Why Not Write Gothic in Runes?

Written by Dyami Millarson

This is an example of the so-called Gothic alphabet taken from a work titled ‘Sacrorum evangeliorum versio Gothica ex Codice Argento’ that was published in the year 1700. Most Gothic texts were written using this alphabet. The original use of the runic alphabet for writing Gothic is exceedingly rare. Nowadays people mostly use the Roman alphabet to write and study Gothic. However, I used runic letters for my Gothic writings and studies in yesterday’s article on the Gothic terms for yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Apart from Proto-Norse, Gothic is the closest attested language to Proto-Germanic. Proto-Norse and Proto-Germanic were written using Elder Futhark, which is the eldest variety of the runes. Being a Proto-Germanic-adjacent language, Gothic is logically associated with Elder Futhark as well. In fact, runic writings in Elder Futhark have been attested for Gothic. Yet, the bulk of Gothic texts we have inherited are written using a unique mixture of Greek and runic letters that is known as the Gothic alphabet. In modern times, these texts have been transliterated to Roman characters and romanised spellings are often also employed for new writings in the Gothic language in modern times. Yours truly has also been a contributor to the latter development in recent years, but I have come to reason as follows: If Gothic is so much like Proto-Germanic and Proto-Norse which were written in runes and if runes worked for them, why not write Gothic in runes?

So let’s get this straight: Gothic has been written in the so-called Gothic alphabet, which is mostly based on the Greek alphabet and partially on the runic alphabet. In modern times, it has been written in Roman letters by the likes of the brothers Grimm, J.R.R. Tolkien, Max Müller, G. H. Balg, Wilhelm Braune, Henry Sweet, and Joseph Wright. Yet Gothic has been attested in runes, and considering its proximity to Proto-Germanic, it is basically one of the languages most fit for adopting Elder Futhark with only slight modifications. Furthermore, the fact the letters 𐌿 (transliterated: u) and 𐌾 (transliterated: j) of the so-called Gothic alphabet, which is used in the bulk of Gothic texts handed down to us from ancient times, are runic in origin ought to tell us enough; Gothic should originally be written in runes whilst that is culturally appropriate.

Ten years ago, I was already aware of experimental projects by others to transliterate Gothic to runes, but it never really dawned on me that perhaps the runes might fit Gothic the best. If the Elder Futhark runes are tailor-made for Proto-Germanic, this is certainly true for Gothic as well since Gothic is almost an exact phonetic copy of Proto-Germanic with only minor changes. So close is Gothic that Proto-Germanic that it really would be a missed opportunity if the active use of the runes were not revived for Gothic. That is why I wrote Gothic in runes yesterday. It is part of a shift in my mind-set: Whilst I used to write Gothic in Latin or Roman characters on this blog following the spelling of Joseph Wright, I will henceforth write it in Elder Futhark runes.

This is an 18th-century book that includes original Gothic text on the left, a Latin translation on the right, and textual analysis commentary in Latin under, which usually takes up a large chunk of each page, at the bottom under the dividing line. The title of the book from which this page is taken is ‘Dissertatione philologica Ulphilas illustratus.’

I used the (transliteration: j) and (transliteration: ng) runes yesterday in my article on the Gothic terms for yesterday, today and tomorrow: whilst Gothic is from the Elder Futhark era, the (transliteration: j) and (transliteration: ng) runes are attested in Gothic runic inscriptions. The (transliteration: j) may be related to the following possibly runic-influenced letter of the so-called Gothic alphabet: 𐌾 (transliterated: j). The (transliteration: ng) rune is not used just after the vowel (transliterated: i), and so it can be assumed that this rune was used to represent ng regardless of the vowel preceding it.

