Guns, Thorns, & Smartphones: The Odd History of Runes Part 2

Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today, a two-parter
in which NativLang & I are exploring ancient Germanic Runes. After you’ve learned here
about the word ‘rune’ and how runes are intertwined into the modern world, head over
to NativLang to find out about the development of the runic writing system, from Vikings
scratching graffiti on a church in Constantinople to tales of Odin and magical words. The runic system, that was used in Anglo-Saxon
England and Scandinavia before the arrival of Christian missionaries, was rarely employed
for writing extended texts, mainly just inscriptions and such like. Once the missionaries arrived,
though, it didn’t take long for the new converts to come up with the idea of using
the the Latin alphabet for writing down not just Latin but also their own language. Just
one problem, or maybe a couple actually — there were some sounds in the various Germanic languages
that just didn’t exist in Latin, so there were no letters to use to write them down.
For instance both the voiced -th- as in Modern English either and the voiceless -th- as in
ether didn’t exist in Latin (though a similar sound from ancient Greek was represented as

in Latin contexts). In early Old English manuscripts the sound was represented as the
digraph (that’s two letters together making one sound) , or simply as the letter,
but eventually a diacritic stroke was added to that letterto differentiate it from
a regular letterto make a symbol we now refer to as eth. And a little later another
solution to the missing sound also began to be used, one of those Old runic characters,
the thorn, as it was called in Anglo-Saxon England, or thurs meaning “giant, ogre”
in Old Norse. You see, though the runic writing system is an alphabet representing sounds
not an ideographic system, the characters have meaningful names. These two characters,
eth and the runic thorn, could be used for either -th- or -dh-. Old Norse manuscripts
followed suit with first the thorn and a little later the eth, with the added twist that thorn
came to be used only as the initial letter in words and eth in other positions in words,
whereas in Old English the letters were used interchangeably. Another runic character was pressed into service
as well, the wynn meaning “joy” to represent the /w/ sound — in Latin the letter
was used for both the vowel /u/ and the consonant /w/. Actually in the earlier Old English manuscripts
the letterwas used for /w/ , but eventually to avoid confusion between the voweland
the consonantthe runic wynn was adopted. Of course to our modern eyes that runic wynn
looks an awful lot like a letter

, so modern printed editions of Old English texts replace
all the wynns with our modern w, a character that came about a little later by the joining
up of twos or twos, (the double-u). But if you’re reading actual manuscripts
from the period, you have mind your P’s and… well… wynns. Actually, we’re kind of prone to mixing
up those runic characters and roman letters. That’s what happened with those “Ye Olde
Shoppe” signs in fact. You see, the thorn hung around for a while after the Old English
period, gradually becoming less and less common, and as it did so the form of the character
became less and less distinct, with the ascender, that perpendicular line on the side, becoming
shorter, so the thorn look more like the wynn, which by the 14th century had disappeared,
and like the

— confusing! And by the 15th century, it looked a lot like a letter
, so that when the printing press came along printers would often use thein
place of the thorn, though by that point the

