This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts: The Younger Furthark.

Our English alphabet has 26 letters.

It would probably make things easier if we had a few more letters to play with: one letter per sound, in fact.

But, hey, mostly we get by.

The Younger Furthark was an alphabet which evolved from, yes, the Elder Furthark, in around about 800 AD. Both furtharks used runes. (Runes work the same way as our letters, they're just pointier to look at.) 

The main difference between the Elder and Younger Furthark is that for some reason some idiot reduced the number of runes in the Younger Furthark from 24 to only 16.

Nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped (g, w, æ, p, z, e, ng, d, and o), and a new one was created (R).

Imagine ditching a third of the letters in our alphabet. Well, the letter C isn't that useful, I suppose. And X could go...and perhaps J...but after that it gets jolly tricky.

And jolly tricky was what it must have been like to use the Younger Furthark, because some of the runes ended up having to represent a frankly ridiculous number of sounds.

It didn't stop things written in the Younger Furthark being full of beauty, though. Here's an Icelandic poem from the 1400s describing one of the runes of the Younger Furthark. It was translated by B Dickins.

 ýr, ‘yew’

bent bow
and brittle iron
and giant of the arrow.

In Scandinavia the Younger Furthark carried on being used fairly widely until about 1500. It was mostly a Viking system, and in the end the reason our own Roman alphabet took over wasn't so much to do with there not being enough letters in the Younger Furthark, but because people converted to Christianity.

Runes didn't quite die out completely, though, because they're still used by magicians today.

The top line shows Danish long-branch runes, and underneath are Swedish/Norwegian short twig runes.

Thing To Use Today: some runes of the Younger Furthark. The word rune used to mean letter or text in Old Norse, but in the Old Germanic languages it meant mystery or secret.

I'd suggest you write TOP SECRET on something, but there isn't an E or an O.



  1. I'm told that the always-cranky comments function on this blog has gone and got even worse. I do apologise.

    This is a test run to see if I can get a comment to show.

  2. Well, this is all news to me and I'm very grateful to learn it! Also, I think I've now cracked the comments thingie too. Hurray!