Writing in Runes Revisited- What we can learn from Tolkien

Posted by Byron Pendason on , in Runes

About a year and a half ago, I did a blog post about writing in Anglo-Saxon runes. I explained both the runic substitution method (which more or less uses modern spelling) and phonetic method of writing in runes. At the time, I used the runes to write phonetically. And I continued to do it that way until rather recently. One day, though, a thought struck me. When Old English started writing in Latin letters instead of the Futhorc runes, they pretty much chose a letter to represent each rune. We can see this by examining runic inscriptions with the words of as they developed later. So the thought that came to me was, how would reversing that process be any different? (For another argument in favour of using modern spelling with runes, see this article.)

Obviously, when using an ancient alphabet to write a modern language, there's going to be issues that come up. Jackson Crawford does a nice job going through these issues. Check out his videos on runes here and here if you're interested in exploring these issues. The main counterargument he raises for using modern spelling with runes is that it wouldn't be recognizable to the ancient peoples who wrote in runes. But even if we write phonetically, it would still be unrecognizable to them because they didn't know modern English. And frankly, we wouldn't be writing to them anyways, but rather to modern people to whom writing phonetically is absolutely foreign.

In the Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien uses Futhorc runes to write in code on Thror's map (pictured below). There are two blocks of runes on this map. The one on the left was always visible, whereas the one on the bottom are "moon runes" which were only visible at night under the same moon phase it was originally written under. I'll leave translating them as an exercise for the reader, but translations are given in the book at the end of Chapter 3.

If you notice, he uses an extreme form of word wrap. Words may be split across two lines, it simply goes to the next line whenever the end of the line is reached. He uses a single rune for certain letter combinations, like TH, NG, and EE. There are a couple spelling mistakes like wolk instead of walk, but the runes for a and o are similar enough to make that easy to do. Tolkien uses dots instead of spaces to separate words, and a double or triple dot for the end of a sentence.

Tolkien doesn't seem to have a problem with double consonants, as he uses the L-rune (lagu) twice for the word will in the bottom block of runes. He does simplify the double o in door in the runic block on the left, but I think that's due to his expertise in Old English (Old English long o evolved in modern English's oo, as can be seen by the pair of Old English words gōd which means good, and god which means, well, god.) He also switches around the w and h in when. Again, this is due to Old English usage. For example, hwæt evolved into modern English what.

So what can we take away from this runic usage? Following Tolkien's method, we would use modern spelling except to use the TH, NG, and EE runes for those combinations instead of the runes for the individual letters. Use dots instead of spaces in between words. The triple dot isn't available in unicode fonts, so use double dots (looks kind of like a colon) for end of sentences.

Tolkien's k rune isn't available with most Unicode fonts, because he invented that particular rune (it's actually a modified ᚳ c-rune, with the leg having a bend in it). If you want to use his system, you can use the c rune for k (so the common ck letter combination would be ᚳᚳ, or a double c). I prefer calc (ᛣ) for k as it makes the /k/ sound. Tolkien uses this rune for z (the ᛉ x-rune of the Futhorc made a z sound in Elder Futhark, so Tolkien turned it upside down to be his z rune). So I use the "bookhand" variant of ᛋ sigel for z: ᚴ, since Old English uses s for both the /s/ and /z/ sounds.

I don't simplify oo to a single o, nor switch wh to hw. These are artifacts of Old English usage. While it would be cool to employ them, they have the potential to cause confusion. Especially the first one; think about the following pairs of words just for an example. Good/god, noon/non, toon/ton.

Below, I will include my key for Anglo-Saxon runes to modern English letters. It mostly follows Tolkien's system, but takes the above notes into account.

In addition to ᛫ and ᛬ for punctuation, I also use the runic cross ᛭ for commas. It just makes sense to me, so use it or not as you see fit.

Let me end this blog post with an exercise to translate into runes. Feel free to leave your own runic inscriptions in the comments below.