The History of English Podcast - Episode 25 Germanic Markings and the Runes

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This is episode 25, Germanic Markings and the Runes.

In this episode, we’re going to continue to look at the early Germanic tribes, but this

time around we’re going to focus on events in southern Germania.

We’re going to look at the southward migration of Germanic tribes to the Danube region, where

they met the Romans and eventually met the alphabet.

So for the first time, we can begin to examine the language of the early Germans in their

own written words.

But before I begin, let me remind you that the History of the Alphabet series is still


You can get it through iTunes,, and the website for the podcast,

And also, I wanted to confirm that you can use a credit card to purchase the alphabet

series through the website.

At checkout, there is a checkout with PayPal button, but if you click that, you have the

option of paying with a credit card if you prefer.

And speaking of the alphabet, let’s talk about Germanic writing.

Because in this episode, we’re going to move the story of the Germanic tribes forward a

century or so, to the time when the early Germanic languages met the alphabet.

But before I jump into this topic, I wanted to mention that I’m going to talk about the

Goths in the next episode.

I had planned on discussing them this time, but I’m just not going to have time to do


And the Goths are so important to the overall story of the Germanic tribes that they really

need their own episode anyway.

So next time, we’ll talk about the Goths.

But this time, we’re going to focus on the Germanic runes, which is the earliest known

type of writing in the Germanic languages.

And that means we have detailed written evidence of the Germanic languages, which allows us

to explore how they were using their words.

But in order to understand how writing was adopted by the early Germans, we have to turn

our attention southward, down to the region around the River Danube.

Because it was in this region where the illiterate Germans met the literate Romans and Greeks.

And just as we’ve seen before, writing is an acquired skill, and it was almost always

acquired through trade and contact with people who’d already mastered it.

And that was what happened here as well.

Now geography is kind of important to this episode.

So I think it’s helpful to begin by looking at the general location of the Germanic tribes

in the first couple of centuries AD.

Because the movement and migration of these tribes is a big part of this story.

So let’s get the lay of the land, and let’s begin by looking to the south to the River


The Danube originates in the Black Forest region in southern Germany.

And from there it flows north of the Alps in an eastward direction through modern Austria,

Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania and several other countries before it eventually empties

into the Black Sea.

The name Danube actually originated from an Indo-European root word, danu, which probably

meant river in the original Indo-European language.

And of course the river takes us back to the Balkan region near the origin of the original

Indo-European tribes.

The importance of the Danube for our story is that it generally marked the northern border

of the Roman Empire, and it was therefore the northern border of the literate world.

The area north of the Danube was barbarian territory as far as the Romans were concerned.

And we also know that this region north of the Danube was originally occupied by Celtic-speaking


In fact, the Celts are the Indo-European speakers who gave us the name Danube.

The original Indo-European word, danu, it passed through the Celtic languages and became

the name of the river.

But now, during the 1st century AD or Common Era, many of these Celtic tribes had been

overtaken or displaced by Germanic tribes moving in from the north.

And the best evidence we have of this comes from our old friend Tacitus.

The last portion of Germania is a general description of the various Germanic tribes,

including the general location of the tribes.

And this description provides a nice snapshot of the tribes at this point late in the 1st


Tacitus begins his description in the west, where he describes the various tribes along

the Rhine.

And that’s kind of important to us because that’s the area where the later Anglo-Saxons


Specifically, this is the West Germanic region of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Franks, and

the Jutes.

But what’s really interesting about Tacitus is that he barely mentions those names at


So it appears that during the time of Tacitus, the names of the tribes in this region were

quite different from the names that would emerge just a couple of centuries later.

For example, he doesn’t mention the Franks or the Saxons at all.

And those will soon become two of the most important and powerful Germanic tribes in

the north.

So it appears that the smaller tribes described by Tacitus later coalesced into larger tribes,

including the Franks and the Saxons.

Tacitus does make one passing mention of a tribe called the Angli in this region.

