Runic ramblings

Runes are more than writing, just as writing is more than the transcription of the spoken word. When someone carves a rune, they are doing more than just saving the game up to that point; they are casting their line into the future, gambling on succession; inviting the future into dialogue.

The written word is no longer sacred. We think nothing of jotting down a shopping list, updating songs to check out on our Notepad apps, and yet we are intuitively aware of how special writing is and how it inherently differs from all those meaningful exhalations that pass through our lips almost every day without exception. The current generation is perhaps most conscious of the disjuncture and exploits this to amusing effect on platforms such as Twitter, which rewards short form wordplay generously and where compression gives birth to an imagist resurgence.

English speakers are more aware than most of the spoken and written word’s incongruity. Words like “quay”, “indictment” and “sword” seem to directly contradict phonetic correlation. Unlike French and German which undergo spelling reform fairly regularly to realign the “logocentrism” of their languages, English spelling convention is simply that – convention. This has its drawbacks in the fact that spellings appear objectively illogical, but it does hold an advantage for someone with an interest in historical linguistics i.e. me (and whoever has read this far, so it seems) because they give an insight into word origins and contain traces of how English was pronounced in the past.

Conventions, however, have a habit of being rather fickle and nonsensical. To a large extent, they are just fashions and fads, as is demonstrated by the perplexing examples of “quay”, pronounced “key” (denoting a wharf/place where boats can moor). This word is very old and is believed to have origins in the proto Indo-European “kagh” for wickerwork/fence. An ancestor of the English word is found in Anglo-Norman French, all variants of which begin with “k, but a predecessor first appears in a native language in middle Scots records from Aberdeen, spelt “key”. “Qu” is only introduced into the equation around 1500 to reflect the French origin of this meaning of the word in their now updated spelling rules. The other key, incidentally (as in the thing that unlocks the door), has far more mysterious origins and possesses no equivalent in other Germanic languages. The German, der Schlüssel is literally comprised of the word for lock/bind and a non-standard form of the diminutive suffix. Our word offers no such helpful clues as to how lock and key interrelate (a bit like vagina deriving from Latin for sheath versus the “Anglo-Saxon” denominator).

“Indictment” has a more boring Latin explanation. It was made to look like its root word after it had mutated into “endyte” several hundred years down the line. The “dict” is the same as in “dictionary” and “jurisdiction” – so lawyer-y, wordy people wanted to make it look the same. To indict literally means to “wordify”/ “make word” i.e. put down in writing.

But, to return to the original starting point of this post, runes are not about having something on record. The Vikings did not write their sagas in runes, but in Latinate script like the one we use today, supplemented with Nordic characters to cover additional vowels sounds such as æ and ø and the additional consonants þ and ð. Runes were not written on parchment with a quill, they were carved and with this effort comes a greater pressure to imbue whatever you choose to write with as much meaning as possible; hidden and personal or forthright and clear.

Runes are so special because whenever someone has set out to chip away at a stone or engrave metal with a message they must have been confronted with their own mortality. This was not something written for oneself, not shallow self-expression for its own sake, but an attempt to distil what was most important to them and send it out into the uncertainty of generations to come.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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