# How certain we are that runes were shaped as we present them

Specifically I am wondering about the A, F, H, J, L, and T. There are others I'm interested in but I don't want to ask too much at once, and these ones are straightforward.

The image I am looking at is from here:

If "runes" isn't the right term, I am just trying to refer to what is in this picture.

But here is one way I could draw them (two ways for L):

That is, just basically did this:

1. A: Tilted to the side a little.
2. F: Straightened protrusions to a modern F.
3. H: Straightened the middle to modern H shape.
4. J: Straightened.
5. L: Flipped so protrusion is on bottom, then tried straightening that to modern L position.
6. T: Straightened to modern T.

The thing is, or one limitation is, that runes were carved into rocks or wood (at least the things we still have records of today), so this means the lines to draw the characters are going to be straight pretty much; curves would be too hard it seems. I haven't seen any curved runes, but I haven't looked too hard for it. I haven't actually studied the runes we have archived photographs of in universities and museums and such, which might've helped figure out better how they actually wrote the letters. But I think this is probably well understood so I thought I would ask here.

So my question is, if we know for sure that these letters in the first diagram above are the actual shapes of the letters back then. I imagine they didn't have a dictionary and book of guidelines on how to write the runes, so it might have been variable, I don't know. The main thing I am interested in knowing is if it would be okay to draw the runes in slightly different shapes and orientations like the image I provided of my drawings. That is, that those would be considered valid characterizations of each corresponding run symbol. Or if it's not a valid way to layout the strokes, then how we know we are correct in always showing the "rune alphabet" and the related documents with these same character stroke layouts and orientations

• You seem to have answered your own question: "runes were carved into rocks or wood (at least the things we still have records of today)" so we actually have original records of their representations. What have I misunderstood here? Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 9:35
• @Andrew: When the Romans carved letters into stone, alternative forms with straight lines were sometimes used for curved letters like P. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 10:44
• @PeterShor "Generally used"? In important examples still extant, that's surely not the case. Demotic forms are known of all or almost all scripts: is the question asking whether the extant runic inscriptions are demotic? We can surely only tell that if there are other forms we know of. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 10:48
• Another comment: that alphabet isn't really the alphabet of Viking runes. It's in the wrong order, it leaves out the rune for "th" and "ng": ᚦ and ᛜ, and there is no rune for "x". What they've given you is two runes: ks. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 13:55

Sometimes runes may vary in appearance based on who is writing them (handwriting), the region they're from, and the dialect or language involved. The first image is a simplification for use in learning runes.

For instance, here's a figure showing Celtic runes across several languages. Pay attention to (a) variation within a single group and (b) variations between groups:

The A, H, and L variants you hypothesized are present within the figure, and the T is close. F is not present here but would be a cousin to the Etruscan rune and Greek and Roman letters for F. The rune representing /j/ has a different origin than the letter (j), which differentiated itself from an (i) in scribal writing. Many of the Scandinavian or Old English runes are cousins to Latin characters, Greek characters, and older runesets, so it's a mistake to think of the Scandinavian runes as strictly ancestors of other letters.

More generally, we know these are letter forms because of practical examples in inscriptions and writing on parchment, in wood, and in stone. In Old English studies, the book An Introduction to English Runes covers the range of materials where runes appear. There are crosses, jewelry, manuscripts - we have a ton of ephemera to draw from, and the forms do sometimes vary. (This likely tracks back to the community as well as the expertise of the individual producing them, but it's hard to say for sure since we usually don't have records of authors, excepting someone like Cynewulf who signed his name in runic characters.) To further complicate things, sometimes new runes are added, or pseudo-runes are made up. So it's hard to generalize further.

Finally, I wouldn't overstate the influence of the material written upon. While material would have been a factor in how artisans formed runes, runes were sometimes written alongside Latin letters without necessarily adjusting their shape. For instance, here's the Old English futhorc as represented in a ninth century codex (Codex Sangallensis 878):

Compare the characters in "Anguliscum" (labeling the runes) to the runes themselves. Based on the variations we sometimes see, such an alphabet would have been normative but also allowed for some degree of variation.

We have copious amounts of runic inscriptions, amply demonstrating both the typical forms and some degree of variation within different kinds of runes, as well as the more substantial differences between these kinds, which were used by different cultures at different times.

