With the full support of a desperate Danish Language learner:
Dear Danish language,
I am sure you are very surprised to receive this message – I would actually be surprised myself if you actually remembered I am still around. I reckon we haven’t had much interaction lately, even though we supposedly know each other like old friends – we’ve grown up together and we’ve been through much, and yet we never gave up on each other.
However, something has changed. Something big.
Our communication is somehow broken. We used to care about each other, understand what were each other’s problems. But now… look at us. Or rather, look at you. You barely give me time to speak to you, so I never have the chance to talk. My opinion, my suggestions, my recommendations… it’s all ignored.
Please, now tell me, Danish, what did I do wrong? Is there anything wrong in my looks, or perhaps I have behaved in an inappropriate way at some point and I’ve hurt you? Stop being so passive-aggressive and speak. I am tired of being unheard. You listen to me only when I’m right in front of your face, like in gade, gyde and gård. That’s my only chance to speak up, you can’t really avoid me then, can you? Honestly, I just want to have more chances to make my voice heard when I desire so, not just when you feel like putting me first for once. Kage, dejlig, uge, morgen, tage, bog, tog, jeg and dig. Do these ring a bell at all? That’s where you get very clear about warding me off.
For some time, I did think you cared about me. I thought you wanted to make sure I was getting enough free time to sit back and enjoy life a little bit… you know, when you insisted that I should hang out more with my friends, like ø and o, a or i… everything looked fine then, in søge, røg, bøger, Vagn, vogn, lige. I thought that was proof that you wanted me to be happy. But no, no, you just wanted to get rid of me already. Now that I think of it, you were probably trying to make me sound more like i, that b…awd. You really like that one, don’t you?
I know, I can picture you turning up your noise in front of all this ‘nonsense’, ‘balderdash’, ‘gobbledygook’. Think what you want, it’s now my time to stand up for my rights. I might have been tricked by love, but I will not stand this further. I will fight for my rights to be heard, and I will not let you keep me soundless. Or I quit. And I really want to see you there, telling people to drive on an ade, or to address their prayers to Ud.
All the worst
A very unhappy letter G.
A very good teacher of mine used to say that etymologies are always safe ground for a clear, engaging introduction. And given the fascinating story this tiny little word has behind, her tip does fit the bill.
The English word ‘rune’ appears for the first time in modern languages in 1636, when Ole Worm published his Runer, seu Danica Literatura Antiquissima. The Danicorum Monumentorum Libri Sex and Specimen Lexici Runici were also published throughout the following twenty years, thus initiating the extensive scholarship on runic inscriptions that would have burst out in the Germanic countries later on (Page, 1999). Before that, the word rune was just buried in a forgotten past. Or at least, between that year and back in the days when Middle English was spoken in Britain.
Before then, rūn was a common Old English word meaning secret, mystery. The Old Norse correspondent rún evoked magic rituals, a secret lore that would explain the tendency to associate the runic alphabet with the esoteric. The obscurity that typifies this branch of Germanic philology is endorsed by the simplest analysis of common words in today’s Germanic languages, like the German rauen, to whisper. This theory however does not prove an undeniable fact; alternative theory associate the word rune with the Indo-European root /ró/, which very simply evokes ‘writing’ and ritzen (German, to scratch) (Morris 1985).
Although the religious rituals and ‘spells’ are undeniably typical of the civilization that adopted this alphabetic system, I will give an outline from a purely linguistic point of view. I think it is also important to remind that this is mostly an alphabet, a system of graphemes whereby people carved sounds and words on stone, and not necessarily for merely ritual purposes. There is an extensive collection of Christian inscriptions in runes, prayers or even inscriptions despising the pagans (Antonsen, 2002).
So, if we now try to look close at runes themselves we will inevitably come across a few problems that old languages tend to share. There is no standardization in spelling or even in graphic representation. When I randomly decided that I wanted to learn the runic alphabet I had to come to terms with the huge variety of alphabets that have been studied in runology. Runes developed overtime and thus changed the way they were written. In addition, when dealing with runes we have to take into account the geographical factor: albeit similar, runes vary sensibly across the territories where they were employed, from Iceland to Russia, going through Denmark and Norway.
Also, I have just realized that I should stop referring to the runic system as an ‘alphabet’, as the first two letters do not correspond to the/a/ and /b/ sounds. The runic alphabet is actually called Fuþark, a meaningless word that groups together the first six letters of this writing system. And no, that third letter is not a p, but a þ (thorn). It represents the English /th/ in
words like thanks, thin, thorough, thick. It was widely used in Old English, and nowadays it’s still part of the Icelandic alphabet, where the popular Nordic god Thor is actually spelt Þórr. Where does it come from? Funnily enough, this letter is but the latinisation of the rune in fig. 1, þurisaz. Originally, runes were symbols of natural elements or concepts and thus had a similar use as Chinese ideograms. But let’s now have a look at them. This is the so-called ‘Elder Fuþark’, i.e. the oldest system.
I kept the usual 3×8 layout which, according to many, hides magic powers. As you can see, every symbol corresponds to a specific meaning. I will provide the translation of each name below. I will follow the fuþark order – I understand that a scanned copy of my handwriting might not have been the best idea.
Every single letter represent something, it’s a way to find a meaning behind words, behind the names of things. As you would expect from a writing system used to carve stones, it’s mostly a matter of lines. Or branches and staffs. as described in this very useful table putting all the letters together according to their graphic features.
When approaching the study of runes, the Elder fuþark seems to be the best starting point as it kind of encompasses the most common writing system adopted by the Germanic people inhabiting northern Europe from the first century AD onwards. Later on, we come across two alternative versions of Fuþark: a ‘simplified’ one – developed in Scandinavia – called Younger Fuþark. However even this one will then split up into two branches, the Danish or long-branch and the Swedish-Norwegian, or short-twig. These two led to the development of a further system used during the Middle Ages in series of manuscripts completed entirely in runes. On the other side, Frisians and Anglo-Saxon developed a different version, known as Fuþork, due to a vowel shift. So, to cut it short:
What struck me the most was the fact that such an ancient and fascinating writing system could be easily employed today. It is remarkably easy to learn and both English and the majority of the Germanic languages could be doubtlessly written using this script. But what’s ultimately most fascinating about runes is their introspective power. They might be famous for rituals aimed at forseeing the future, but what they really do is to scan reality, find connections and associations with the simplest thing, they find the bonding line intertwined between every element within the scope of our perception. But I’ll leave you there before getting excessively philosophical. I hope you’ll have fun writing your name in Fuþark!
Hafðu það gott!