And the Angli were probably the ancestors of the later Angles.

But that’s about it as far as the Angli are concerned.

Tacitus also briefly mentions the Frisii, which was the name of the tribe that occupied

the region that came to be known as Frisia along the coast of the modern Netherlands.

And as you may recall, the later Frisians were neighbors of the Anglo-Saxons.

And there were probably a significant number of Frisians who joined in the later Anglo-Saxon

migrations to Britain.

But at this early date, the tribe known as the Frisii may not have been the same tribe

which would later be called the Frisians.

The early Frisii tribe had come under Roman rule by this point.

And eventually the Romans expelled many of the Frisii from this region.

And later flooding displaced most of the rest.

So this area of Frisia was largely abandoned for a while.

But shortly before the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain, this area began to be repopulated.

It was these later inhabitants who became known as the Frisians.

And their name was probably taken from this early Frisii tribe mentioned by Tacitus.

We don’t know if any of the original Frisii stuck around to become part of the later Frisian tribe.

It actually appears that most of the members of the later Frisian tribe came from neighboring

tribes, especially the Angles and Saxons.

And that’s part of the reason why the language of the Frisians was so closely related to

the language of the early Anglo-Saxons.

And it’s also why we still consider the modern Frisian language in the Netherlands to be

the closest thing we have to a sister language of English.

But as far as the original Frisii tribe is concerned, they’re probably the source of

the name Frisia.

But beyond that, we really can’t say very much about them.

Now after looking at the tribes along the Rhine, Tacitus turns his attention to the

south, to the tribes along the Danube.

And according to Tacitus, there was a mixture of Celtic and Germanic tribes in this region

during the later portion of the first century.

As we know, all of central Europe had once been dominated by Celtic tribes.

But as the Germanic tribes moved southward, they had displaced the Celtic tribes.

And by the time of Tacitus, some of those Germanic tribes had already settled in the

southern portion of Germania along the Danube, and therefore along the border with the Romans.

But Tacitus tells us that there were still Celtic-speaking tribes in the western portion

of the Danube region, in the region which contains the source of the Rhine and the Danube,

so basically southwestern Germany.

And he also mentioned that Celtic-speaking tribes lived further east along the Danube

near the Black Sea, so basically the region of modern-day Hungary and Romania.

So we still have Celtic tribes hanging on in those regions of the Danube.

But in between those tribes, the Germanic tribes had taken over.

Specifically, the two tribes in this region were called the Marcomanni and the Quadi.

In terms of location, this was the region north of the Danube, in the Bavarian region

of southeastern Germany and in the western Czech Republic.

Now these two Germanic tribes, the Marcomanni and the Quadi, were amassing a great deal

of power around the time of Tacitus.

The Marcomanni were the dominant tribe, and the Quadi were a smaller tribe in the same


The name of the Marcomanni was a combination of two early Germanic words.

The word marco meant borderland, and mani meant men, which is actually the same root

as the modern English word men.

So Marcomanni literally meant border men, or people of the borderlands, or frontier.

And that’s exactly what they were.

They were living at the edge of the German frontier in the south along the Danube.

Now the Germanic word marco, meaning borderland, can still be found in modern English if we

look for it.

For example, we see it when we refer to the Welsh marshes.

And it’s also the root of the name of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, which

we’ll talk about when we get to the Anglo-Saxons.

It’s also the root of the modern English word mark, as in to place a mark on something.

It probably originated in the sense of marking or labeling a boundary between one side and

another side, and it later took on a much more general sense, meaning any kind of impression.

And the noun mark later became a verb, as in to mark something up or down, like a sales


In Middle English, the sense of the word mark shifted again, and it came to mean a target,

as in hit the mark, meaning to hit the target.

And someone who could do that was a marksman.

And if I make a verbal note about something, I make a remark.

Of course, we have earmarks and bookmarks, watermarks, birthmarks, and question marks.

And an object which was set up on the land near the border was called a landmark.

