#14: Stealing Runes…


So far, the letters lost to us are <Þ þ Ð ð Ȝ ȝ Ᵹ ᵹ> which are named in pairs as thorn, eth, yogh, and insular g.  We have a lot of influence from a lot of places and some of our own letters reflect this quality greatly.  Before the roman miniscule alphabet was introduced, the commonplace lettering system in the British Isles were runic letters from Futhark runes.  Yogh gets its initial roots from this very alphabet – the letter Gyfu/Gebo.  There’s also another letter that has long since been forgotten and is from the very same Futhark alphabet family, and they’re called Wynn.

< ᚷ >

Yes, this does look rather like the letter ex but what actually is the letter ex?  It is a diphone (a combination of two sounds) of ‘k’ and ‘s’, or more simply written as /ks/.  But this is supposed to be Yogh, and both Carolingian and Insular G’s predecessor – how could it be /ks/?  Well at this particular point in time, which would have been roughly just over two thousand years, /ks/ was only used for <x> in its native alphabet, Greek, and tended not be used as commonly in Latin until later on.  The Elder Futhark alphabet is an ancient writing system from which, a great many Anglo-Saxon writing systems stem from.  In the Norse families in particular, these systems would be held on to for much longer than in other Germanic language families and futhark itself can be considered a Proto-Germanic language – that is to mean a distinct ancestral variant that was similar enough to transform into what we now call the Germanic language family, but in the given time, this was only just emerging as a new classifiable group.

<X>, the runic form, was called Gebo, and later, its name was Gyfu in slightly more modern Futhorc alphabets.  The slow evolution of this character into Futhorc, and increased mobility of nations through conquest allowed for Old English to acquire the rune in the form of Gār, which looked like:

< ᚸ >

This letter has evolved into the preferential, miniscule (half-uncial) orthography and as a result, has dropped both ascenders and one descender.  Recall that I mentioned we borrowed a ‘g’ grapheme twice from the European continent – once from cursive-style Latin in the form of Insular Ᵹ, and again during the time of Ȝ in the form of Carolingian G.  There are sources suggesting the Insular variant may well have come from Gothic-style Irish fonts as well and here we have another confusion in the form of Old English acquiring an Elder Futhark rune with evidence suggesting this would have taken place quite a while before Latin’s influence.

So where did it come from?

I believe, personally, that the runic descent of the letter into Old English came prior to the acquisition of the Latin variety and that Irish scribes, through their stylistic influence, transformed the letter into something resembling the insular ᵹ at a relatively similar time to English and Scots scribes acquiring a cursive and insular looking ᵹ grapheme.  Given that English and Latin are majorities in the geographical and temporal contexts, it is likely that this was seen as the most official borrowing and so is documented as the origin of the letter despite confusing and complicated counterevidence.

But what about Wynn?  There’s more to suggest not everything is how we had believed it as quite a few people are of the popular belief that English never used to have a grapheme or letter to represent <w> and the /w/ and /ʍ/ sounds.  The common belief is that Latin was the giver of <uu> which slowly began to evolve into <w>.  Whilst it is very true that a digraphic representation of the /w/ from Latin became a monographic grapheme for /w/ and /ʍ/ in Old English, it is wholly untrue to suggest that we never had a grapheme for <w>.  Let’s get in… with Wynn.

< Ƿ, ƿ >

This is yet another letter dropped from the alphabet.  The letter is very similar to the following graphemes <Þ þ D d P p b ð> but the only real confusion would have been coming from the thorn graphemes as they were likely to have been present whilst the others would have been written in a different style that would have accentuated their contrast to the Wynn letter.  Wynn was used in almost exactly the way we expect <w> to have been used and often appeared, where <w> does, with an /h/ after it for /ʍ/ sounds as in the antique pronunciation of <wh> digraphs.

This follows the same route into Old English as Gyfu/Gebo/Gār did and is a member of the Elder Futhark orthography.  The letter was in use for a fair few centuries and also began to represent a <y> grapheme in some regions.  Its name was originally Wunjo, and then Winja (where the <j>’s are pronounced as English ‘y’) until the name settled to Wynn.  The letter’s name can stylistically include itself as Ƿynn – which I personally think is better than Wynn.  When scribes began to learn French in Later Old to Early Middle English, it was replaced with digraph <uu> common in Romance languages and slowly but surely <w> would creep in to claim victory over ƿynn.  If we still used this extinct grapheme in the following sentence…  

“Marks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its genre of language and thought is a farfetched archaeology that thrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

… alongside the <ᵹ> grapheme, we would obtain something like this…

“Marks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its ᵹenre of langƿiᵹ and thought is a farfetched archaeoloᵹy that thrusts us far aƿay from ƿhat is considered to be bland.”

Ƿ can still be seen in Irish surnames as it survived a little longer in Gaelic language families due to writing styles and covert prestige, and some people, like Yogh, still have this remnant remaining within the lettering of their surnames – though this is rare.

Next time, we will take a look at something in between monographs and digraphs known as a ligature, and two ligatures which have dropped almost entirely from the alphabet…

-DP, Linguistics student

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