When early medieval English speakers wanted to write, two encoding systems were available to them. The older system, at least as far as English was concerned, was the runic alphabet, the futhorc (as the English version is called; the standard account is Page 1999). Runes were used throughout the early Germanic world and survive mostly in inscriptions on stone, metal, and bone objects.
|Franks Casket, back panel. © Trustees of the British Museum|
It might at first be thought that the reason was technological or media-related: runes were designed to be carved in hard materials, whereas the Roman alphabet was, by the early Middle Ages, adapted to writing on parchment. But this cannot be the only or even the main reason. Both the Roman and the runic alphabets were used for carved inscriptions, and on coins and other such objects. Runes appear in manuscripts, most notably in some of the Exeter Book poems, and there is no compelling reason why the futhorc could not have been adapted to pen and parchment, as the Roman alphabet was. Neither alphabet was intrinsically superior and it could be argued that the futhorc was better suited to writing English.
The most important reason the Roman alphabet was used to write English was cultural, for the socially dominant model for literacy throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages was Latin literacy. Until King Alfred’s educational reforms in the 9th century (and to some extent even afterwards), English speakers learned to read and write first by learning Latin, which of course was encoded in the Roman alphabet. In the early Middle Ages, the primary institution that offered a training in the technical skills of literacy was the Church, and the Church in western Europe conducted its business in Latin. And Latin literacy connected medieval English people with textual communities all over western Europe, who were similarly invested in the system (economists might call this a ‘network effect’). So the encoding of English with the Roman alphabet seems to be a good example of path dependence.
But a number of issues are worth further investigation. One is the persistence of runes throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, right up to the early 11th century, and usually embedded in (or juxtaposed with) texts otherwise written with the Roman alphabet. The functions of runes in these cases still need further study; Page’s chapter in An Introduction to English Runes on ‘Runic and Roman’ is full of questions that have not yet all been answered satisfactorily.
Early medieval English scribes were not presented with a simple either/or choice. Since Latin, and its encoding system, did not have sounds or symbols for the interdental fricative or the labiovelar (the ‘w’ sound), Anglo-Saxon scribes adapted two runes to fill the gaps in the Roman alphabet: ‘thorn’ and 'wynn'. The latter disappeared after the Norman Conquest (it was replaced by our modern letter ‘w’), but thorn persisted in England right through the Middle Ages. Thus, although the Roman alphabet was originally designed to write a different language, medieval English people found ways to adjust it so that it was a better fit, although still not an ideal one, for their own language. People get by with workarounds.
"although the Roman alphabet was originally designed to write a different language, medieval English people found ways to adjust it"
The relationship of Latin and English throughout the Middle Ages is worth exploring further not only for cultural and linguistic reasons but also for technological ones. When medieval people looked at a text in a manuscript and saw that it was written in English, they most likely formed a different set of expectations, and read it in different ways, than they would have in approaching a Latin text (see O’Keeffe 1990). Much work has been done on the encoding of Latin in medieval manuscripts, and the ways in which scribes writing Latin texts presented, organised, and searched for information. Much less has been done on the adjustments that medieval scribes made for encoding English. Throughout this project, which focusses on English texts, the Latin background of medieval literacy will be crucial.
Did the power and prestige of Latin lock written English into the Roman alphabet? Yes, it did, and that commitment is now so deep that today it is hardly questioned or even noticed. But not all path dependence is negative or even inefficient, as some have argued. The history of English writing hints at the social factors that influence technological decisions, but also at the flexibility, adaptability, and ingenuity of humans who use technology.