A line which marks a border is sometimes called a line of demarcation from a Spanish borrowing

of the same Germanic word.

And the home of Danish people who lived in the border region of northern Europe came

to be called Denmark, meaning the Danes in the border region.

So all of these words come from that original Germanic word marco, meaning border.

By the way, that Germanic word has Indo-European roots, and the original Indo-European root

word produced a Latin word marca and a later variation margo.

Those Latin words give us English words like margin, again, meaning the border or edge

of something.

And later, French gave titles of nobility to the people who ruled the frontier regions.

This was the title of marquis, which later came to England as marquess.

The French also used that term marquis to describe a linen canopy placed over an officer’s


And American English later borrowed the use of that term to refer to a canopy placed over

the entrance to a theater or hotel.

So that Germanic word marco and its Latin cognate marca have given us a lot of words

in modern English.

And it gave us the name of this ancient Germanic tribe, the Marcomanni, which meant frontier


And that meant that they were living at the southern edge of the Germanic world, near

the Danube.

Now, at the time of Tacitus, the Marcomanni and the Quadi had only been in this region

of the Danube for a short period of time.

But they’d actually forced out a native Celtic tribe when they arrived.

The Celtic tribe was called the Boii.

And as these Germanic tribes moved in from the north, they began to call this land the

Boioheim, which meant the home of the Boii.

And the name Boioheim eventually became Bohemia.

And of course, from Bohemia, we get the later term Bohemian.

That term, Bohemian, was actually coined by medieval French, and it was used in reference

to the people who were called gypsies, which is now generally considered a pejorative term.

But the French thought that these people originated in this region known as Bohemia along the


And that’s the context in which the term Bohemian came to mean someone who is unconventional

or a nonconformist.

So the word Bohemian ultimately comes from the name of this Celtic tribe, the Boii.

And that word reflects a time when the Celtic tribes were still living north of the Danube.

But now, this region of Bohemia was occupied by Germanic tribes, the Marcomanni and the


And the Marcomanni weren’t really interested in stopping at the Danube.

They had their sights set on the Roman territory across the river to the south.

And they got their opportunity around the year 166.

In that year, Roman legions were returning from fighting in the eastern Mediterranean.

But when they returned, they brought a deadly plague back with them.

This wasn’t the bubonic plague.

It was an earlier plague of either smallpox or measles.

But it was devastating nevertheless.

At one point, it was killing 2,000 people a day in Rome.

Estimates are that about 5 million people died from this plague over a period of 14


The plague didn’t discriminate.

It killed Roman soldiers as well as Roman civilians.

And it probably caused the death of the Roman emperor, Lucius Verus.

And one of the consequences of all of this death was a severely weakened Roman army along

the Danube and elsewhere.

And it was at this point that that Germanic tribe on the north side of the Danube, the

Marcomanni, saw their opportunity to take advantage of the situation in Rome.

They formed a very loose alliance, which included that other tribe, the Quadi, as well as some

other Germanic tribes.

And at various times over the next several years, those tribes began to cross the Danube

into Roman territory.

From around the year 166 until 180, the Romans fought back under the leadership of Marcus


Today, these are known as the Marcomanni Wars.

And the Romans were ultimately successful in turning back those Germanic tribes.

Years later, these Germanic tribes migrated out of this region known as Bohemia.

And they traveled westward along the Danube into what is today southeastern Germany.

As these people arrived in the upper Danube region, they were called the Boivaris, which

meant Bohemians or people from the land of the Boii.

The land where the Boivaris settled in southern Germany became known as Boivaria, and eventually

it became known as Bavaria.

So the word Bavarian is actually cognate with the word Bohemian.

Both names come from the name of a Celtic tribe, the Boii.

And so just like the terms Teutonic and Germanic, Bavarian also has its roots in the name of

a Celtic tribe that once lived in the region along the Danube.

Now the events which I just described, the Marcomannic Wars, were extremely important

in the ultimate relationship between the Germans and the Romans.

