Daily Archives: October 1, 2009

futhorc

Urgh, this word appears to have crawled forth from some Tolkien-inspired vision of the Dark Ages, either as a name for some filthy orc or as onomatopoeia for the vicious spectre’s viscous expectoration. Or perhaps it’s the sound of a bolt from a crossbow penetrating the squamous hide of said beast. On the other hand, it could be the name of an elder druid, or perhaps a word from his incantation over a cauldron miasmal with mistletoe and fetor. Perhaps it is the moss that grows on his mystic abecedaries. Those who see it may think, oh, cruft!

Well, scrape the bryophytes off the tome and heave it open. Does what you see inside make you think of a Tolkien effort? This codex is no cortex cut with ogham; on the other hand, the silmarillian curls of the Fëanorian tengwar are nowhere in sight. What you see appears to have been scratched in with a penknife. Has the book been ruined? No, it’s been runed. Let us begin your lessons: the first six letters of this alphabet equate to modern English f, u, th, o, r, c. (The Scandinavian version has an a rather than an o, and transliterates the [k] as k rather than the old-style c, and so it is called futhark.)

Runes, ah, runes! Mystical and magical! You can buy some in a velvet drawstring bag (suitable for later use holding Scrabble tiles) and cast your future! So mystical, like Stonehenge! Um. Well, when literacy was the preserve of a limited class, notably those who needed to preserve things much more important than shopping lists, it did tend to be associated with things powerful, arcane, and numinous or eldritch. But runes, like other abecedaries, have only the power we give them: the power of capturing in fixed form the lightning of thought, and sparking it again and again. You can hear the striking forth of Thor’s arc: futhorc!

And then, when monks replaced druids, Latin arrived and brought with it the alphabet you’re reading now. Only two runes were preserved, integrated out of need: thorn and wynn. Thorn represented the voiceless dental fricative, as heard beginning thorn; wynn represented the labiovelar glide that we now write w. But the wynn lost out to a doubled u (written the old angular way), and the thorn was ultimately pulled out as well. The English language took the road more travelled by, and the futhorc was left at the fork, its value now mainly in evoking those ancient, mystical days… especially the good fictional ones, the way it all ought to have happened. It would have been so much more entertaining. To us, not them.