The Buckle of Szabadbattyan runic inscription contains the sequence ᛁᛜ (transliterated: ing), but the Spindle whorl of Letcani runic inscription contains the sequence ᚨᛜ (transliterated: ang), which proves my point that the use of (transliteration: ng) was not isolated to the ᛁᛜ (transliterated: ing) sequence, while one might be tempted to think that based on the name of the rune (ing) and the Buckle of Szabadbattyan runic inscription. In yesterday’s article which included Gothic runic writings, I spelled the (transliterated: g) at the end of words, even though one may argue that it is pronounced in those cases as (transliterated: h), which represents the velar fricative /x/. The Ring of Pietroassa runic inscription confirms that the (transliterated: g) may be written at the end of words for etymological reasons, even though it the (transliterated: h) rune may be expected phonetically speaking.

(transliteration: ng) can be analysed as a consonant cluster: While it can be assumed that (transliteration: ng) was still pronounced as two separate consonants by Gothic times, namely the velar nasal /ŋ/ and the velar plosive /g/, it must be observed that the second element of the sound may be voiceless in the Buckle of Szabadbattyan runic inscription where it is immediately followed by the voiceless sibilant /s/, which also occurs at the end of the word of the Spearhead of Kovel runic inscription, while the second element of the sound (transliteration: ng) may be voiced in the Spindle whorl of Letcani runic inscription where (transliteration: ng) by a vowel.

We may formulate the following hypothesis: If the sound was voiceless, and if the /ŋk/ sound was not generally represented by the (transliteration: ng) but rather by the digraph ᚾᚲ (transliteration: nk), then the (transliteration: ng) rune was written for etymological rather than phonetic reasons in the Buckle of Szabadbattyan runic inscription. Furthermore, (transliteration: k) and (transliteration: g) were generally distinguished in writing and pronunciation, which would disincentivise the merger of the clusters /ŋk/ and /ŋg/ in spelling, and last but not least, if (transliteration: ng) does not stand for the single consonant /ŋ/ but for a velar nasal followed by a plosive, then the combination ᛜᚲ (transliterated: ngk), which one might be tempted to think up based on the phonetic realisation of the cluster /ŋk/ , is completely out of the question for the Gothic language.

No geminate consonants are attested in Gothic runic inscriptions. The Spearhead of Dahmsdorf-Müncheberg runic inscription contains a word that is realised with a geminate, but it was not spelled as such in Gothic runes.

What is simply written as 𐌰𐌹 (transliterated: ai) and 𐌰𐌿 (transliterated: au) in the so-called Gothic alphabet has different underlying phonetic qualities, and similarly, the Gothic runic alphabet will not distinguish some sounds; there is no reason to call one superior to the other based on what sounds they distinguish phonetically, the real value of the runes lies in the inherent cultural ties that the Gothic language has with the runes.

Some have even gone so far as claiming that the Germanic runes are a Gothic invention. Such a thought, no matter whether it’s true, might be quite compelling to motivate people to adopt the runes for Gothic. I am inclined to treat such a thought as a myth – it is not important whether it’s true, and it’s value simply lies in highlighting how culturally relevant the runes are to the Gothic language, it might as well be as if the Goths invented the runes, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that writing Gothic in runes is the most appropriate thing to do.

To me, it is a most curious phenomenon that I have gone full circle: the Goths originally wrote their language in runes as is clearly evident from the fact the so-called Gothic script was based partially on the runes as well, then Ulfilas wrote Gothic in the so-called Gothic alphabet and finally the Gothic alphabet was transliterated to the Roman alphabet and Gothic was popularised using the Roman alphabet and consequently came to be culturally and linguistically recognised in the Roman alphabet, and personally, I studied Gothic in the Gothic alphabet originally, then in the Roman alphabet and finally I am now studying Gothic in the Elder Futhark runic alphabet.

Runes on the left, Gothic alphabet in the middle, Roman alphabet on the right. This is a late 17th-century document called ‘Literae Sveo-Gothorum.’ More information about this document can be found on this page of the Dutch national museum.