Ever since their defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest over a century and a half earlier,

the Romans had allowed the Rhine and the Danube to serve as the border between Rome and Germania.

But now, the Germans had shown that those rivers weren’t enough to prevent an invasion

into Roman territory.

The Marcomannic Wars exposed a major weakness in Roman defenses.

And afterwards, the Romans stationed half of their legions along the Rhine and the Danube

to try to contain the Germans.

But as we know, this was only the beginning.

The Romans would spend much of the next three centuries trying to repel those invading Germanic


And in order to do that, the Romans had to withdraw their forces from far-flung places

like Britain.

And of course, that opened the door for the Anglo-Saxons to fill the power vacuum left

by the departing Romans.

So all of these pieces are connected, and they ultimately play a part in the arrival

of Anglo-Saxon dialects in Britain in the 5th century.

So after the Marcomannic Wars, the Romans attempted to shore up their defenses along

the Rhine and the Danube.

And since the Roman army had been severely weakened by disease, they began to rely more

and more upon the services of mercenaries.

And many of those Roman mercenaries were Germans from the other side of the border.

Occasionally, the Romans even allowed Germanic tribes to cross the border and settle in Roman

territory in exchange for their agreement to defend the border against other Germanic


This was basically the later agreement between the Romans and the Franks in the northern

Rhine region.

So from this point on, the relationship between the Romans and the Germans becomes more complicated,

and it also becomes more intimate.

The Romans weren’t just fighting against the Germans.

They were now routinely fighting with them as well.

And of course, they were actively trading with the Germans at the same time.

So we’re now seeing more and more contacts between the Romans and the Germans.

And as these contacts increased, we see more and more goods passing back and forth between


And as I mentioned in earlier episodes, we see words passing between them as well.

But we also start to see certain skills passing back and forth.

And one of those skills was writing.

Just as the Greeks had borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, and then the Etruscans

borrowed it, and then the Romans borrowed it, now it was time for the Germans to borrow


But this time, it happened in different ways at different times and different places.

No one knows exactly when the alphabet first passed to the Germans, but it probably happened

very early on in the region between the Danube and northern Italy.

A few episodes back, I mentioned a helmet that was discovered in modern-day Slovenia

in an area between northern Italy and the Danube.

It contained the first known Germanic inscription, and it was apparently written in a version

of the later Etruscan alphabet.

A version of that alphabet had begun to spread north into the Alps and the surrounding areas.

And this helmet, which dates to the 2nd century BC, probably represents the earliest contact

between Germanic-speaking peoples and the alphabet.

But the inscription on the helmet is in a later version of the Etruscan alphabet, so

it’s not runes.

Some scholars believe that this inscription represents an early version of the runic symbols,

but that’s never been definitively confirmed.

Even if the inscriptions on this particular helmet are not runes, it seems likely that

that northern Etruscan alphabet was gradually being borrowed by Germanic tribes in this

region between northern Italy and the Danube.

That Etruscan alphabet was being used by people in this region, and it appears that the very

early Germans picked up on this script through trade and other contacts around the first

couple of centuries BC.

The letters of this alphabet were already angular, but the Germans made some modifications

to make the script even easier to carve into wood and bone.

Specifically, they straightened the lines to make them easier to carve.

And this was the beginning of the collection of symbols which we know today as the Germanic


In addition to certain similarities between the Etruscan letters and the Germanic runic

symbols, there’s also a similarity in writing style.

Many runic inscriptions used the back-and-forth writing style which was common among the later


So, for example, some inscriptions go from left to right on one line, and then right

to left on the next, and then back to left to right, and so on.

This style of writing was also used for a period of time by the Greeks and the Romans.

It basically represents a transitional period of writing as these early people were shifting

from the right-to-left style of writing used by the Semitic people to the left-to-right

style which we use in the West today.

So given that these early Germanic runic inscriptions often did the same thing, that suggests that

the symbols were borrowed from one of these alphabetic scripts, with Etruscan being the

most likely source.

