Are Runes a Language?

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Are runes a language or are runes an alphabet?

Before answering this question, let’s define what we mean by language. Britannica defines language as “a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves.”  

Numerous sources, such as ThoughtCo, suggest that language is “what makes us human.” Out of all living things on earth, we are the only ones that have created a system that lets us express abstract ideas.

So far, so good. But as we explored in an article on What is Punctuation, defining something we use regularly is sometimes not as easy as we imagine it will be. For example, what are the specific requirements of a language? What must a language have to be considered a language? 

In Owlcation, Rodric Anthony argues that a language should have five elements: 

  • It communicates
  • Is originally arbitrary (a Spanish sí, a French oui, and a German ja all mean yes). 
  • Has a structure
  • Generates more words and ideas
  • And evolves over time.

So do runes meet all requirements? They communicated and were somewhat arbitrary when first created. Some could argue their meaning has evolved over time as people have used them to gain insights through divination. Others argue the change is a personal interpretation, similar to interpreting a poem.

But that is personal interpretation, not language evolution. Apostrophe usage, pronoun agreement, the Oxford comma, and even whether there should be one space or two before the period are some examples of current language evolution.

Are Runes a Language or an Alphabet?

Runes are considered an alphabet by most sources. They were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet. However, some scholars argue that the runes had a deeper symbolic meaning beyond their use as a writing system. So what is the rune alphabet meaning?

Let’s start with the word rune. What does it mean, and where did it come from? 

Its root is the Proto-Germain “rūnō,” which means ” secret” or “whisper.”  Rūnō is often shortened or written as “run.” The root “run” has similar meanings in other languages.

  • Old Irish Gaelic–secret, mystery, intention
  • Welsh–secret wisdom
  • Celtic–counsel
  • Baltic–speech

The Runic alphabet, which is often referred to as Futhark after the first six letters, has obscure beginnings. It’s possible that the Runic alphabet was derived from an early Greek script. Some of the letters are similar to those found in the early Greek alphabet. It could also have evolved from early languages used in Italy.

Several different runic alphabets exist.  The dates for these are approximations. 

Elder Futhark (160–700 CE)

The Elder Futhark, which was used in Scandinavia and other Germanic-speaking regions of Europe, is the first known form of the Runic alphabet. It’s likely that further variations sprang from it. 

The name comes from the first six letters of the Runic alphabet. The Elder Futhark has 24 letters, or runes, that are divided into three groups. Some letters are easily recognizable, but others bear no resemblance to the alphabet we use.

elder futhark runes

Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (500–1000 CE)

This variation is named after the first five letters of the runes. There are competing theories regarding the origin of these ruins. One is that they were developed in the area known as Frisia (or northern Germany), and then spread to Britain. The other theory is that the Futhorc was developed in Britain and then exported to Frisia.

Regardless, by the time of the Magna Carta, the Futhorc had been replaced by the Latin alphabet we use.

Younger Futhark (700–1200 CE)

Over several centuries, Younger Futhark, or “Normal Runes,” evolved from Elder Futhark. It served as the primary alphabet in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark throughout the Viking Age. But by the time most of Scandinavia had converted to Christianity around 1200, the Latin alphabet had mostly but not entirely replaced it.

Should We Think of Runes as Tools?

Runes are used today as spiritual tools, and the rune alphabet meaning is dependent on interpretation. There are numerous ways to read runes. Some select a few runes and meditate on how they affect them in the present moment. Others cast the runes, placing them on a surface divided into four parts. 

Interpreting the runes is a complex process, that cannot be covered in this article. This excellent article on Rune Magic explores various ways runes can be used as tools.  

Bottom Line

Are runes a language? I am tempted to answer yes. They fit the criteria that Rodric Anthony gave. People who read runes might interpret them differently, but don’t we do the same with poetry?

However, a language needs more consistency, and runes might not have enough consistency to qualify them as a language. I will split the difference and call them a quasi-language.

If you’re looking for more information on how rune origins and practice connect, Norse Runes Origins gives an excellent overview.

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