digraph had mostly replaced it, with
the thorn only being used in common words like the, often represented in text as
standing in for thorn with a superscript. So what looks like, “ye”, was actually
“the”, so it should really be pronounced “The Olde Shoppe”. But that’s not nearly
so quaint! One last way that runes were worked into English,
back in those old Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, was as a type of secret code — a few individual
rune signs were dropped into the otherwise Latin script, which could be put together
to spell out the answer to a riddle or the name of the author, as in this poem by Cynewulf. It’s no coincidence that runes were used
in this secretive way, since the word rune itself is not only Old English for ‘runic
character’ but also meant “secret, mystery” and “council, consultation”. It comes
via Proto-Germanic probably from an Indo-European root meaning “roar, murmur” which also
gives us the words rumour, riot, and raucous. The word mostly faded from the language along
with the runes themselves after the Anglo-Saxon period, only to be added back in by scholars
in the 17th century and later who were studying those old runes. But there is at least one
hidden remnant of the word in the placename Runnymede. You see Runnymede in Surrey was
where Anglo-Saxon kings held council meetings with their various nobles, ealdormen, thegns,
and so forth — remember the “council” meaning of rune — the so-called witenagemot,
literally “meeting of the wise men”, which by the way inspired JK Rowling’s council
of wizards the Wizengamot. So Runnymede literally means “rune island meadow”. And it’s
therefore appropriate that in the year 1215 the feudal barons of England, who were, I
suppose, raucous and ready to riot, buttonholed King John and forced him to accept the Magna
Carta, which limited the powers of the tyrannical king. Not that he kept to his agreement, but
rescinded it shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Magna Carta marks an important milestone in
constitutional history. Getting back to runes themselves, for the
most part their use faded with the middle ages, but they were later revived along with
gothicism and the interest in the ancient Germanic past in the 18th and 19th century.
This was a factor in the growing nationalism of German Romanticism, which celebrated, and
to some degree fabricated, a romanticized version of Germanic history, of which runes
were a part. Furthermore the runes fed into the esoteric and occultist fascination of
figures such as Austrian mysticist Guido von List, who developed the Armanen runes, and
inspired by them Karl Maria Wiligut, who developed his own version of the runes in the 20th century.
And that’s the next link in our chain. Because this was exactly the sort of thing that caught
the interest of the Nazi occultists, particularly Heinrich Himmler who incorporated these runes
into various Nazi insignia, most famously the insignia of the Schutzstaffel, the so-called
SS. Another script-related thing the Nazis were into, at least at first, was the old
Blackletter or Fraktur typeface, which had developed from the gothic manuscript hands
of the later middle ages, and which by the 19th century had become particularly associated
with Germanic culture and language. The Nazis eventually decided to dump the Fraktur typeface
in favour of the Roman script, claiming (mendaciously) antisemitic reasons, but actually because
it made practical sense to use the same typeface as the rest of the Latin-alphabet-using world. The Nazis weren’t the only ones to favour
the Fraktur typeface. Many writers in the 19th and early 20th century expressed a similar
attachment to the script for German nationalist reasons, such as German type designer Rudolf
Koch. In addition to typefaces Koch was also interested in other graphic symbols, such
as the old Germanic runes, and published a book on various old symbols, monograms, and
runes called The Book of Signs. This book brought many of these old symbols and runes
to popculture notice, including to the attention of rock band Led Zeppelin, who used a couple
of symbols from the book on the cover of their fourth album, which were meant to represent
the band members. The one that drummer John Bonham selected was three circles, meant to
symbolize two parents and a child. It also happens to be similar to the company logo
of the 400 year old German industrial Krupp family dynasty, known for steel works, and
for, believe it or not, a German heavy metal band called Die Krupps who called themselves
after this old German family name. The company logo is actually based on the seamless railway
wheels the company manufactured, but lest you think this is all a bit of a tangential
connection, the Krupp company ties into our story in another way. You see, the company
manufactured weapons for WWII (for which they got into some trouble due to their forced
labour practices) as well as for WWI, during which they built the famous heavy gun called
the Big Bertha, named after, if you’ll believe it, Krupp family member and heiress Bertha
Krupp. Actually there’s a long history of giving guns women’s names, such as Mons
Meg at Edinburgh Castle, and also it seems the very first gun, so to speak — at least
that’s where the word gun comes from, a particular 14th century cannon at Windsor
Castle called Domina Gunilde, or Lady Gunhilde. Gunhilde is an old Scandinavian name, the
two parts Gunnr and Hildr both meaning “battle” and both names of Valkyries, the warrior goddesses
who collect the souls of the slain warriors from the battlefield in Norse mythology. As
the Oxford English Dictionary points out, there weren’t any notable women in England
at the time by that name, so likely the use of the name for large munitions (before gunpowder
and cannons they’d be ballistas or other large siege weapons) goes back to Scandinavian
times. Perhaps after someone like Gunhilde daughter of Harald Bluetooth. She and her
husband were apparently killed in the St Brice’s Day Massacre in 1002, when all the Danes in
England were ordered killed by King Æthelred the Unready, in retaliation for which her
brother Sweyn Forkbeard retook England, which Harald Bluetooth had held before Æthelred,
bringing it back under Scandinavian control. And speaking of Harald Bluetooth, that’s
where we get the term for the wireless short range communication technology that you probably
have on your smartphone. You see Harald was also known for uniting the warring Danish
tribes into a single unified kingdom—in fact, the Jellings runestone I’ve used as
the background for this video was raised by Harald to commemorate his unification of Denmark
and Norway—and on that basis Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson picked his name for a technology
that was intended to unify the, at the time, disorganized communications protocols, uniting
them into one standard. Oh, and the symbol for that unifying technology? — it’s based
on the runic symbols for the initials of Harald Bluetooth. Now that you’ve seen the later history of
runes—a continuous process of dividing and unifying—head over to NativLang to have
their early history filled in — from the Viking sack of Seville to the mysteries of
the Elder and Younger Futhark! Click here to see that video—and check out his other
videos on the history of writing systems while you’re there! Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these
etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share
it; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. And
check out our Patreon page, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos
Leave a comment or question, or tweet @Alliterative; you can also read more of my thoughts on my
blog at

