠᚪ,

ᛗᚢᚱᚾᛖᚾᛞᛖ ᛗᚩᛞ. ᛗᛖᚾ ᚾᛖ ᚳᚢᚾᚾᚩᚾ
ᛋᛖᚳᚷᚪᚾ ᛏᚩ ᛋᚩᚦᛖ, ᛋᛖᛚᛖᚱᚨᛞᛖᚾᛞᛖ,
ᚻᚨᛚᛖᚦ ᚢᚾᛞᛖᚱ ᚻᛇᚠᛖᚾᚢᛗ, ᚻᚹᚪ ᚦᚨᛗ ᚻᛚᚨᛥᛖ ᚩᚾᚠᛖᛝ.