The Development of the Germanic Script

  'Kilroy was here' type inscriptions on cliff walls, large rocks and buildings grave stone inscriptions, often with who carved the runes

The Development of the Germanic Script


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College of Modern European Languages

Department of English












The Development of the Germanic Script



Irina Borovik

3rd-year student

Group #314







Chernivtsi 2010




  1. Introduction
  2. Runic Inscriptions

2.1 Characteristics

2.2 Types of runic inscriptions

2.3 Written records

  1. Ulfila`s Gothic alphabet
  2. Latin alphabet

4.1 General information

4.2 Written records

  1. Conclusion
  2. Sources


1. Introduction


When we speak about written language of germanic tribes, we mean, firstly, alphabets, which used those tribes; secondly, the main written records [1, 22]. An alphabet is a standardized set of letters basic written symbols each of which roughly represents a phoneme, a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semanic unit, and syllabaries, in which each character represents a syllable [3, 22].

The Germans, while creating their written records, used three different alphabets, which chronically changed each other [1, 22].


2. Runic Inscriptions


2.1 Characteristics


The records of Old English writing embrace a variety of matter: they are dated in different centuries, represent various dialects, belong to diverse genres and are written in different scripts. The earliest written records of English are inscriptions on hard material made in a special alphabet known as the runes. The word rune originally meant “secret”, “mystery” and hence came to denote inscriptions believed to be magic. Later the word “rune” was applied to the characters used in writing these inscriptions.

There is no doubt that the art of runic writing was known to the Germanic tribes long before they came to Britain, since runic inscriptions have also been found in Scandinavia. The runes were used as letters, each symbol to indicate a separate sound [2, 63]. This principle, however, was not always observed, even at the earliest stages of phonetic spelling. Some OE letters indicated two or more sounds, even distinct phonemes. The letters could indicate short and long sounds [4].

The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic alphabet, not to be found in languages of other groups. Runic letters are angular; straight lines are preferred, curved lines avoided; this is due to the fact that runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, bone or wood. The shapes of some letters resemble those of Greek or Latin, other have not been traced to any known alphabet, and the order of the runes in the alphabet is certainly original. To this day the origin of the runes is a matter of conjecture [2, 64].

The number of runes in different OG languages varied. As compared to continental, the number of runes in England was larger: new runes were added as new sounds appeared in English (from 28 to 33 runes in Britain against 16 or 24 on the continent). The main use of runes was to make short inscriptions on objects, often to bestow on them some special power or magic.

The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark (or fuþark, derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the same six letters). Runology is the study of the runic alphabets, runic inscriptions, runestones, and their history. Runology forms a specialized branch of Germanic linguistics.

The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 AD, and the characters was generally replaced by the Latin alphabet along with Christianization by around 700 AD in central Europe and by around 1100 AD in Northern Europe; however, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in Northern Europe, longest in rural Sweden until the early twentieth century (used mainly for decoration as runes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars).

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150 to 800 AD), the Old English Futhorc (400 to 1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (8001100). The Younger Futhark is further divided into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden), short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark), and the stavesyle or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Marcomannic runes, the Medieval runes (1100 AD to 1500 AD), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500 to 1800 AD).


2.2 Types of runic inscriptions


  • 'Kilroy was here' type inscriptions on cliff walls, large rocks and buildings
  • grave stone inscriptions, often with who carved the runes and who was buried, and also who made sure the stone was raised. (Later grave slabs or stone coffins were sometimes inscribed with Christian texts carved in runes)
  • religious/magic inscriptions: prayers and curses, formulas on charms, etc.
  • inscriptions related to trade and politics: There are many examples of trade communication: stock orders and descriptions, excuses for not having payed on time, trade name tags for bags or cases of produce, etc. The trade inscriptions are often carved on wooden rune sticks. Political inscriptions are to do with matters of the law, historical figures state that they were somewhere hiding from the enemy, secret messages to do with the fighting of wars, etc.
  • personal letters: love letters, greetings between friends, proposals, etc.
  • rude messages, similar to modern graffiti or sms today
  • Art and craft-signatures: Goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wood carvers, church builders, etc., often put their name on what they made. Objects also somtimes had names carved onto them either the name of the object itself, or the name of the person who owned it.

The origins of the runic alphabet are uncertain. Many characters of the Elder Futhark bear a close resemblance to characters from the Latin alphabet. Other candidates are the 5th to 1st century BC Northern Italic alphabets: Lepontic, Rhaetic and Venetic, all of which are closely related to each other and descend from the Old Italic alphabet [5].


2.3 Written records


The best known runic insctiptions in England are the earliest extant OE written records. One of them is an inscription on a box called the “Franks Casket”, the other is a short text on a stone cross in Dumfriesshire near the village of Ruthwell known as the “Ruthwell Cross”. Both records are in the Northumbrian dialect.

The Franks Casket eas discovered in the early years of the 19th c. in France, and was presented to the British Museum by a British archeologist. A. W. Franks. The Casket is a small box made of whale bone; its four sides are carved: there are pictures in the centre and runic inscriptions around. The around them, in alliterative verse, tellsthe story of the whale bone, of which the Cascet is made [2, 65].



The Ruthwell Cross is a 15ft tall stone cross inscribed and ornamented on all sides. The principal inscription has been reconstructed into a passage from an OE religious poem, THE DREAM OF THE ROOD, which was also found in another version in a later manuscript.

Many runic inscriptions have been preserved on weapons, coins, amulets, tombstones, rings, various cross fragments. Some runic insertions occur in OE manuscripts written in Latin characters. The total number of runic inscriptions in OE is about forty; the last of them belong to the end of the OE period.


3. Ulfila`s Gothic alphabet


We cannot leave unnoticed such important stage of RA development as Ulfila`s Gothic alphabet. It has got nothing in common with “gothic” variants of Romanticism period. The real Gothic writing system was used by the Goths on Gothland Island and later on the territory of Poland, Lithuania and even North Black Sea coast.



The Gothic alphabet is an alphabetic writing system attributed to Ulfilas (or Wulfila) which was used exclusively for writing the ancient Gothic language. Before its creation in the 4th century, the Goths had used runes to write their language. The new alphabet was created by Ulfilas for the purpose of translating the Christian Bible into Gothic, and it is largely derived from an uncial form of the Greek alphabet, though some elements have been borrowed from the Latin and Runic alphabets as well. Ulfilas is thought to have consciously chosen to avoid the use of the older Runic alphabet for this purpose, as it was heavily connected with ancient heathen beliefs and customs. Also, the Greek-based script probably helped to integrate of the Gothic nation into the dominant Greco-Roman culture around the Black Sea. The individual letters, however, still bore names derived from

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