Origin and usage
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 runes
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.
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:
The name cweorð 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|
|Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!
Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme (blæd wide sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder bearme,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesiþas, þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten; lofdædum sceal
in mægþa gehwære man geþeon.
Him ða Scyld gewat to gescæphwile
felahror feran on frean wære.
Hi hyne þa ætbæron to brimes faroðe,
swæse gesiþas, swa he selfa bæd,
þenden wordum weold wine 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 wæs madma fela
of feorwegum, frætwa, gelæded;
ne hyrde ic cymlicor ceol gegyrwan
hildewæpnum ond heaðowædum,
billum ond byrnum; him on bearme læg
madma mænigo, þa him mid scoldon
on flodes æht feor gewitan.
Nalæs hi hine læssan lacum teodan,
þeodgestreonum, þon þa dydon
þe hine æt frumsceafte forð onsendon
ænne ofer yðe umborwesende.
þa gyt hie him asetton segen geldenne
heah ofer heafod, leton holm beran,
geafon on garsecg; him wæs geomor sefa,
murnende mod. Men ne cunnon
secgan to soðe, selerædende,
hæleð under heofenum, hwa 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.