Comments 100

  • Runes are awesome

  • You should do a crossover with Metatron!

  • I love videos like these!

  • I'm getttting soooo many intersecting brain wavesssss. I'm learning a lot.

  • gunhilde

  • awesome very illustrative and fun video

  • Great video. Very informative and straight to the point. Subscribed!

  • "The runic writing system which was used in Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia before the arrival of Christian missionaries…"

    What about Germany?

  • That was great, I've been interested in runes since i learned to read brittanian runes as a kid playing the Ultima games, as all the road signs were in runic, it's a full english alphabet with a few double letters so really more of a runic font, it has made itself useful to this day as a great way to take notes that others cant read, also it looks cool.

  • soothing to my brain. Thank you for making these!

  • There's so much more to this topic out there. you could be talking about it for months. This video does a good job of showing a lot of the bullshit surrounding runes in pop culture. All those nonsense tattoos and neo-nazis are both illiterate and deceived.

  • Bluetooth's symbol looks runic to me but it also came to my mind that it's possible it's only a coincidence cause it looks like a pointy B. Very interesting.

  • I learned runes form Tolkien's, Hobbit, that counts right?

  • I have an eth in my middle name, it's silent though. It was fun when computers had problems with eth and thorn. A colleague of mine found a thorn in a database and panicked: Hackers must have corrupted the names.

  • Isn't a roar kind of the opposite of a murmur?

  • Very cool good work!

  • Heh, 1:31 sez Þorn

  • This is a great video, very informative and interesting. Thanks!


  • X files music should have been the background music

  • Why is your picture a pentagram/pentacle and why is the channel called "The Endless Knot"? Are pentagrams/pentacles and endless knots related? I practice Wicca so I'd like to know just to add to the levels of significance the pentagram/pentacle has in Wicca.

  • "Thorn" wasn't separated to produce a "phony" "y" – it was broken! I am surprised to learn that "thorn" was not a genitive of "Thor".

  • I could have sworn that "Runnymede" was a reference to the first "Rum runners". (run-the-mead) Though they were involved in smuggling mead that had not been taxed by the British monarch at that time.

  • Oh, no! Bertha died the same year I was born! Good thing I don't believe in reincarnation. Though I wonder … no, the fast that I studied German in college is entirely coincidental. Really.

  • wow so messy, right? it is no wonder that English spelling is a nightmare 😀

  • The Magna Carta was actually preceeded almost 600 years earlier by the Constitution of Medina:

  • What form of young Futhark was most common? My guess is Swedish.

  • Die Krupps, fuck yeah!!!

  • Ð/ð is still used in Faroese and is called "Edd". It's often silent or used as a glide between two vowels. 🙂

  • dang I forgot all about the letter thorn. i remember first hearing about it in college and it was and still is my favorite letter. I cant believe I forgot about it.

  • Wow that's really cool. I love how it all ties together.

  • This was great! It reminded me a lot of James Burke's Connections.

  • The Ð/ð and the Þ/þ are still used in Icelandic

  • I love that you have a Sutton Hoo helmet on the wall.

  • So gun comes from Gunhilda. o.O

  • Amazing!!! you have a new subscriber here!! ^.^

  • That Bluetooth thing though…. mind fucking blown.

  • 8:47 "Applered the unready" LOL

  • This was so coool!!!!

  • I must say, you are an excellent speaker.

  • Are you Canadian? Just how talk makes me think you are.

  • wow, bluetooth just became so much cooler…

  • lmao an advertisement for yugi-oh? xD

  • What is the relationship between Viking runes and Göktürk runes? The latter is also categorised as runic alphabet.

