Episode 25: Germanic Markings and the Runes

We explore the expansion of Germanic tribes into the Danube region where the Germans encounter the Etruscan alphabet.  The Germanic runes develop and provide the first opportunity for the Germanic tribes to write their own language.



Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

12 thoughts on “Episode 25: Germanic Markings and the Runes

  1. Is there a significance in the differing order of the Germanic runes as opposed to the retained order in the letters from the Phoenician to the Latin alphabet?

    • Many scholars think the runes were influenced by an early version of the alphabet, perhaps the Etruscan version. But it doesn’t appear that the order was maintained. I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was because the runes were influenced by the alphabet, but they weren’t really intended to be a proper borrowing of the alphabet.

  2. From what I learned of earlier episodes, the greeks and the romans adopted the alphabet of the phoenicians and the Etruscans whithin a century or so after they got in contact with those cultures. It seems rather strange that niether the celts nor the germanic tribes adopted the latín alphabet sooner, as they were in contact with the Romans for many centuries.

    • My take is that it might be due to their need and/or willingness to write, or their lack of. Both the Greeks and the Romans were quickly developing into a city- and trade-oriented civilizations which made writing quite handy for them. Their contacts with the Phoenicians and the Etruscans were also trade-rich, with (I suppose) the free quite an intensive cultural exchange and the ability to visit foreign cities (which, as far as I’m concerned, the Archaic Greeks in particular never neglected).
      At the same time, the Celts and the Germans were not to change their traditional tribal lifestyle, and their contact with the Romans was not that friendly and intensive. Basically, all that the tribes would see were the Roman legions and fortifications and not their cities or books.
      Of course, there was also trade, but it seems to be very practical and not very stable, as it could be easily put to an end by another conflict. Only with the deepening of the foederati practice and growing Christian proselytism did they start a full-scale cultural change.
      Again, it’s only my thoughts on the subject.

  3. If you do not have paper or papyrus, Latin and Greek letters are much more difficult to reproduce. Runes are very practical for wood and stone unless you have developed more skilled methods of inscribing letters.

  4. I speculate if the order it may be from a pangramic poem or similar mnemonic..you know, like ‘the quick brown fox’. The Japanese have a syllabary which they can order is a systematic way (a-i-u-e-o, ka-ki-ku-ke-ko etc) but they also use a pangramic poem (i-ro-ha something something something etc) to do the same job. It is used in lists (i for the first item, ro the second), as a typing or font testing thing, as well as education. The strong tradition of poetry made this order particularly appealing I think.

    While not so convenient as a systematic system to learn from scratch (young children or non native users may not understand the meaning of the words defeating the object of it as a memory device) arguably is better for adult native learners who are familiar with the words and their meanings so can easily use it as a mnemonic.

    I know old English had a tradition of oral epic poetry and word play, one might believe this was a general early Germanic trait, that would have made a pangram or mnemonic appealing. Also if we are to imagine runic writing was fairly infrequently used or seen and was something that one only learnt at an older stage then it makes sense a mnemonic or pangram might be used to remember the letters as and when needed rather than committing the abc order (or equivalent) which requires a greater feat of rote memorization for little outcome if you are only using it a few times a year say.

    Compare learning runes to learning notes on a stave (staff) – could be learnt as a stand alone arbitrary seeming sequence with a very young start and sufficient repetition and exposure, but given the relatively low exposure to written music and the fact we typically learn it a few years after beginning to read, mnemonics like every good boy deserves favour are used instead of rote learning.

  5. And a bit more on Japanese from Wikipedia. While the iroha system is based on a poem, and the modern system follows a systematic list best visualised as a grid of consonant and vowel sounds, looks like the actual order of that list has roots in Indo-European writing systems – namely the Siddhaṃ script used for Sanskrit and known to Japanese through Buddhism! Small world!

  6. Captivating stuff, Kevin. On a personal note, you made me smile with that map: 42 years ago, when I was a young teen, I got an AKC-pedigreed German Shepherd pup named Alf von Noricum. Even though I moved from California to Germany myself decades later and live there now, I never came upon that place-name anywhere before that I can remember. But there it is on your map.

  7. Loving the series, as someone who learned Latin, French and German at school (many, many years ago!) and subsequently worked all over Europe the connections between languages has long been a fascination for me. So .. what jumped out at me today in the part of this podcast about the links between onion, leek, garlic and so on. What came to mind for me was the symbol for garlic worn around the neck to ward off evil spirits is likely the root also for the word locket. Noting that the swedish for onion is lök and vitlök is garlic or literally white onion. Anyhow, got that off my chest, another hundred or so episodes to go!

    • It’s related to the word lock, because a locket is something you can latch shut, the same way you can shut and latch a door.

  8. Another illuminating episode. I feel overly pernickety saying the following but searching a bit online allowed me to atone by finding an interesting snippet. You mispronounce ‘Ruthwell’, the ‘Ru’ should be pronounced as in run or rug (not as in Ruth). A 19thC paper/book on place names considers (more convincingly than other possibilities I read of) Ruthwell’s origin to be from Rith Wald (‘woody place in Anglo-Saxon). 3km away there is a Brow Well, the well being iron rich and of course red stained. I did wonder if Ruthwell had derived from ~Red Well but the well has its own hamlet, ‘Brow’.

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