I should also note that some historians have noted similarities between the runic symbols

and the early Greek and Roman versions of the alphabet.

So even though the Etruscan alphabet is the most likely source given the geography and

the archaeological evidence, we can’t rule out the possibility that the early Greek or

Roman alphabet was either the original source or a contributing source.

Now even though it appears that one or more early Germanic tribes began to borrow the

Etruscan alphabet during the pre-Christian era, we don’t actually find evidence of the

actual Germanic runic symbols until the 2nd century AD, a few decades after the time of


So the fact is that we have this gap of two or three hundred years between the Slovenian

Helmet and the first runic inscriptions in Europe.

The fact that we have this gap means that there’s no physical evidence which enables

historians to follow the evolution of the script during this period.

And that’s why there’s still some debate as to the ultimate origin of the runes.

But why does this gap exist?

Why haven’t archaeologists been able to find the missing link between the Etruscan script

and the runes?

Well the answer probably lies in the material which was used, and also in the fact that

the runic inscriptions were used on a very limited basis.

The early runes were mostly written on wood.

And over time the wood rotted and decayed.

So very few runic inscriptions survived.

And most of the ones that did survive come from a later period when they were engraved

on stone or metal objects.

About 5,000 runic inscriptions survive today, most in Scandinavia.

Only about 70 survive from Anglo-Saxon Britain.

But over 95% of all surviving inscriptions date from a period after 550 AD.

Scholars have estimated that there are no more than 125 surviving inscriptions from

before this date.

And most of those only contain one or two words.

Interestingly, the first inscriptions which can be clearly identified as runes appear

in northern Europe, not in the Danube region.

So the thought is that the early runic inscriptions from the Danube region were mostly carved

on wood, and therefore haven’t survived the centuries.

Over a period of several centuries the runic writing spread northward, and eventually it

became more common to carve runes into stone and metal.

So these later stone and metal inscriptions in the north survive, but those earlier wooden

carvings in the south are largely gone.

Now, rune is a Germanic word, which meant either secret or scratchings.

And as we know by now, they were originally markings on wood or stone.

And we know where the word mark comes from, thanks to our earlier discussion about the

Marcomanni tribe.

So the runes were markings consisting of specific marks, which were derived from contacts with

literate people on the marshes or margins of the Germanic world.

And this contact may have included Germanic tribes, like the Marcomanni.

And since this was the beginning of Germanic writing, that makes it a landmark event.

All of that thanks to that original Germanic word for borderland or frontier.

Now as I noted, the early runes were used to write inscriptions consisting of only one

or two words.

And scholars have noted that some words occur over and over again.

One of those words is alu.

This word probably derived from an Indo-European root word, al, which meant to grow or nourish.

That Indo-European root word passed into Latin, and you might remember from an earlier episode

that it produced the word aliscera, meaning to grow or nourish in Latin.

Well that word produced later English words like adolescent and adult.

But that same Indo-European root word, al, also passed into the Germanic languages, where

it eventually produced the modern English word old.

So adolescent, adult, and old are all cognate, thanks to that common Indo-European root word.

Well it’s believed that this common runic inscription alu is derived from that same

root word.

And in this context it was probably used to refer to something strong or powerful, like

a fully grown person, as opposed to a child.

So linguists think that this word connotes a sense of security or protection when it

was used in these early inscriptions.

Another common word found in these runic inscriptions is the word lauca.

And this was a word which meant onion or garlic.

And we still have that word in modern English, in the word leek, l-e-e-k.

And it’s also part of our modern word garlic.

The gar part meant spear, and it comes from the fact that a garlic clove is pointed like

a spear.

And of course the second part is lick, which comes from that same root word, lauca, which

also gives us the word leek.

So why would the Germanic inscriptions regularly use the word lauca, meaning onion or garlic?

Well apparently the early Germans thought onions and garlic had magical properties.

It could fend off evil spirits.

So they would often wear a clove of garlic around their neck.