  • computer dudes and their funny references when choosing names… hillarious XD

  • you speak way too fast. pity, bc there was a lot of interesting content, which flew by too quickly for me to retain…

  • Efficient and thorough. Loving these videos, thank you.

  • Ye is actually pronounced The?
    That's interesting

  • I now know how we got "W". Thank you.

  • I don't now why but many English videos (and texts for that matter) kind of mix up Norse, Scandinavian and Germanic. It's REALLY irritating once you start paying attention to it. Gunhildr/Gunhilde is no 'Scandinavian' name, because it's still very much present (if not popular) in central European, Germanic languages (e.g. Dutch or German). I don't now why, but to me, it seems that many Englishmen interested in linguistics tend to believe that there was some kind of invisible border separating Denmark and the south. While it is true that old influences waned first there (easily traceable by the many changes to old/middle/modern German that stemmed from the south), the arbitrary distinction between Scandinavian, Norse and Germanic imply a difference in meaning that simply does not exist the way it is often presented. While Danish, Norwegian and Swedish ARE part of the same Indo-European language subfamily (that shares some distinctive features not commonly found in the other modern germanic languages), most subjects you guys raise on YouTube refer to Proto-Germanic words (that are also shared with western Indo-European languages [though often not equally prominent]). In truth, the directly neighbouring languages are much closer than commonly thought of; I can, for example, thanks to my adequate knowledge of German, comprehend most written Danish (with a bit of thought). Same goes for Dutch (which is, of course, much closer to modern German). Once you are exposed to the difference in pronunciation for a while (and granted you have a knack for these kinds of things), you'll also be able to naturally understand more and more spoken language. To a certain extent, that is.
    I know it's a minor point, but these simplifications dumb the matter down in a quite unnecessary fashion. Nowadays people even believe that runes were only used in Scandinavia, whereas in truth, they were rather common early on, being used for profane works of arts as far south as Bavaria (and they were anything but rare there). It's just the runestones that were more of a Scandinavian thing (or maybe they simply outlasted the purges of pagan places of worships better there).
    Ah well, I'm babbling. Thanks for reading anyway.

  • why is my family in this video

  • This melted my brain in the nicest way possible

  • I wish I had seen this video when I was taking my History of the English Language class. Now I understand some of the things that were confusing me about Old English, particularly the thorn and eth.

  • I like to watch þorn.

  • I used to write in runes all the time. We had a dragon book that had the rune alphabet in it. I can write it and read it now. I was so excited when I could read the runes in the hobbit! I think I've forgotten it now though lol. I'm going to have to pick it back up!

  • Outstanding!

  • I have a tattoo round my arm in runic which reads swastika ,,

  • Wow a good bit of this wasn't something I knew, I don't even know that SS was deprived from Runes. Great video.

  • I wish I understood.

  • the ,,runes,, are originali Slavic. Stupid boy 😀

  • You should do the runes that's the old Turkic people use to do

  • The Vimose comb inscription is not only the oldest runic inscription, it is the oldest Germanic writing we have. Probably around 1800 years old.

  • Huh. I didn't know that about Bluetooth. I learned a lot from this video, thanks for your effort! 🙂

  • that 'ye/the' information is fascinating, thanks for teaching us all that

  • "Battle-battle."

    We need to have a Battle Battle on Hill Hill Hill Hill.

  • Sometimes I wish this dude was my dad

  • I'm very disappointed that you didn't mention fus, roh, or dah.

  • What about thou and you? Are we pronouncing it differently as a result of how thorn and y looked alike?

  • Remember Runescape? Burnt shrimp added to your inventory.

  • Not to mention the Székely of Transylvania (Romania), they also have runes!

  • Hey I am trying to learn how to read runes can you go over the pronunciation of them

  • Good nerd, you deserve more attention I think. Thorough nerds are good.

  • That meandered a little, but it was informative.

  • More evidence we're all just one peolple. Norse and pagan love to all folk.

  • What a handsome bearded man. Marry me, Mark! <3

  • "Gunhilde, your name is Gunhilde"

  • This explains "Son of a Gun" = woman, gyn. But not just any woman, a Valkyrie. Complex and fascinating!

