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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

Ed. by Rutten, Gijsbert / Auer, Anita / del Valle, José / Vosters, Rik / Pickl, Simon

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Runology and historical sociolinguistics: On runic writing and its social history in the first millennium

Michael Schulte
Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0004


This paper argues that the rise and the transmission of the runes is largely determined by sociolinguistic factors. First, the older fuþark is identified as a unique Germanic design, adapted from Latin or Greek sources by one or more well-born Germani to mark group identity and status. Hence it is rather unlikely that the search for an exact source alphabet of the older fuþark will make a major breakthrough in future research. Second, the present author argues that the extension of the fuþark in the Anglo-Frisian setting is due to high-scale contact with the Christian Church, including Latin manuscript culture and Classical grammatical schooling, whereas these factors were almost entirely absent in pre-Viking-Age Scandinavia. The clerical influence is shown not least by “Christian inscriptions” in Anglo-Saxon England such as the Ruthwell Cross. Learned Christians recycled the obsolete runes to reestablish the phonological type of perfect fit – a situation which is diametrically opposed to the Scandinavian scenario. Typologically, therefore, the First Grammatical Treatise in Iceland is directly in line with the Anglo-Frisian extension of the runic alphabet, whereas the Viking-Age fuþark represents a counter-development with no clear influence of the Christian Church until the early 900s.

Keywords: runes; older fuþark; Anglo-Frisian fuþorc; Christian Church; Viking-Age fuþark

1 Aim and scope

Runic writing ‒ like any other type of writing ‒ is a sociolinguistic phenomenon with a human and emotional factor (cf. Coulmas 1989: 226‒227; also Sebba 2007). As writing is a symbolic system with great social significance, my present focus rests on socio-political structure and group identities in three different runic periods, viz. the Early Runic period and the formative periods of early Old English and early Old Norse. I argue that runic writing in the Early Runic period, AD 100‒500, served as a badge of identity and status rather than a tool of quotidian usage. Widespread runic literacy in the Middle Ages must therefore be due to a functional shift in the use of runes in the later periods (cf. Schulte 2012). Most importantly, the development of the Nordic fuþark and the Anglo-Saxon (or more broadly, Anglo-Frisian) 1 fuþorc will be contrasted as to the impact of external factors such as Christian learning and grammatical schooling.

2 Early runic writing – an early stage of literacy

The ability to write is a particular skill and a badge of status, whether the product of writing is legible and semantically meaningful or not. Even pseudo-script, the imitation of runes, is a central issue of runic writing although it is not always easy for us to distinguish between potentially meaningful texts, non-lexical sequences (formerly inadequately labeled “nonsense inscriptions”) and pseudo-runes (see Graf 2011; also Bianchi 2010). Since the 1960s, scholars of runology have been increasingly critical of the traditional propensity to favor magical interpretations of runic inscriptions (on the typology of “magical” runic inscriptions, both older and younger ones, see McKinnell and Simek 2004; MacLeod and Mees 2006). As the French scholar Lucien Musset has so cogently remarked, “the obsession with the magic of many runologists can be explained more from the psychology of the scholars than from the intrinsic content of the inscriptions […] for almost all [of these scholars] the aura of mystery which they ascribe to the fuþark was a supplementary attraction in an otherwise austere field of labor” (Musset 1965: 142‒143). Writing always has a touch of the magical, but not necessarily in the sense of enabling contact with the supernatural. It is the power of the written word to make visible and endurable what is otherwise transient and ephemeral, viz. the spoken word. The Danish runologist Erik Moltke (1985) saw runes as a practical means of communication, invented by Germanic speakers who recognized how useful a writing system could be for keeping track of orders, payments and stock, among other things. In a similar vein, Spurkland (2005: 3‒4) argues that runes facilitated a “growing administrative structure”, but the sources do not lend direct support to his or Moltke’s claim (cf. Mees 1999: 144‒145).

The rune shapes indicate a relationship to the working material wood. As illustrated in Figure 1 below, the older runes are normally made up of a combination of straight lines: long verticals or staves combined with one or more either short or long side-strokes or branches. These branches tend not to run horizontally – a tendency which is often assumed to indicate that runes were originally designed to be cut in wood. Horizontal (and curvilinear) lines along the grain are generally avoided as they would easily disappear (cf. Knirk 2002: 634–635; also Fairfax 2014: 205). This ‘woodgrain’ theory supports the idea that Early Runic writing before AD 500 favored wooden, hence perishable, materials which are now almost entirely lost. Testimony is borne by Venantius Fortunatus (c. AD 530‒609) in a famous passage:

Barbara fraxineis pingatur rhuna tabellis,

quodque papyrus agit, virgula plana valet.

ʻAshen writing-tablets might be embellished with a barbarian rune,

and for what papyrus manages, a flat wand will do.

(Venantius Fortunatus, Carmina VII. 18, 19). 2

It is noteworthy that the first of the two lines refers to the use of runes on the ubiquitous tablets of the time (Latin tabella, pl. tabellae ʻa flat piece of wood, boardʼ, also ʻa writing-tabletʼ), whereas the second line mentions the use of runes on wooden sticks (ON rúnakeflar), which in the poetʼs view could replace papyrus.

One of the rare examples of an early wooden object with runes is the Vimose comb (KJ 26) from Denmark with the succinct inscription harja from c. AD 160. This is in all likelihood a personal name linked to the army (cf. G Heer). But there are no clear traces that lend themselves to a comparison with the pragmatic use of wooden rune-sticks in later periods (cf. Schulte 2012).