Life has cyclical aspects apparently, and this reminds me of the ancient Germanic worldview, which thematically emphasised the world’s cyclicity, which is observed in the workings of the world tree (Yggdrasill). Basically, in ancient Germanic fashion, we have now returned to where things started; and studying the return to the earliest beginnings is a part of the mission of Operation X. The ancient Germanic peoples would certainly find the revival of the runes ultimately predictable, as the world and human culture moves in cyclical waves. Observing on the beaches of Schiermonnikoog that when the sea retreats, the temporary retreat is eventually followed by a strong wave that comes crashing down the beach again pushing sea water to flow over the sand, and observing on the beach of Schiermonnikoog when the sea retreats, and thinking to myself out loud in Schiermonnikoog Frisian whilst no one could hear me, I was once alone on the beaches of Schiermonnikoog which were practically empty that day and I could feel the power of nature, which the Germanic ancestors, who regarded nature is synonymous with fats, must have also felt.

I feel now that the return of the runes – as envisioned by Operation X which is specialised in the revival of languages, cultures and perspectives – is only natural; it is simply destiny that Gothic had to be systemically written in runes again, and the official adoption of runes by Operation X is in harmony with nature. What feels right just feels right. No matter what words we use, we simply can’t capture the exact feeling; we actually have to experience the feeling to truly understand, and that is why the human empathic ability, which allows us to be in tune with others’ feelings, is so magnificent and important. Ultimately, the return to the yse of runes is an intuitive matter; it is not about just what is practical for science or for pleasing readers of the Roman alphabet (who can be pleased anyway by transliterations of the runic alphabet and thus need not fear losing the ability to comprehend when words are written in runic letters), but it is ultimately about nature, intuition, feeling, experience.

We are biological beings, we need more than just rational reasons; we eat because we need to eat, we don’t eat because that’s rational. Similarly, runic letters fulfill some primordial desire for reconnecting with our roots, which is a topic I recently explored in my article on reconnecting with our roots through Old English. Everything ultimately boils down to the desire to gain an authentic experience. To us human beings, experiences are worth a lot. We happily pay for vacations, museum visits, cultural events and trips to amusement parks because what we want to gain is an authentic experience of some sort; we are seeking these experiences actively, and ultimately the most valuable in our lives on earth as biological beings is experiences. If runes give us an authentic experience, that means they are worth our time and effort. Considering these fundamental facts about the human relationship with authentic experiences, Operation X enthusiastically embraces the runes; ultimately, the work of Operation X is all about offering people the opportunity to get an authentic experience, and that is more important than anything we can come up with rationally. We, as objective researchers of minoritised human languages and cultures and community stories, have lost sight of human nature if we do not respect the fundamental need and desire for authentic experiences.

Runic text interspersed with Roman text, which is fittingly written in Latin. This page is taken from a curious 17th-century work titled ‘ᚱᚢᚾᛁᛦ seu Danica literature antiquissima.’

Germanic languages are divided into three stages: old, middle and modern. While being focused on the study, revival and reconstruction of Frisian dead languages this year, Operation X has been more focused on old Germanic languages and the Operation X policy has shifted this year towards systemically writing all Germanic languages of the old stage in runes, which is a policy shift that already began taking place last year. Systemically runified languages are thus: Gothic, Old Dutch, Old Norse, Old High German, Old Saxon, Old English, Old Frisian.

Old English and Old Frisian are written using Anglo-Frisian runes, Old Dutch, Old High German and Old Saxon are written in Elder Futhark like Gothic, and Old Norse is written using Younger Futhark. The survival and revival of runes is a research interest of Operation X already since before 2022, and the adoption of Elfdalian in 2019 allowed Operation X to come into contact with a modern runic tradition. Although Frisian, which Operation X has been researching intensively already since 2016, has its own runic tradition, the runic tradition associated with Elfdalian has admittedly played an outsized instrumental role in the decision-making process of Operation X and this also made Operation X ponder more deeply upon the runic tradition associated with the Frisian language family. So Elfdalian was basically the catalyst for change in the thinking of Operation X.

