In popular culture, Runes have always been seen as possessing of mystical properties. Once in a while a fantasy computer game comes by with puzzles written in runes, and many modern Wiccan sects use Runes ceremonially and ritualistically. As runes dated from before the time Northern Europe became Christianized, it became associated with the "pagan" or non-Christian past, and hence a mystique is cast upon it. Even the supposed etymology of the word rune, the German word raunen which means "to whisper", helped in adding a secretive bend to Runes.
The Runic alphabet is also known as Futhark, a name composed from the first six letters of the alphabet, namely f, u, th, a, r, and k. In this way, "Futhark" is analogous to the word "alphabet", which is from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. And why were the letters ordered in such a way. Nobody knows the answer, but it might been some form of mneumonic function that was not preserved.
The first Runic inscriptions that have survived to the modern day dated from around 200 CE. The alphabet consists of 24 letters, 18 consonants and 6 vowels, as illustrated in the following chart:
Note: In the traditional transliteration of Runic inscriptions, the letter j stands for the semivowel /y/, and y stands for the vowel /ü/. The digraph th stands for /θ/, and ng stands for /ŋ/.
Traditionally, the 24 letters are divided into three groups of eight letters called ættir. In the previous chart, each row is an ætt (the singular of ættir). This means that f, u, th, a, r, k, g, and w belong to the first ætt; h, n, i, j, æ, p, z, and s belong to the second; and t, b, e, m, l, ng, d, and o belong to the third. Also, a rune has a position within each ætt, so for example, k would be the 6th rune in the 1st ætt, and t would be the 1st rune in the 3rd ætt.
What is interesting about these two numbers associated with every rune is that they can be used to write an alternate, "encoded", version of the rune. An encoded rune consists of a central vertical line, with short horizontal lines left of the vertical line determined by the rune's ætt number, and short horizontal lines on the right side determined by the rune's position within its ætt, as illustrated below:
Some scholars have theorized that this alternate system of representing letters with vertical and horizontal lines has some kind of connection to Ogham, but no solid links have been found yet.
Most Runic texts are found on hard surfaces such as rock, wood, and metal, and this might explain its angular shape. Because of the resemblance to Mediterranean scripts, it is very likely that Futhark was adapted from either the Greek or Etruscan alphabet. Even though the earliest Runic inscriptions are from the 3rd century CE, its origin may lie much deeper in the pre-history of Northern Europe. A few clues might shed light on this. The earliest Futhark inscriptions don't have a fixed writing direction, but instead can be written either left-to-right or right-to-left, which was a feature of very archaic Greek or Etruscan alphabets before the 3rd century BCE. Other clues to the age of Futhark come from the history of Germanic languages. The letter æ was extraneous in even the earliest texts because the sound /æ/ has disappeared from Germanic languages by the 3rd century CE, yet it existed in the alphabet (that is, it would always appear in a list of all the letters). However, from linguistic reconstruction it seems that Proto-Germanic, the ancestral language of subsequent Germanic languages, had the vowel /æ/. This means that the letter must have been created when there was a need for its sound, but due to tradition was kept in the alphabet even when there was no need for it anymore. Another internal clue comes from the spelling convention in Futhark which dictates that the sequence ai stands for the sound /e/. Once again, historical linguistics tells us that the Proto-Germanic sound /ai/ became the sound /e/ in later Germanic languages. This means that the original spellings of the words were standardized during Proto-Germanic times, and due to the conservative nature of the writing system, the original forms of the words were preserved even after their pronuncations had changed over time. All of these clues, both external and internal, suggest the time of Futhark's creation to the 1st millenium BCE.
Evolution and Variants of the Futhark
The Futhark of 24 letters is called "Elder Futhark", and was used mostly before the 9th century CE. But as languages changed and more Germanic groups adopted it, Futhark changed as well to suit the language that it came to write.
An early offshoot of Futhark was employed by Goths, and so it is known as Gothic Runes. It was used until 500 CE when it was replaced by the Greek-based Gothic alphabet. One theory concerning the origin of Futhark states that the Goths were the inventors of Futhark, but there is insufficient supporting evidence to prove this theory.
In England, the Anglo-Saxons brought Futhark from continental Europe in the 5th century CE and modified it into the 33-letter "Futhorc" to accommodate sound changes that were occurring in Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. Even the name "Futhorc" is evidence to a phonological change where the long /a/ vowel in Old English evolved into a later /o/ vowel.
The new letters compensated for sound changes in Old English. For example, the Elder Futhark letter k became the Futhorc letter c, which was pronounced as /k/ before mid and back vowels (/a/, /o/, /u/) and as /c/ before front vowels (/e/ and /i/), so a new Futhorc letter, k, was created to always represent the sound /k/ regardless of the following vowel. Similarly, the Elder Futhark letter g came to represent /g/, /y/, and /gh/, so a second g letter was invented to consistently represent the /g/ sound. And finally, many new vowels arose in Old English, so a lot of new vowel letters were created.
In Scandinavia, Futhark also evolved around the 9th century CE. Instead of 24 letters, the Scandinavian "Younger" Futhark had 16 letters. Nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped (g, w, æ, p, z, e, ng, d, and o), and a new one was created (R). There were two major varieties of Younger Futhark, namely Danish and Swedish-Norwegian, as illustrated in the following chart:
The cause of this reduction of letters in Younger Futhark is tied to very complex phonological changes that occurred in the Old Nordic language. As many old letters were removed from the alphabet, several of the remaining letters were overloaded to represent multiple sounds: th was used for /þ/ and /ð/; u for /u/ and /o/; k for /k/, /g/, and /ng/; i for /i/ and /e/; t for /t/ and /d/; and b for /b/ and /p/. The new letter, R, was originally used for a /er/-like sound in Old Nordic but became /y/ in later Scandinavian languages.
Even though Futhark continued to thrive as a writing system, it started to decline with the spread of the Latin alphabet. In England, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc started to be replaced by the Latin alphabet by the 9th century CE, and did not survive much more past the Norman Conquest of 1066. Futhark continued to be used in Scandinavia for centuries longer, but by 1600 CE, it had become nothing more than curiosities among scholars and antiquarians.