It is uncontroversial to state that the older (also termed Germanic) fuþark was a functional script: a 24-grapheme writing system based on phonological segmentation and phonemic principles (see e.g. Miller 1994; Ohala 1994). If we disregard vowel length and the non-representation of nasals before obstruents, there was a (more or less) direct fit between the twenty-four runes and the phoneme system of the language of the older runic inscriptions, which may be labelled Early Runic (cf. Nielsen 2000). To some scholars, e.g. Derolez (1998), this runic system appears as a perfect fit between phonemes and graphemes. The theory of the perfect fit (otherwise known as the phonemic principle) claims that one and only one grapheme is used for one phoneme.

The older 24-grapheme fuþark.
Figure 1

The older 24-grapheme fuþark.

It is noteworthy that the older runic inscriptions reveal a number of oral features, some of which are paralleled by early, basically phonetic stages of children’s writing acquisition; hence the notion of oral traces in Early Runic epigraphy (see e.g. Schulte 2006a; 2008). A case in point is the second element of asu-gasdiz on the Myklebostad stone (KJ 77, c. AD 400) as opposed to hlewa-gastiz on the Gallehus golden horn (KJ 43, 400‒450), both reflecting Gmc. *gastiz, ON gestr ‘guest’ in their second element. The spelling of Myklebostad asu-gasdiz would suggest phonemically that the distinction between /t/ and /d/ after /s/ was neutralized as in fact it is in present-day English, amounting to an archiphoneme. As Miller (1994: 97) notes, the spelling sd captures the non-aspiration of stops after /s/, given that voiceless stops in Germanic are usually aspirated while their voiced counterparts are not. The same factor is evident, for example, in children’s English spellings such as ‹sdove› stove, ‹sbun› spoon, and ‹sgie› sky (see Treiman 1993: 144‒148). Another phonetic trace in Early Runic writing is the use of the ŋ-rune in front of velar obstruents, rendering the phonemic sequences /ng/ and /nk/, e.g. birgŋgu on the Opedal stone (KJ 76) from the 300s or early 400s.

Variable writing direction is generally held to be a feature of early literacy. For instance, the recently discovered Hogganvik stone from Mandal (c. 300‒450) in southern Norway has four lines, all running from right to left (see e.g. Schulte 2013), whereas the famous Tune stone from Østfold (KJ 72), southeast of Oslo, has an alternation between sinistroverse and dextroverse lines, the so-called boustrophedon (Greek for ‘ox turning’, i.e. ‘as an ox ploughs a field’, cf. Eythórsson 2012). Later runic developments in the Viking Age, e.g. the deliberate graphic simplification of the so-called Rök-runes, presuppose that the writing direction is fixed from left to right (see Loman 1965).

There are examples of mirrored runes, e.g. w, depending on the writing direction in the older runic inscriptions. Parallels to Mediterranean writing systems which represent an early stage of literacy are obvious; compare early Greek and Italic epigraphy with a variable writing direction (see e.g. Morris 1988: 36, 104). But runic writing has some characteristic traits of its own. The avoidance of letter-doubling manifests itself rather rigorously, sometimes even across word boundaries in contrast to Latin, Greek and Gaulish usage (for detailed discussion, see Fairfax 2014: 216). 3 Features of Early Runic writing can be summarized as follows:

  • 1.

    The writing direction is variable, i.e. sinistroverse, dextroverse or boustrophedon.

  • 2.

    Ligatures, so-called bindrunes, such as e͡k occur.

  • 3.

    Nasals in front of plosives remain unexpressed, e.g. hudaz = hundaz (KJ 10).

  • 4.

    Geminates (long consonants) are written with a single consonant, e.g. fino = Finno (KJ 6).

  • 5.

    Vowel length remains unmarked, e.g. lina = līna (KJ 37)

  • 6.

    The script usually runs without word spaces or word dividers (scriptio continua).

  • 7.

    Several runic variants, e.g. and < for k or and for e, can appear in runic inscriptions of the same period (cf. Imer 2011: 178; Imer 2015: 31–54; also Fairfax 2014: 208).

It is a puzzling task to derive the older 24-rune fuþark from any model alphabet, whether Latin, Greek, North Etruscan or Phoenecian (on the different theories on the origin of runes see e.g. Antonsen 1991; Knirk 2002; Düwel 2010; cf. also Fairfax 2014, with supportive evidence for a Greek origin of the runes). Fairfax (2014: 200‒219), in an insightful discussion, assumes a selection process of runic adaptation which is based on a kind of alphabetic substratum rather than a single source alphabet. Suffice it to mention the Gothic alphabet, otherwise known as Wulfilaʼs script, which takes its signs from at least two source alphabets and the principles and ideas from three different writing systems (see e.g. Ebbinghaus 1996; Raschellà 2011, with references). This comparison makes it likely that different letters and letter-shapes were recycled to produce a genuine writing system ‒ a Germanic design. 4 The adaptation process involves choices between graphemic variants and leads to a new overall design and structure. I therefore deem it unlikely that an exact model alphabet of the type required may some day come to light. The older fuþark is probably a unique design which responds to the social needs of the Germani in their earliest stages of writing. It should not be overlooked that the fuþark, once it was established, fulfilled sociolinguistic functions in Germania Libera as it created group identities and responded to social needs. As Coulmas (1989: 226‒227) notes in a broad sociolinguistic perspective,

The most visible items of a language, scripts and orthographies are “emotionally loaded”, indicating as they do group loyalities and identities. Rather than being mere instruments of a practical nature, they are symbolic systems of great social significance which may moreover, have profound effects on the social structure of a speech community. […] Language attitudes such as the desire to have an orthography which makes the language in question graphically similar to another or, conversely, makes the language dissimilar to another, may be irrational but they are social facts which often strongly influence the success of a proposed system.