But in later times they would simply engrave the word for garlic, lauca, on a piece of

wood or metal or bone.

And they would wear that around their neck instead.

After all, it didn’t go bad like an onion or garlic.

But apparently it had the same mystical properties since it was the word for onion or garlic.

And that’s kind of amazing in itself, the fact that a written word for an object had

the same properties as the object itself.

And it shows a very advanced use of the written language by the early Germans.

Of course the idea that garlic fends off evil spirits is passed down to us today thanks

to the stories of vampires like Dracula and more recently Edward Cullen.

And where did Dracula come from?

Transylvania in modern day Romania, just north of the Danube River.

And if I had two hours for this episode I would point out the connections between dark

brooding vampires and the so-called goth look, which takes us back, at least linguistically,

to the goths.

And the goths also controlled this same region of Romania along the Danube.

So there are lots of connections here if we look for them, but we’ll have to save the

goths for next time.

Now let’s focus on the actual runic symbols.

There were 24 symbols in the early runic alphabet, if we can call it that.

And in fact this collection of symbols is named in the same manner that we name our


The word alphabet is named for the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

Sometimes we call it the ABCs, so we use the first few letters for the name of the entire

collection of letters.

And the name of the collection of runic symbols is derived the same way.

The first six symbols represent the F sound, th, the U sound, u, the TH sound, th, the

A sound, a, the R sound, r, and the K sound, k.

And when we put all those together, it produces the word futhark.

And that’s the name of the runic alphabet.

By the way, the specific order of the runes is established by later runic poems and runic

lists which have been discovered.

As linguists have analyzed the early runes from that period before 550 AD, they’ve concluded

that the runes were very uniform as far as the sounds they represent.

In other words, they don’t really observe regional variations.

And that suggests that the languages of the Germanic tribes during this early period were

still very common and uniform.

And though regional dialects were almost certainly starting to emerge during this period, the

runic inscriptions don’t pick up on any of those differences.

The one exception to this rule is the Gothic language in the eastern part of Germania.

Now as I noted earlier, I’m going to focus on the Goths and their language next time.

But for now, there’s one aspect of the Gothic language that I want to look at.

You may recall from the episode on Germanic grammar that the original Germanic language

had a sound that was somewhere between a sibilant S or Z sound and an R sound.

There was an earlier Z sound which eventually shifted to an R sound.

And this sound was right in the middle of that change during the early Germanic period.

And you might remember that we see remnants of that change in English in words like was

and were, and most and more.

Well that sound shift never happened in the Gothic language.

The Goths retained that original Z sound and it never shifted to the R.

And that’s part of the reason why we know the eastern Germanic tribes like the Goths

separated from the western and northern tribes pretty early on.

Their language has some unique characteristics.

When we look at the runic alphabet, we see two runic symbols which represent the R sound.

There’s one symbol for the traditional R sound, and that’s the R sound in Futhark,

which is the name of the runic alphabet.

And there’s also a separate symbol for a sound between the Z and the R sounds, which

is called Algiz.

The second symbol represents that in-between sound that was in transition between the original

Germanic Z sound and the later R sound.

And the fact that this sound has its own runic symbol is important for two reasons.

It tells us that that sound was in transition when the first Germans developed the runes.

But it also tells us that the runes were developed by Germans speaking the western or northern

dialects where this in-between sound existed.

And so we can reasonably conclude that the Gothic dialect had become distinct from the

western and northern dialects by the time runic writing was developed, because the runes

reflect a sound shift that never happened in the east among the Goths.

By the way, there are two different runic symbols for the I sound as well.

And from this, linguists have concluded that the early Germanic language had two separate

I sounds which later merged into a single I sound by the middle of the first century,

so around the time of Tacitus.

And this is another piece of evidence that the first runes must date from this earlier

period when the sounds were still distinct.

So these early runic inscriptions were very limited, consisting of only a word or two.

Now the runes were basically an alphabet, so theoretically they could have been used

to write anything, from complicated legal codes, to religious texts, to detailed histories.