A philosophical question for Operation X ever since the adoption of Elfdalian has been thus: if this language has a recent tradition of spelling the language in runes, why not revive the runic spelling? Is this at all possible? As part of its runic research, Operation X experimented with the revival of traditional runic spellings before making any final decisions on the institutional adoption of runes. As of 2021, Operation X started the process of making runic spellings official as Operation X already began runifying Germanic proto-languages (such as Proto-Norse, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Wangeroogian, Proto-Frisian, and Proto-West Germanic) and Operation X established an official policy of runifying the modern Dalecarlian and East Frisian language families. Elfdalian, which belongs to the Dalecarlian language family, was the first modern Germanic language under the care of Operation X to receive an officially accepted runification policy, and Wangerooge Frisian soon followed. After the runification of Elfdalian and Wangerooge Frisian turned out to be practical successes, the rest of the East Frisian languages became officially runified as well in 2021 with the exception of Sagelterland Frisian, which became runified as well as of 2022. We already know that Elder Futhark, which is the eldest version of the runes, is used for Gothic.

This table, which is found in the 17th-century ‘ᚱᚢᚾᛁᛦ seu Danica literature antiquissima,’ shows different varieties of Younger Futhark runic letters with their Latin equivalents shown in the leftmost row. This compilation of the varieties of runic letters is taken from various manuscripts and has been communicated to the author by friends.

Fittingly, modern languages are written using younger versions of the runes: Elfdalian is written using Dalecarlian runes which are very similar to the runes used during the Old Norse era, whilst Wangerooge Frisian is written using Anglo-Frisian runes like Old English. Operation X respects the principle that different Germanic language groups are associated with their own runic traditions as that is what Operation X research on the historical distribution of runes clearly demonstrated, and so Operation X is not pursuing a unified runic spelling for all Germanic languages, but adopts a policy of traditional diversity. Operation X recognises that attempts at such rigorous unification in runic spelling would be an error that disregards the natural developments of plural traditions in Germanic just like plural Germanic languages developed from a single source. Each Germanic language can be traced to a specific runic tradition associated with their group. For instance, the Frisian languages are associated with the Anglo-Frisian runic tradition.

Operation X seeks to revive the traditional plurality of runes as that reflects the unique identity of different tribal groups; authenticity is the goal, and diversity in runic traditions is part of that authenticity. Being mindful of authentic tradition has aided Operation X research because traditional runic spellings provide interesting historical insights on Germanic languages, and this should be no surprise, as runes are a genuinely Germanic writing system adapted to the Germanic situation. Runes are a culture, and in hindsight, Operation X should have made the drastic shift towards the adoption of runes earlier, but that’s why we keep studying languages; we keep being inspired to look at things in new ways, and we keep being inspired to try old things, which at first seem silly and weird. Honestly, adopting old traditions can feel embarrassing at first, but we can benefit a lot if we can get over the initial hurdles; we have seen this with all the minority languages we acquired.

Institutional adoption of runes may have seemed silly and unthinkable to us in the past as we preferred the use of the Roman alphabet for our studies, but our perspective has changed as we began to see the benefits, particularly the unique cultural and historical benefits, of using runes. We further noticed that minority languages benefited from the use of runes, as it gave them increased legitimacy. Such positive observations have made us think: Why did we not adopt runes earlier? As Operation X is now convinced of the benefits of runes for Germanic minority languages, we hope to become a cultural trendsetter and encourage others to use authentic runic traditions for their languages as well. We will work hard to further specialise ourselves in the field of runes, and we will focus our future research on the use of runes among minority languages.

What will be interesting to research is the psychological effect of the adoption of runes during the revitalisation process (for living languages brought back from the brink of death) or revival process (for languages brought back from the dead); it seems that runes may be a strong cultural booster for certain groups, potentially even for all groups that manage to adopt the runes successfully. Successfully reclaiming heritage that was lost is an act that gives satisfaction to language communities, as they feel they are regaining a part of themselves and get over the shame of their own heritage they may still have felt in the recent past. Such is psychological progress, and any prestige earned from hard work associated with that psychological transformation is well-deserved.

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