Runic writing in the older period provided an extraordinary skill in society and was presumably elitist in nature (cf. Düwel 2008; also Lühti 2006). To judge from the earliest extant runic inscriptions, which mostly contain personal names and brief identifications, it is hard to imagine that runes have had any real practical function in Germania Libera and more likely served as badges of identity and prestige (pace Moltke 1985 and Spurkland 2005). The Roman-Iron-Age bogfinds from Illerup in Denmark seem to support a link between elitist status and early runes (see, e.g., Pauli Jensen 2003; 2011; on the dating of the Illerup and Vimose finds, cf. Imer 2011, 2015). As Ilkjær notes,

[t]he composition of the finds shows that the runes belong together with particular groups in the army. Nithijo and Laguthewa are both inscribed on shield hand-grips of silver, and are thus linked to the élite; Swarta is also on a shield hand-grip, but of bronze. Equipment of that material belongs to the upper 10%, but not to the very top level. The same is true of the indecipherable inscription on a chape, and Wagnijo, as we have already seen, was probably one of the leaders among the attackers (Ilkjær 2002: 116; italics M. S.).

When it comes to social and political structures, elite groups figure prominently in the archeological find material of the Early Runic period: large farms including halls, gold jewellery, brooches, imported objects with or without runic inscriptions, rich graves and magnificent weapons (cf. Axboe 2002; for a comprehensive overview of runic inscriptions on weapons, see Düwel 1981; Grünzweig 2004). A prestige function of the objects on which the major part of the inscriptions appears is almost beyond doubt (see Imer 2015: Ch. 3; cf. Lühti 2006, on South Germanic inscriptions). Very often our evidence springs from the elite, which had the economic resources, the contacts and skills to develop an independent ideology and iconography. As Wicker (2010) points out, however, it is not the elites themselves who established the iconography, but rather the artisans and craftsmen. This applies in particular to the manufacturing of the gold bracteates from the fifth to seventh century AD (see below). The relation between craftsmen and elites is an intricate one, and Wicker’s approach is probably more faithfully sociological than Hauck’s (as reflected e.g. by Axboe 2002; cf. Wicker and Williams 2012).

But who were the literates who fabricated the earliest runic inscriptions? It is impressive to note that of the more than 15,000 Roman-Iron-Age pieces unearthed from the Illerup bog in Denmark, pieces of Germanic weaponry and other military equipment, less than fifteen bear runic inscriptions, that is, not even one percent of the finds (Ilkjær 2002: 115‒116). Fairfax (2014: 188) assumes similar conditions in the Roman context and states that “the limited use of writing amongst the Latins in the earliest centuries of Latin epigraphy likewise resulted in very few surviving objects bearing inscriptions.” With reference to Wallace (1989: 123‒125), he suggests that writing and epigraphic use in both cultures were “acquired by the wealthiest families as a symbol of prestige”, and then spread beyond the circles of this elite group who had introduced it. The dearth of runic finds in the early period clearly supports the notion of a limited group of users ‒ probably a small number of well-born Germani in a setting without a public educational system or centralized bureaucracy to promulgate it (cf. Fairfax 2014: 189).

More broadly speaking, the impact of the Mediterranean, particularly the Roman world on Germanic culture and script seems obvious, and the Greek and Roman alphabets are indeed the most likely sources of the runic writing system. Fischer (2005) argues that the impetus of Roman imperialism triggered the invention of runic literacy in Northern Europe. In his view the invention of runic script was a pre-emptive reaction to the threat of Westernization. Following this line of argument, the invention of runes is an example of idea spread responding to the Germanic people’s needs, not least the marking of status and group identity (on this notion see especially Diamond 1997). A central group in this process must have been warrior elites and chieftains. As demonstrated by Ilkjær (2002: 116), runes belong with the upper level and the top level of the army, cf. Early Runic forms such as harja on the Vimose comb from Denmark (KJ 26, c. AD 160) and harija on the Skåäng stone from Sweden (KJ 85, 5th century) which are likely to reflect personal names. However, colloquial uncompounded names like harja, harija or swarta are certainly not enough to ensure the prestige and the status of the bearer (on this uncompounded type of names, cf. Schramm 1957).

As to the ῾Roman connection’, bracteates from the period AD 400 to 650 are a central group of evidence (cf. Behr 2011; Imer 2015; also Wicker and Williams 2012). Bracteates are thin gold pendants impressed from one side with decorative motifs, intended to be worn on a thong or other support around the neck. A major issue concerns the question as to whether their use was largely a matter of imitation in the North. As Wicker and Williams (2012: 169) outline, “[o]ne approach to understanding how bracteates were used is to examine the relationship between bracteates and their Roman prototypes since both the Imperial imagery and the Latin inscriptions on the medallions seem to have been imitated in the North”. Näsman (1998: 104‒105) went so far as to suggest that the “Roman connection” manifested itself in the Germanic adaptation of the way Roman medallions were used: local elites in central places of Germania and Scandinavia donated bracteates to demonstrate their power and status (cf. Behr 2011: 218‒219).

