The elder Futhark is the most ancient Germanic runic alphabet. The word futhark is formed after the first six runes in it, the same way as the Greek word alphabet is formed after the first two Greek letters, Alpha and Beta. See below which signs represented which sounds:
The order of the runes has nothing to do with the ABC and clearly developed independently. As for the runes themselves, there is no agreement on their origin: some researchers are inclined to think that runes were greatly influenced by the Roman alphabet, others point to Etruscan writing from Northern Italy. As it seems, the oldest datable runic inscription is on the comb from Vimose (ca 160 AD). The elder Futhark remained in use until the ninth century, when it was superseded by other runic systems due to the phonological changes in Germanic languages, which made it less suited to render the current speech sounds.
The earliest known instance of sequential listing of all the runes is found on the so called Kylver Stone (after the name of a farm on Gotland, Stånga parish, Sweden), which was discovered in the surroundings of a 5th century grave. The second-oldest sequential listing is on a bracteate (thin single-sided gold coin) from Vadstena (Östergötland, Sweden) dated to the 6th century. In the latter listing the ï and p as well as o and d-runes go in inverted order as compared to the Kylver inscription. The Vadstena listing has an important feature: the sequence of runes is divided into three equal groups (ON ǽttir, ‘families’, orginally meaning ‘groups of eight’). The reason of this division is disputed, but it seems to have been meaningful and important for Germanic peoples who used the elder Futhark. The order above represents the Vadstena version.
Runic writing may go from left to right or from right to left. Some inscriptions combine the two methods. Sometimes even individual runes are written in a mirror image as compared to the main direction of an inscription.
The transliteration of runes is usually given in bold Roman lower-case letters (even personal names begin with small letters; the upper-case R is not a capital variant of r, but a separate rune designtaing a separate sound that corresponds to Common Germanic *z). Phonetic transcription is given in italics. The translation is given in ‘single’ quotation marks.
The runes had names. There are English, Gothic and Scandinavian manuscripts that list them, which makes possible the reconstruction of the Common Germanic forms. The reconstruction in comparative linguistics works more or less like that: ancient Germanic variants for the word ‘stone’ were Goth. stains, ON steinn, OE stān, OS sten, OHG stein. The runic form stainaR and comparison with early Germanic borrowings in Finnish (cf. Finnish kuningas ‘king’ and OS kuning) lead to a supposed Common Germanic form *stainaz, which is nowhere attested: Gothic and Finnish borrowings exclude -R, Gothic -s represents the ancient *-z. The reconstructed ending *-az corresponds to Greek -os and Archaic Latin -os, where IE *o is represented by the Common Germanic *a and IE *s is represented by Common Germanic *z. Reconstructed forms are usually marked with the *asterisk sign.
The names and meanings of the runes are as follows:
*fehu, ‘cattle’. Goth. faihu; OE feoh; ON fé; OHG feho, fihu.
*uruz, ‘aurochs’. Goth. uraz; OE ur; ON úrr. A long vowel: /u:/.
*þurisaz, ‘giant’. OE þyrs; ON þurs; OHG duris; OS thuris. The sound value is as modern English /th/ in thing.
*ansuz, ‘god’. Goth. anza (Dat. Sg.); OE ōs; ON áss; OHG ans-.
*raido, ‘riding’. OE ræd; ON reið.
*kauna, ‘sore’. OE cēn; ON kaun.
*gebo, ‘gift’. Goth. gifa; OE giefu; ON gjöf; OHG geba.
*wunjo, ‘joy’. Goth. winja; OE wynn.
*hagalaz, ‘hail’. Goth. hagl; OE hægl; ON hagall.
*naudiz, ‘need’. Goth. nauþs; ON nauð.
*isa, ‘ice’. Goth. iiz; OE, OHG īs; ON iss. Long vowel: /i:/.
*jera, ‘year’. ON ár; OHG jār. The sound value is as modern English /y/ in year.
*eihwaz, ‘yew’. Goth. uuaer; OE eoh. The sound value is between /e/ and /i/, as it developed out of IE /ei/.
*perþo, uncertain meaning.
*algiz, ‘protection’. Goth. ezec; OE eolh; ON yr.
*sowilo, ‘sun’. Goth. sunno; OE sunne; ON sól; OHG sunna.
*tiwaz, ‘Tiw, god of war’. ON Týr.
*berkana, ‘birch’. OE beorc; ON bjarkan; OHG bircha.
*ehwaz, ‘horse’. Goth. evz; OE eh. Short vowel: /e/.
*mannaz, ‘man’. Goth. manna; OE mann; ON maðr.
*laguz, ‘water’. OE lēac; ON lögr.
*inguz, ‘the god Ing’. Goth. enguz; OE Ing. The sound value is as modern English /ng/ in thing.
*oþila, ‘inherited possession’. Goth. utal; OE oþel, eþel. Short vowel: /o/.
*dagaz, ‘day’. Goth. dags; OE dæg; ON dagr; OHG tag.
- Elder Futhark: Inner Structure
- Magic Runes in Elder Futhark Inscriptions
- Nordic Runes Primer for Starters: Futhark 101
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