The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark (or fuþark, derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the same six letters). Runology is the study of the runic alphabets, runic inscriptions, runestones, and their history. Runology forms a specialized branch of Germanic linguistics.
The earliest runic inscriptions date from around AD 150. The characters were generally replaced by the Latin alphabet as the cultures that had used runes underwent Christianization by around AD 700 in central Europe and by around AD 1100 in Northern Europe. However, the use of runes persisted for specialized purposes in Northern Europe. Until the early 20th century runes were used in rural Sweden for decoration purposes in Dalarna and on Runic calendars.
The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100). The Younger Futhark is further divided into the long-branch runes (also called Danish, although they were also used in Norway and Sweden), short-branch or Rök runes (also called Swedish-Norwegian, although they were also used in Denmark), and the stavesyle or Hälsinge runes (staveless runes). The Younger Futhark developed further into the Marcomannic runes, the Medieval runes (1100–1500), and the Dalecarlian runes (around 1500–1800).
The runes developed centuries after the Old Italic alphabets from which they are historically derived. The debate on the development of the runic script concerns the question which of the Italic alphabets should be taken as their point of origin, and which, if any, signs should be considered original innovations added to the letters found in the Italic scripts. The historical context of the script’s origin is the cultural contact between Germanic people, who often served as mercenaries in the Roman army, and the Italic peninsula during the Roman imperial period (1st c. BC to 5th c. AD). The formation of the Elder Futhark was complete by the early 5th century, with the Kylver Stone being the first evidence of the futhark ordering as well as of the p rune.
Specifically, the Raetic alphabet of Bolzano, is often advanced as a candidate for the origin of the runes, with only five Elder Futhark runes (ᛖ e, ᛇ ï, ᛃ j, ᛜ ŋ, ᛈ p) having no counterpart in the Bolzano alphabet (Mees 2000). Scandinavian scholars tend to favor derivation from the Latin alphabet itself over Raetic candidates. A „North Etruscan“ thesis is supported by the inscription on the Negau helmet dating to the 2nd century BC This is in a northern Etruscan alphabet, but features a Germanic name, Harigast.
The angular shapes of the runes are shared with most contemporary alphabets of the period used for carving in wood or stone. A peculiarity of the runic alphabet is the absence of horizontal strokes, although this characteristic is also shared by other alphabets, such as the early form of the Latin alphabet used for the Duenos inscription, and it is not universal especially among early runic inscriptions, which frequently have variant rune shapes including horizontal strokes.
The „West Germanic hypothesis“ speculates on an introduction by West Germanic tribes. This hypothesis is based on claiming that the earliest inscriptions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, found in bogs and graves around Jutland (the Vimose inscriptions), exhibit word endings that, being interpreted by Scandinavian scholars to be Proto-Norse, are considered unresolved and having been long the subject of discussion. Inscriptions like wagnija, niþijo, and harija are supposed to incarnate tribe names, tentatively proposed to be Vangiones, the Nidensis and the Harii, tribes located in the Rhineland. Since names ending in -io reflect Germanic morphology representing the Latin ending -ius, and the suffix -inius was reflected by Germanic -inio-, the question of the problematic ending -ijo in masculine Proto-Norse would be resolved by assuming Roman (Rhineland) influences, while „the awkward ending -a of laguþewa (cf. Syrett 1994:44f.) can be solved by accepting the fact that the name may indeed be West Germanic;“ however, it should be noted that in the early Runic period differences between Germanic languages are generally assumed to be small. Another theory assumes a Northwest Germanic unity preceding the emergence of Proto-Norse proper from roughly the 5th century. An alternative suggestion explaining the impossibility to classify the earliest inscriptions as either North or West Germanic is forwarded by È. A. Makaev, who assumes a „special runic koine„, an early „literary Germanic“ employed by the entire Late Common Germanic linguistic community after the separation of Gothic (2nd to 5th centuries), while the spoken dialects may already have been more diverse.
 Early inscriptions
Runic inscriptions from the 400 year period of c. AD 150 to 550 are referred to as „Period I“ inscriptions. These inscriptions are generally in Elder Futhark, but the set of letter shapes and bindrunes employed is far from standardized. Notably the j, s and ŋ runes undergo considerable modifications, while others, such as p and ï, remain unattested altogether prior the first full futhark row on the Kylver Stone (c. AD 400).
Artifacts such as spear-mounts, shield-heads have been found which bear runic marking can be dated to 200 A.D., as evidenced by artifacts found across northern Europe in Schleswig (North Germany), Fyn, Sjaeland, Jylland (Denmark), and Skåne (Sweden). Earlier, but less reliable, artifacts have been found in Meldorf, Süderithmarschen, North Germany; these include brooches and comes found in graves, and are supposed to have the earliest markings resembling runic inscriptions.
Theories of the existence of separate Gothic runes have been advanced, even identifying them as the original alphabet from which the Futhark were derived, but these have little support in actual findings (mainly the spearhead of Kovel, with its right-to-left inscription, its T-shaped tiwaz and its rectangular dagaz). If there ever were genuinely Gothic runes, they were soon replaced by the Gothic alphabet. The letters of the Gothic alphabet, however, as given by the Alcuin manuscript (9th century), are obviously related to the names of the Futhark. The names are clearly Gothic, but it is impossible to say whether they are as old as, or even older than, the letters themselves. A handful of Elder Futhark inscriptions were found in Gothic territory, such as the 3rd to 5th century Ring of Pietroassa. The Encyclopædia Britannica even suggests the original development of the runes may have been due to the Goths.
Historically, the runic alphabet is a derivation of the Old Italic alphabets of antiquity, with the addition of some innovations. Which variant of the Old Italic family in particular gave rise to the runes is uncertain, suggestions including Raetic, Etruscan or Old Latin candidates. All these scripts at the time had the same angular letter shapes suited for epigraphy which would become characteristic of the runes. The process of transmission of the script (the oldest inscriptions being found in Denmark and Northern Germany, not near Italy) is also unknown. A „West Germanic hypothesis“ suggests transmission via Elbe Germanic groups, while a „Gothic hypothesis“ assumes transmission via East Germanic expansion.