To sum up, the earliest sources and short runic inscriptions support the view that runic writing fulfilled the needs of a military elite, not least the consolidation of power and authority. The early Vimose and Illerup bog finds from Denmark indicate the destruction of large quantities of weaponry in watery deposition, but only very few objects contain runic inscriptions. The military nature of these depositions predominates from c. AD 150/160, and the major war-booty sacrifices stem from the late Roman Iron Age, i.e. the period of the Early Runic inscriptions. Considerations along these lines suggest that runic writing emerged in close contact with the Romans, or more broadly speaking, the Mediterranean world in the first or second century of the first millennium AD. 5 Given that knowledge of the runic alphabet in the Early Runic period appears to have been fairly widespread throughout Scandinavia, it is reasonable to assume that runes existed at least around AD 100 (cf. Barnes 2012: 2‒3), or possibly earlier (e.g. Fairfax 2014).

3 The transformation of the younger fuþark: reform or evolution?

In the history of runic writing, we are faced with two diametrically opposed events: the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc (or rather fuþorcs) to 31 (and more) runes on the one hand, and the reduction of the Scandinavian Viking-Age fuþark from 24 to only 16 runes on the other (on the Anglo-Saxon runes see e.g. Page 1999: Ch. 3; also Derolez 1990). Obviously, both the Anglo-Frisian and the Nordic system underwent an evolutionary development, but both processes are in sharp contrast. 6 Barnes (2012) is certainly correct that “reform” is a matter of definition, but this notion is a contradiction in terms unless we are dealing with a planned process “from above”. From my point of view, the weakness of Barnes’ systemic approach (in particular Barnes 2012: Ch. 7) lies in its total neglect of extralinguistic factors (cf. also Antonsen 1991: 156). Obviously, an internal account based on phonological change and the change of the rune-names is not sufficient to get to grips with these two diametrically opposed developments. In the following I will highlight the outer rather than the inner factors that contributed to these divergent developments in the Anglo-Saxon and the Nordic context.

Prominent examples of the extended Anglo-Frisian fuþorc include the ninth-century Thames scramasax, an iron sword inscribed with a 28-rune fuþorc, and the Vienna Codex also containing 28 runes (cf. Page 1999: 80‒81; cf. Figure 2). Looijenga (2003) discusses the Old English extension of the rune-row to over thirty-three characters, which means that she includes the manuscript traditions as well (on a concise survey of the Anglo-Frisian fuþorc, see McKinnell and Simek 2004: 19–21).

The Anglo-Frisian fuþorc.
Figure 2

The Anglo-Frisian fuþorc.

In her habilitation thesis, Waxenberger (2010: 541‒553) stresses that the “recasting of runes” in Anglo-Saxon England started long before i-mutation took effect around AD 600 and that it was the set of long vowels /a:/< Gmc. /ai/, /æ:/ < Gmc. /e:1/ and /a:n/ < Gmc. /e:1+n/ which were the “pivot for innovation” (cf. also Nielsen 2012: 57‒69, especially 62‒65). Waxenberger advocates a 3-phase-model for the extension of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc, which can be summarized as follows: (1). a pre-Old English transition from fuþark to fuþorc by way of regular sound-change (c. AD 400‒650), (2). an early Old English phase with some few new runes due to Old English innovations like palatalization and velarization processes (c. AD 650‒750), and (3). a later phase of deliberate extension and restructuring which results in the attested Anglo-Frisian fuþorcs.

In Waxenberger’s view, the final phase of this change is clearly influenced by Christian learning and the monastic environment owing to the cultural impact of Latin. Most importantly, the extension of the rune-row in phase 3 involves what Waxenberger (2010: 550) labels the “recycling of runes”, a conscious re-arrangement and extension of the fuþorc. 7 As this is central to the present problem of reform versus evolution, I quote the author at length:

The ‘reactivated’ runes (star-rune, yew-rune, [ing-rune; M.S.] and the rune no. 15) reveal that the Common Gmc. fuþark as the prerequisite for the OE fuþorc had already drifted away from the principle of the ‘perfect fit’. Yet, as an integrated part of the system, these four [sic] runes were not ‒ and possibly could not have been ‒ removed from the row. Their dormant phase came to an end when learned Christians rediscovered and redefined them to perfectly fit their needs ‒ both linguistic and religious. (Waxenberger 2010: 550; emphasis M.S.)

In several Northumbrian inscriptions (including the area of Northern England and the coast of South-east Scotland) up to three additional runes are used to reflect the fact that Anglo-Saxon had developed palatal consonants /ċ/ and /ġ/ before front vowels (as in OE ċiriċe ‘church’ and ġiellan ‘yell’), which were now contrasted with velar /k/ and /g/ (as in OE cuman ‘come’ and gāst ‘ghost’). More precisely, we should distinguish between primary fronting as in, e.g., ċiriċe ‘church’, ċinn ‘chin’ in front of which <c> is pronounced /t∫/ and secondary fronting (i.e. i-mutation of front vowels) where <c> is pronounced /k/ (probably semi-palatalized) as in cyning ‘king’ and cynn ‘kin’ (for further discussion, see Nielsen 2012: 66‒68). 8 In both the cases of /ċ/ and /ġ/, the existing runes were recycled for the new palatal consonant.