But they were never really used in that way.

They were only used for short markings and inscriptions.

However, they did become more advanced over time.

And by the time we get to the Anglo-Saxons around the 7th or 8th century, we can see

much longer inscriptions.

One of the best examples of this is a runic inscription on an Anglo-Saxon cross called

the Ruthwell Cross.

It’s located in modern-day Scotland, but during the time of the Anglo-Saxons, the region

was part of the Anglican kingdom of Northumbria.

The cross is a large stone cross which dates from the 7th or 8th century, and it contains

inscriptions in both Latin and Germanic runes.

The runic symbols follow along the edges of the vertical base of the cross.

The runic inscription is actually part of an Anglo-Saxon poem called The Dream of the


The poem describes the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the cross itself.

And to get an idea of how detailed this inscription is, let me read a modern translation of the


By the way, this translation comes via the BBC’s website.

And it reads,

God Almighty stripped himself When he wished to climb the cross

Bold before all men To bow I dared not

But had to stand firm.

I held high the great King Heaven’s Lord

I dared not bend Men mocked us both together

I was slick with blood Sprung from the man’s side

Christ was on the cross But then quick ones came from afar

Nobles all together I beheld it all

I was hit hard with grief I bowed to the warrior’s hands

Wounded with spears They laid him, limb weary

At his body’s head they stood There they looked to Heaven’s Lord.

So from this inscription you can see what the runes were capable of.

Now modern English is much more wordy than Old English, and by that I mean that modern

English translations often require a lot more words to express the same idea as the

original Old English words.

And that’s partly because English has lost a lot of those inflections which used to do

so much work in Old English.

So the actual inscription on the Ruthwell Cross is not as long as it may seem from the

translation I just read to you.

But it’s still quite long nevertheless, and it certainly is much longer than those

original one or two word inscriptions.

Now one last note about the runes before I conclude this episode.

You may be wondering why all of this discussion of runes is so important to English.

After all, we don’t write with runes today.

Well the answer lies in the fact that the original English Saxons did use the runes.

But more importantly, the original Old English alphabet mixed in letters derived from runes

with the letters borrowed from the Romans.

And that’s another reason why it’s so difficult to read Old English text.

They used a lot of letters which we don’t use anymore.

And it wasn’t really until the Norman French arrived after 1066 that the runic letters

began to be purged.

The Normans had no use for the Germanic letters, so over a period of several centuries they

got rid of them.

So you can still see some of those runic letters well into the Middle English period.

But those old runic letters do sometimes show up in modern English in funny ways.

For example, the Anglo-Saxons had two separate runic letters for the TH sound.

They recognized certain differences in the TH sound.

For example, the difference between THE and THANK.

The TH sound in THANK is more pronounced and the tongue moves forward between the teeth

to achieve that sound.

Well this resulted in two different Old English letters.

One of those letters was called the THORN.

And it looks sort of like a modern letter P.

Just take the loop at the top of the P and slide it down the stem about half way.

So the Old English version of the word THE, T-H-E, was actually spelled THORN, E.

But after printing was developed in Europe and spread to the British Isles, the medieval

printers didn’t have a letter for THORN.

But at this point the shape had evolved a little bit, becoming a little more angular

and curvy.

And the early printers thought it looked a lot like the early letter Y.

So they just used the letter Y for the Old English letter THORN.

And we still see that when we see places named YE OLD SHOP or whatever.

The fact is, English never used the word YE as an article to mean THE.

That’s simply a mistake people have made through the years when they see the spelling


They don’t realize that the Y is supposed to represent the TH sound.

And it’s only there because printers didn’t have that runic letter THORN.

So with that, I’m going to conclude this episode about the Germanic runes.

Next time, I’m going to finally focus on the Goths and their language.

And I’m going to explore the Gothic language by comparing it to Old English.

So I’m going to have to practice my Old English pronunciations before next time.

So until then, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.

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