The illustration you use as a starting point is utterly worthless, as it conflates several kinds of runes never used together, and also misrepresents each of them. Just to list a few of the most egregious errors:

• The title states “alphabet of the Vikings”, while the runes provided are predominantly pre Viking Age, though some of them remained unchanged in the Viking age, and a single specifically Viking rune is included (I use “Viking rune” as a convenient shorthand for “Viking age Norse rune” here)
• The first rune is the sole specifically Viking one, although not its only form, as Viking runes had unusually large graphical variation between and within subtypes. However, it is drawn with atypically long branches making it unacceptable as a representative exemplar, although it could have occurred in a cramped inscription.
• The runes are all given one-to-one correspondences with Latin letters, which is misleading, as it gives the incorrect impression that the sound values of the runes follows the same haphazard pattern as the Latin letters.
• The same rune is repeated for ‘C’, ‘K’, ‘Q’ and ‘X’ (for the ‘K’ part of the last). So not only is this incorrectly drawn to full line height (as are the ‘J’ and ‘O’ runes), but it implied that the rune has several uses when it only has one. Even worse is that the mentioned ‘J’ rune also is duplicated as an equivalent of ‘Y’. This reveals that the creator does not even understand how Latin letters work. The rune only has one single sound. This sound exists in English, German and the Scandinavian languages, but whereas it is written ‘J’ in German and Scandinavian, English has under the influence of French used this letter for another sound and use ‘Y’ for this sound.
• Conversely, runes that do cover more than one sound are given a single Latin equivalent. This might also appear to be the case in more accurate representations, but there it explicitly or implicitly given that the Latin letters are conventional one-to-one mappings merely hinting at the sound value, typically indicated by using lowercase boldface letters.
• Runes not corresponding to a single Latin letter are omitted
• The runes given for ‘U’ and ‘V’ are graphical variants of the same rune, and the variation between the two forms were never in the history of the runes used to signify variations in sound value. It also never occurred with the sound value of ‘V’, but could have the value ‘W’ in Viking runes.
• The ‘D’ rune is given a shape only found in the Anglo-Saxon variant of the runes, and the ‘F’ rune one primarily found in Latin-letter manuscripts referencing these runes, but no other features specific to this type of runes are included.
• The ‘S’ rune has the most common form from the earliest period, but the second part of the ‘X’ digraph has a very atypical and much later form.
• The rune given for ‘Z’ never have had such a value. Its presence here ultimately derives from the Hobbit. In the foreword Tolkien described his use of Anglo-Saxon runes in some illustrations, and mentioned that the rune showed here had the value ‘X’. He noted that there was no rune for ‘Z’, ut that one could use the “dwarf rune” looking the same only upside-down if so inclined. By “dwarf runes” he presumably meant one of his (at the time not yet published) invented writing systems, which as presented in his later Lord of the Rings is shown to have such a rune for ‘Z’. However, he might also have indulged in a bit of philological punning here: the rune in question is indeed given the value of ‘X’ in Latin-letter manuscripts, but is not found in linguistically meaningful epigraphical inscriptions, so its true value is uncertain. The corresponding Viking rune had been turned upside-down, and had a sound value similar to but distinct from ‘R’. This sound derives from a common Germanic ‘Z’, but there is no actual evidence of the rune ever having been used with such a sound value, so its oldest sound value has been subject to debate since long before Tolkien’s time, and still is.

When it comes to your actual question, I believe your suggestion is precisely how the shapes of the runes came to be, except for the ‘J’ rune. Surviving runes are often carved in stone, bone or metal, but the vast majority of inscriptins ever made would have been carved in wood. The reason why we do not see this is that wood only survives is special conditions, and in such conditions we have large numbers of runic inscriptions on wood from post-Viking Norse towns. When carving in wood, straight lines are easier to carve than curves, but many runes exist in both curved and angular versions. What is really problematic is horizontal strokes, which become invisible because they get lost in the grain of the wood. Some of the transformations the runes went through on their journey from their alphabetical forebears are:

• curves may become angular
• diagonal strokes may become vertical
• horizontal strokes consistently become diagonal
• shapes are flipped or rotated so that the upper right becomes the preferential position for features beside the primary vertical stroke
• any feature that does not reach either the top or the bottom edge tend to become rather short