Waxenberger (2010: 581) notes that single rune carvers such as the designer of the Ruthwell Cross (c. AD 750) made meticulous efforts in transferring sound to sign and thus paved the way for the regular designation of sound-changes such as mutation and palatalization/assibilation (on the inscription, see Page 1999: 145–147; also McKinnell and Simek 2004: 19, 107–110, with further literature). Not only did the Ruthwell carver make sophisticated use of the runic system provided by the fuþorc (e.g. by recycling the obsolete yew-rune), but he also invented new runes such as the gār-rune (; see rune no. 29 in fig. 2) for the velar /g/ in order to extend the limits of the fuþorc. He also invented the rune no. 31 whose name is unknown. It appears in the word cyning ‘king’, where it designates the semi-palatalised /k/ resulting from a following front vowel produced by i-umlaut. Waxenberger (2010: 581) praises the Ruthwell carver’s ingenuity “that made insights into assibilation possible”. This account of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc ties in nicely with my own approach to the Scandinavian fuþark (particularly Schulte 2009; 2011), where a clear differentia specifica can be identified: the presence versus absence of the Christian Church as the site of Latin-based learning and grammatical schooling.

What strikes me personally is that the Ruthwell Cross which plays a prominent role in the present (and in Waxenberger’s) assessment, contains a portion of the Dream of the Rood (OE rod = rood “cross”), a most Christian Old English poem, written in runes. The speaker of the poem is the cross itself (see Page 1999: 147–148). It is revealing that almost all of the extant Anglo-Saxon rune-stones after AD 650 stem from Northumbria and come from an ecclesiastical context (see Page 1999: Ch. 10). 9 The symbiosis of runes and Christianity is a salient feature of the Old English runic traditions from the 650s onwards.

By way of contrast, the Scandinavian 16-grapheme fuþark was extended only later at the end of the Viking Age around AD 1000‒1050 and in the Middle Ages, with the so-called dotted runes and other new symbols (see Figure 3‒4). It is noteworthy that ‘recycled’ or ‘reactivated’ runes occur neither in the formative period of the Scandinavian younger fuþark nor later (see Figure 4). 10 In the North, the obsolete runes fall out of use and are discarded from the rune-row.

The Nordic Viking-fuþark (cf. the Ribe cranium).
Figure 3

The Nordic Viking-fuþark (cf. the Ribe cranium).

The medieval fuþork with an assortment of additional runes.
Figure 4

The medieval fuþork with an assortment of additional runes.

Under this perspective there can be little doubt that the advent of Roman-alphabet literacy and parchment literacy inspired the expansion of the fuþark both in Anglo-Saxon England around AD 650‒850 and in medieval Scandinavia after AD 1000. Note that the fourth rune of the older fuþark with the original name *ansuz received a new sound value /o/ due to regular sound changes both in the Anglo-Frisian and the Viking-fuþark, hence the altered labels fuþorc and fuþork, respectively (for a succinct overview, see Waxenberger 2010; McKinnell and Simek 2004: 19–21). However, as the Nordic change /a/ to /o/ in the name of the fourth rune pertains to the late Viking Age (c. 975–1050), we stick to the label Viking-fuþark.

The earliest clear attestation of a Viking-fuþark inscription is the Ribe cranium from Denmark (Figure 5), which is now dated prior to c. AD 725‒750 (see Søvsø 2013, also Stoklund 2010: 240). It needs to be stressed that the archaeological dating (on a dendrochronological basis) only provides a dating for the loss or deposition of the Ribe cranium which means that the date of the runic inscription must be earlier. Ribe provides us with a terminus ante quem for the rise of the 16-rune fuþark around AD 725‒750 (for more detail, see Stoklund 2010: 240‒41; also McKinnell and Simek 2004; Schulte 2006b).

Retouched photograph of the Ribe cranium, c. AD 725‒750 (Photo from Moltke 1985: 346).
Figure 5

Retouched photograph of the Ribe cranium, c. AD 725‒750 (Photo from Moltke 1985: 346).

As already suggested, these different trajectories in Anglo-Saxon England and in the North lend themselves to a sociolinguistic evaluation. In standard research, both the extension of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc to 31 (and more) runes and the numerical reduction of the younger Viking-fuþark to only 16 runes have been aligned with major ‘runic reforms’. Barnes (2012), on the basis of an internal linguistic approach, assumes that the rise of the Nordic fuþark also involved this type of conscious process:

The younger fuþark was the outcome of a process (in part, at least, probably a conscious reform) that led to a reduction in the number of runes. However and wherever this development started, progressed and finished, the new fuþark was rapidly adopted throughout the whole of Scandinavia, and by the beginning of the eighth century all, or virtually all, rune-carvers were using the same sixteen runes ‒ a remarkable example of unity in the apparent absence of a central authority to promote it (Barnes 2012: 63).

In his new book, Barnes (2012) tones down his former notion of a “groundbreaking reform” (e.g. Barnes 2003: 53‒54), but it will not pass unnoticed that he totally neglects the sociolinguistic dimension of runes (see particularly Barnes 2012: 58–59, in response to Schulte 2009). The late nestor of runology Ray Page sounded a note of caution in the Anglo-Frisian context when it comes to the argument of ‘reform’:

To move from a confused and varied stage of runic culture to a more rigorous and formal one, as implied by the concept of a ‘reform of the Anglo-Saxon futhorc’, certainly suggests that there was some sort of organization involved, and the Church is an obvious candidate. Yet the very concept of a reformed futhorc needs further scrutiny. How rigorous was that reform, as evidenced by the surviving inscriptions of later Anglo-Saxon England? Provisionally it is convenient to refer here to the ‘standard’ twenty-eight-letter futhorc, which is admittedly largely based on later, mainly manuscript, tradition (Page 2010: 145).