  • That’s Bluetooth came from! Thank you!

  • This video was woefully inadequate in its investigation of how the thorn rune caused Michael Myers to kill his entire family.

  • i cant help it. im a nerd and ive finally come home.


  • Yay! We have: Thurisaz, Raidho, Uruz, Lagaz, Fehu, Isa, Perthro, Ehwaz, Othala, Gebo, Kenaz and Hagalaz. Sorry, that's all I could remember from Magnus Chase.

  • Franks and Saxons used runes as well… They changed to Latin letters tho. But they should not be forgotten as a germanic peoples 🙂

  • E V E R Y T H I N G ' S C O N N E C T E D

  • Ok! Now I understand the origins of the germanic runes, BUT what about the "runes" what my ancestors, the hungarians used? Because we have a writing system like that, many characters look the same but sound totally different. I mean we maybe got them from turks (maybe hungarians have turkish ancestry btw), but than how the turks got/invented similar symbols????

  • Do you know anything about the Turkic runes? The elder norse runes look really alike. Considering Norse and Turkic people lived really far away from each other it's hard to say but some historains say that they share the same ancestors. Can you make a video about that?

  • Relation-ships can lead to guilt by association, as birds of a feather flock together, so to do like minds pick up on like signs? Why caution is called for when picking up strange ideas or whole books filled with them. Triggers and latches (whether visual, auditory, olfactory or tactile) that open into corridors and passages?

    Providing us keys into proverbial dimensions, like Sesame Streets or Aladdin's Cave, or other such Reality Tunnels that whole peoples traverse through and get lost in (like the chidden of Hamlin stolen away by a magical pied piper, because their elders were crooked?). Or lustful if you're gunning for a more grown up audience, Hellraiser rehash then, or Ang Lee-esque Lust Cautiom. With just right amount of twinkle in the eye

    Leading us into this World of subversion and subterfuge, deception and deviousness, betrayal and broken promises. Up garden paths paved with broken crowns and cracked egg shells, into mother goose territory where fantasy and reality grow increasingly harder to distinguish. All the hallmarks of criminal minds, striving to escape from past and present crimes, into soul asylums and loony bins of their own making.

    With little qualms about taking entire populations with them, it seems. Unrepentant cheaters masquerading as reformist teachers I'd say? Or vice versa. Better the devil you know I suppose, lest that old dog starts learning some new tricks and then we'd really be in for it? Better to fish from out of barrels, and farm for suckers who you can lure to join circuses, if they're too cool for school, or just plain lazy and dim witted and think they can learn something worthwhile for free. Nothing is free so be weary of items without price tags, especially when dealing with the chronically dishonest

    Sorry but I don't appreciate the subtext and undertones your videos carry. Smacks of subversive moralizing with dubious ideas implied if you ask me. Culture as intelligence test that the whole world has failed, but thanks to good graces, we can fish for a living and continue finding other suckers to take our place, with some false lesson or two as bait maybe. Like links in a chain letter circuit, or pyramid marketing

    By playing ghosts of christmas past or Christmas present or whatever (as part of some scoobydo land scam where tourists are frightened away, so that criminal enterprises can persist maybe), with cautionary tales and words to the wise? About sticking to main roads and not veering into dirt paths or bi-ways. Lest you get shanghaied or bundled into an alphabet train offering one way tickets to the blues?

  • I loved everything about this video, but especially the way it was narrated through Hollywood-schizophrenic connections between each piece of tangentially related runic trivia.

  • 9:15 There's no d in Jelling

  • at the end of the video, my mind was effectively blown

  • Gunhilde
    Battle Battle
    Of course the Norse version of "Moon Moon" would be "Battle Battle"

  • Turkic Runes are similar. please make a video for this.

  • You didn’t mention Tolkien and the runes he created.

  • Wonderful job. Would the Jelling stone be pronounced as Yelling Stone?

  • Great stuff, I like how fluidly you linked things together that shows how many sources there are beyond the obvious ones people tend to use.

  • In Swedish gun is a name too, though its very old.

  • I thought the "Y" in Ye Olde came from eth rather than thorn – start with ð then open out the loop and remove the lower part of the cross stroke and you have a sort of Y

  • That Harold Bluetooth caught me off guard! 🤯 mind blown!!

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