Via The Discouraging Word comes word of the discovery of the “oldest writing in English”: four runes on a brooch. Since we can’t even be sure it’s English, I’m dubious about the historical importance of the find, but here’s the start of the Daily Telegraph story by Paul Stokes:

What is believed to be the oldest form of writing in English ever found has been uncovered in an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. It is in the form of four runes representing the letters N, E, I and M scratched on the back of a bronze brooch from around AD650. The six inch cruciform brooch is among one million artefacts recovered from a site at West Heslerton, near Malton, North Yorks, since work began there in 1978. Dominic Powlesland, the archaeologist leading the excavation team, said: “This could well be the earliest example of written English we know of.
“Only one or two other runic inscriptions from around this period have been found, but this is either the earliest or one of them. We have no idea what the letters mean, except that it would have been something in early English.
“Whether it is a charm of some form, a person’s initials or the first letters of a phrase is something only future research will be able to determine. It was obviously something treasured by its owner as it had been carefully repaired.”

And we should bear in mind the following warning from Hugh R. Whinfrey in his article on runic inscriptions:

The most tenuous aspect of using the runestones as historical evidence is taking the absence or scarcity of them as supporting evidence to a hypothesis. Considering the millennium or so since their construction, many have been doubtlessly lost forever. A crude estimate made with liberally unrealistic assumptions concerning early English runic inscriptions yields a guess that at most one per cent of the objects actually inscribed are known to scholars today.


  1. S’pose it’d just kill ’em to give us a picture, eh?

  2. Yeah, I’m waiting impatiently for a more informative, and illustrated, story.

  3. N, E, I and M
    quote “We have no idea what the letters mean, except that it would have been something in early English”
    like maybe …..Norse English, Irish Maybe: This being as The Anglos like NEWmonics (LMS -hell of a mess, for London Midland and Scottish)” sorry LH ’tis my nature>

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