A general note of caution clearly is in order when we address the Nordic scenario. As I argued elsewhere, the Scandinavian fuþark lends itself more plausibly to a change from below, viz. an internally driven evolutionary process. First of all, I do not see such a sharp division between the older and the younger Nordic fuþark but rather a continuous development (see Schulte 2006b; 2011). I favor the notion of a diachronic continuum in the evolution of the younger fuþark whereas Barnes (2012: 54‒59), in a systematic comparison, relies on two distinct systems: an intact older fuþark versus a younger fuþark (cf. my methodological criticism in Schulte 2011). In my view the younger fuþark is not a radical departure from the practice of the older period, but on the contrary a fundamentally conservative writing system that relies heavily on the established conventions and writing principles until the Viking Age. This argument is reinforced by the unaltered structure of the Nordic fuþark in the Middle Ages which continues the older fuþark (except for the fact that the rune is moved to the final slot). Suffice it to mention B 38, a typical thirteenth-century fuþork with its structure inherited directly from the sixteen-rune Viking fuþark (see Figure 6). 11 We noted already that the fourth rune, a, shifted its sound value from /a/ to /o/ at the end of the Viking Age, hence the new label fuþork.

Fuþork-inscription B 38 from medieval Bergen.Reproduced by permission of Bergen Museum.
Figure 6

Fuþork-inscription B 38 from medieval Bergen.

The gist of the case is this: multifunctional runes made persistent headway in the late 500s and 600s. This convention, once it was established, led to further substitution processes based on this writing principle. Given that substitution processes (e.g. u for /y/ and t for /d/) became a firm principle and hence were a convention, the Nordic carvers were as faithful to their principles as the Anglo-Saxons to their re-adjusted perfect fit. For example, the u-rune () due to i-umlaut took on the secondary value/y/, e.g., in the Björketorp-form bArutR = brýtR ‘he breaks’ (KJ 97, around AD 600) and thus became multifunctional. This type of ambiguity is largely exploited in the Viking Age, but in my view this process has nothing to do with a conscious reform. It involves the reliance on well-established writing principles despite the extension of the phonemic inventory in a phase of on-going sound-change. To put it in a nutshell, the reduction of the younger fuþark is not a piecemeal affair, but rather an avalanche of interconnected changes guided by strict writing principles. 12

As noted, this situation is in stark contrast with the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc which re-establishes the type of perfect fit in a learned and skilful manner. From my point of view, this conservatism in the North can be ascribed to a low level of influence from Roman-alphabet culture ‒ a situation which is diametrically opposed to the Old English scenario as outlined by Waxenberger (2010). A writing system is always an analytical tool that gives insights into language structure (cf. Harris 1995: 64‒68). A knowledge of Latin and the Roman alphabet must have increased the phonological skills and the awareness of the Anglo-Saxon rune carvers such as the designer of the Ruthwell Cross (c. AD 750), who has been highlighted already. It comes as no surprise that the Anglo-Saxon trend towards the perfect fit of runic writing is paralleled by the OE scripting practices with the Roman alphabet which are also phonemic in principle (cf. Seiler 2014).

From my standpoint, the notion of ‘reform’ is a misnomer in the Nordic context. Historical reforms or rather attested attempts such as the First Grammatical Treatise, written sometime between AD 1125 and 1175, usually seek to improve the relation between speech and writing by adding graphemic markers (on the FGT, see e.g. Benediktsson 1972; Raschellà 1983). This usually involves a restructuring of existing phoneme-grapheme links together with the introduction of new graphemes or diacritic marks; cf. the First Grammarian’s notation of nasal vowels by new diacritics, and the redistribution of the grapheme ‹ß› in Modern Standard German. According to a manuscript, the Merovingian king Chilperic (AD 561–584), concerning himself with the reform of the alphabet, inserted the Greek letters Θ, Ψ, Ζ, Δ for /o:, æ, θ, w/ and promoted their use. 13 Deliberate reduction processes in the direction of graphemic scarcity where phonemic necessity or the phonemic principle would urge the users to extend their writing system are very rare and not clearly documented to my knowledge (cf. e.g. Daniels and Bright 1996). As far as I can see, the rationale of a Scandinavian runic reform imposed from above is without any clear historical parallel, whereas there are abundant examples of reforms that aim at unequivocal phoneme-grapheme links, a perfect fit, whether successful or not. The recent German reform belongs to this type of change ‘from above’, whereas the Nordic development that led to the younger fuþark, betrays different features. It resulted in the abandonment of phonemic distinctions and the creation of maximum contrasts; e.g. t henceforth stands for /t/ as well as /d/, and u stands for various rounded vowels, i.e. /u, y, o, ø/ both short and long. This line of reasoning is supported by the fact that no particular group of agents can be identified in the Nordic setting.

In this connection we notice another fundamental difference between changes in writing systems that occur ‘from below’ and those ‘from above’. Genuine reforms are only in part successful and they are often met with resistance. King Chilperic’s attempt to introduce the letter þ for the voiceless dental fricative failed and the First Grammarian’s suggestion of using diacritics for nasal vowels was not greeted with enthusiasm either. 14 History has told us that both attempts were unsuccessful and not least the history of English reforms is one of many unsuccessful attempts (see particularly Horobin 2013: 144–184). In the runological research literature reform looms large as an argumentum ex nihilo that guarantees a swift and efficient planning process (cf. e.g. Barnes 2003: 54, “a radical runic reform swiftly established throughout the whole of Scandinavia”), but as noted, historical reforms are usually much less efficient.

