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Lesson 3

North Germanic, Runes

North Germanic. The Teutons who stayed in Scandinavia after the departure of Goths gave rise to the North Germanic subgroup of languages. They didn’t take part in the migrations and were relatively isolated. The speech of these tribes showed little dialectical variation until the 9th c. and is regarded as Old North language. It has come down to us in runic inscriptions dated from the 3rd to the 9th c. The runes were used by North and West Germanic tribes.
Runes are also called Futhark, which actually is an analogue to our "alphabet", in that f, u, th, a, r, and k are the first 6 Runic letters, while alpha and beta are the first 2 Greek letters.

Etymology. Runes have always been seen as possessive of mystical properties in the popular culture. One possible etymology of the word rune is the Germanic word *run-, meaning "to conceal", "a secret". This meaning can be explained the following way: at first runes were used as a sacred writing system, and later became not only the magic, but also every day script.

The first Runic inscriptions appeared around 200 AD, but its origins may lie much deeper in the pre-history of Northern Europe. For the next thousand years it was used in Germany, Scandinavia, England, and only in late Middle Ages it was replaced by the Roman script everywhere in Northern Europe. This alphabet was used in ancient Rome and was later adopted practically everywhere in Western and Central Europe. It is also called Latin.

Runes usually were inscribed on metal, stone or wood boards, this is the reason for their strange sharp forms. The most ancient of the inscriptions found is the one from Norway written on the edge of the spear in about 200 AD. Since the alphabet, which was probably invented in Scandinavia, was spreading to the British Isles and to continental Europe, its symbols changed somehow, as well as the number of them. Modern science makes a distinction between:

Elder Runes (150-500)
Younger (Scandinavian) Runes (800- 17th century)
Anglo-Saxon Runes (400-1100).

.The Elder Runes, used mostly for magic purposes, contain many personal names and their lexicon is sometimes hard to understand, though the language is clear. We know about 150 runic inscriptions of this period, and some of them contain just one or two symbols.

Read about Gallehus Horn inscription

The Younger inscriptions are more numerous (about 3500), and are mostly documents written in particular Germanic languages.

The Runic poem written in Old English in alliterative style explains the meaning of each rune, for example the lines to the rune ‘Ð’ were the following:

Ðorn byþ ðearle scearp; ðegna gehwylcum
anfeng ys yfyl, ungemetum reþe
manna gehwelcum, ðe him mid resteð.

Thorn is exceedingly sharp,
an evil thing for any knight to touch,
uncommonly severe on all who sit among them.

The rune Ð later was replaced by the combination of the letters th when Norman scribes were rewriting Old English manuscripts. Thus in modern English we have letters th in the words with the sound [Ø] or [ð] showing the place of the ola rune.

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