The contrast outlined between Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England in the 600s and 700s can be further elaborated. In the British Isles, different scripts came into contact and the Roman script was already in use in the seventh century. Page (1999: 212‒215) stresses the importance of the evidence of coins as they provide considerable numbers of individual examples with fairly precise dating and localization. One of the earliest pieces of evidence is the “Liudhard medalet” (c. AD 580) which reads LEV · DAR · DVS · EPS, in more or less clear Roman (see Werner 1991; Page 1999: 213). In Waxenberger’s approach, the Roman contact leads to a flexible and sophisticated use of runes in Anglo-Saxon England that surpasses even the possibilities of the Latin script:

The runic script constituted an extremely flexible tool that was in several ways more suited for writing OE than the Latin script with its centuries-of-conventions taken over from a completely different language; moreover, there seem to have been rune carvers/designers who not only made sophisticated use of this script, but were also linguistically versed enough to create new runes to capture even nascent changes in the sound system, such as the rune carver/designer of the R[uthwell] C[ross] (Waxenberger 2010: 585; emphasis M.S.).

In Scandinavia, the advent of the Christian Church belongs to a period when the younger fuþark had already been well-established for some centuries. The first Christian king of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth, had a stone monument (Jelling stone 2, DR 42) erected in the second half of the 10th century in memory of his pagan parents, King Gorm the Old and Queen Thyra. On side C of this stone can be seen a depiction of Christ together with a runic inscription extolling Harald as the one who “made the Danes Christians”, tani karþi kristną (see Moltke 1985: 207‒220).

The Roman alphabet is introduced rather late in the North as compared to Anglo-Saxon England. In Norway the alphabet was enlisted to record the vernacular by about 1100, after Óláfr inn kyrri Haraldsson’s reign AD 1067‒1093 (cf. Seip 1954: 1‒4). The oldest surviving manuscripts in Norway are from the mid-12th century, and most scholars believe that the practice goes back to the mid-eleventh century (see e.g. Haugen 2007: 225). Some legal texts were possibly recorded as early as in the first half of the 11th century, but few scholars set store by this tradition (cf. Knirk 1998; Haugen 2007: 231). As regards Iceland, the adaptation of the Latin alphabet to the Icelandic tongue was still in progress in the twelfth century, with the result that not all texts were unambiguous representations of the spoken word on which they were based (cf. Quinn 2000: 35). The First Grammarian in fact specifies legal texts as the site of significant misinterpretations due to ambiguous transcription practices (Benediktsson 1972: 214).

This demonstrates that there are at least two different tales to tell. As compared to the British Isles, no scenario of high-scale contact between Latin and runes can be assumed for seventh- and early eighth-century Scandinavia. The Scandinavian development between c. AD 550 and 750 betrays typical features of an unrestrained process with no feasible impact of language planning or the contact of scripts. As previously argued, a marked socio-cultural contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and the Nordic traditions is seen in monastic history and in the development of the scriptoria. As Looijenga (2003: 273‒274) points out, “England became closely connected with the Latin scriptoria, demonstrated by ecclesiastical runic monuments and an abundant use of runes in manuscripts.” In the British Isles there is clear evidence of a political cultivation of distinct scripts and textual communities before AD 1050, probably based on centralized scriptoria (see e.g. Gneuss 1972; Dumville 1993; Hines 1998: 293; also Parsons 1999). As we saw already, this period can be identified as phase 3 in Waxenberger’s approach (Waxenberger 2010: 541‒553).

In Scandinavia, on the other hand, parchment literacy does not have a cultural impact until the twelfth century. Authority in matters of textual production and exegesis in the early Middle Ages in Iceland and Norway still rested with the Church: due to their close association with authoritative written texts, the bishops and other clerics obtained a further elevated position. Needless to say, these clerical structures with their centralized scriptoria were not present in early eighth-century Scandinavia. As a matter of fact early monasticism left only few traces in Scandinavia, and the earliest church we have evidence for is at Birka in central Sweden, mentioned in the Vita Anskarii and therefore presumably dating to the ninth century (see Nyberg 2000 and 2004; also Brink 2004). The Corvey monk St Ansgar who died as Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen in 865 after travelling to Denmark and Sweden, is the best known among the small number of monastic missionaries in Scandinavia, and there is a gap during the Viking Age, until we reach some of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries who went to Norway, Denmark, and Sweden in the eleventh century (for details, see Nyberg 2000). It may also be mentioned in passing that the mercantile centers of Viking-age Scandinavia such as Birka and Hedeby were not yet established in the first half of the 700s when the younger fuþark emerged (cf. Ambrosiani 1998; 2008). It is therefore hard to imagine a historical site where an alleged reform might have been enacted.

The bottom line is that the supportive influence of the Christian Church can be identified as a differentia specifica between the two traditions that were compared in the foregoing: learned Christians such as the Ruthwell carver promoted the skilful extension of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc, whereas such agents were absent in Scandinavia at the time when the younger fuþark emerged. From a modern perspective, there was no remedy for the lost perfect fit of the Scandinavian fuþark until the end of the Viking Age.

4 Conclusion

The present paper addressed three central issues in conjunction with the runic writing system, all of which depend on social history and sociolinguistic factors: 1. Who were the agents who designed and promoted the use of the early runic writing system, the older fuþark, in the first or second century? 2. Which source alphabet did these agents rely on? 3. How is the fact to be explained that the older fuþark developed along divergent paths in two major settings of runic culture: Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia? As to the first research question, an upper stratum of warriors can be identified as a central group of agents in conjunction with the earliest runic finds. I argue that early runic writing was elitist in nature while the pragmatic type of runic literacy makes persistent headway in the Viking Age and in the Middle Ages. Despite on-going research an exact source alphabet of the older fuþark has not been found, and this is probably due to the fact that the fuþark design is unique and responds to the social needs of an elitist group of Germani.

As to the third research problem, I demonstrated that the genesis of the Old English fuþorc and the Viking-fuþark, cannot solely be accounted for on internal linguistic grounds. Socio-political and socio-religious factors are at issue. The Christian carver of the Ruthwell Cross, for instance, makes an ingenious effort to reflect the phonology of his language much like the First Grammarian on Iceland several centuries later. No such responses to the phonological challenges are noticeable in early Viking-Age Scandinavia. As I observed, standard accounts of the shift from the older to the younger fuþark remain conjectural unless integrated into a framework of social history. By way of conclusion, the symbiotic relationship of runes and the Christian Church is a key factor for the extension of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc which was largely absent in Scandinavia around AD 600–750 when the younger fuþark emerged.


I wish to thank PD Dr. Gaby Waxenberger for making available a cd-rom of her habil. thesis (see Waxenberger 2010 in the literature). I am also much obliged to Peter Trudgill, Joe Salmons, Þórhallur Eyþórsson, Fabrizio D. Raschellà, Jan Ragnar Hagland, Hans Frede Nielsen and two external reviewers for valuable comments and discussion. The usual disclaimers apply.


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  • 1

    The term Anglo-Frisian fuþorc is used as a cover term. Note that it is a disputed question whether the rune-row reached England from southern Scandinavia and was modified by the Anglo-Saxons and then re-exported to Frisia, or whether it came to England wholly or partly via Frisia (see Page 1999: 19–20). On the Frisian traits of the runes, see e.g. Nedoma (2014: 344‒345). 

  • 2

    For further discussion, see Page (1999: 100‒101), also Derolez (1990: 430). 

  • 3

    It is a debated issue whether nasal suspension before obstruents is on the same level of representation as the non‐representation of vowel length and consonant length, all of which have sometimes been interpreted as purely scribal conventions. Needless to say, nasals such as n, m, ŋ are existent as particular runic graphemes to cater for the corresponding phonemes, while the suprasegmental features of vowel length or consonant length can only indirectly be represented by way of double-spelling. For further discussion, see e.g. Williams (1994). 

  • 4

    One of the anonymous reviewers “wonder[s] if this would then automatically point to a single creator of the Runic script”. In my view, this is not necessarily the case, but the line of arguments outlined above certainly points to a historical scenario and a specific location, whether it can be retrieved or not. 

  • 5

    But it is still disputed whether or not the Meldorf fibula inscription and the Österrönfeld finds are to be accepted as genuine “runic”, i.e. “runes in the first century” (cf. Fairfax 2014: 189; also Mees 2006). 

  • 6

    Parsons (1999: 130) notes the likelihood that the Scandinavian “process of change was – at least in part – an evolutionary one”, which sets it apart from the Old English development. 

  • 7

    Waxenberger (2010: 552) leaves it open whether the graphic changes of the Anglo-Frisian fuþorc which finally culminated in the standardization of the rune-shapes were due to a monastic reform on a larger scale or a series of minor sub-reforms (cf. also Parsons 1999). 

  • 8

    Hans Frede Nielsen finds it hard to believe that there could have been a semi-palatalized /k/phoneme in Old English before i-mutated front vowels (cf. Nielsen 2012: 66‒68), and he is certainly right that a phonemic commutation test in a structuralist framework is problematic in this case. 

  • 9

    Parsons (1999) argues that the fuþorc flourished in Northumbria because it was taught by clergymen who were also literate in the Roman alphabet, and he mentions several runic inscriptions mingled with Latin letters, and inscriptions with two parallel texts, one in Roman characters, the other in runes, e.g. the Falstone memorial and the St Cuthbert’s coffin with an image of Christ and Mary (cf. also Page 1999: 142, 172). 

  • 10

    The occasional use of older-fuþark runes in younger runic inscriptions, e.g. d for the personal name Dagr in the Ingelstad inscription (ÖG 43) and on the 9th-century Rök-stone (ÖG 136), where older runes in a shorter section of the inscription are used as a cryptic device, does certainly not run counter to this observation. Like many other personal names in younger inscriptions, the older-fuþark d-rune is separated by word dividers (cf. Källström 2007: 50). 

  • 11

    Note that B plus inscription number designates a still unpublished inscription from Bryggen in Bergen, whereas the published corpus is found in NIyR. 

  • 12

    In a similar vein, Robertson (2011: 23) argues that the unconscious, universal tendencies inherent in the older fuþark are significant factors in the shift, but he does not elaborate this argument. 

  • 13

    On the orthographic reform of King Chilperic, see the detailed studies by Krusch (1932); Sanders (1972); Wagner (1976); also Bischoff (1990: 194). 

  • 14

    As for the FGT, Fabrizio D. Rachellà, in a personal email (dated 23.11.2014) remarks that the opposition in question (nasalization) was about to be neutralized in the lifetime of the First Grammarian: “As for the FGT, I’d just like to observe that the reason why the author’s suggestion to distinguish nasal from oral vowels in writing was not followed (as far as we know) by contemporary and later Icelandic scribes is, in all likelihood, that the nasality feature was about to disappear from Icelandic already in his times. In other words, nasalized vowels might still have existed in the First Grammarian’s own vowel inventory, but probably not in that of his children and even less so in that of his grandchildren”. 

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Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0004.

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Fabrizio D. Raschella
NOWELE, 2016, Volume 69, Number 2, Page 155

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