M4C Logo AHRC Logo

Jasmin Higgs

Languages and Literature, University of Nottingham

Thesis title:

Writing Runes: Determining Functional Variation in Early Runic Inscriptions

My research project assesses how to determine the function of early runic writing c.400-650AD. The project focuses on determining function in a systematic way using approaches from historical sociolinguistics, social semiotics, and material culture studies. The analysis will then be used to create a framework which will attempt to answer key questions:

·       When interdisciplinary analysis is applied to runic writing, what framework comes from the analysis and what can it tell us about the function of runic writing?

·       What are the functions of pre-Old English runic writing and how does this change over the early runic period between c.400 to 650AD in Britain?

·       How do the early runic inscriptions of Britain function in comparison with the inscriptions of the South Germanic, Frisian and Scandinavia corpora in Europe?

My MA thesis examined the application of speech act theory from sociolinguistics on early runic inscriptions to determine their function as acts of communication. It became apparent that the ways for describing and analysing the function of runic writing in its earlier stages of development was underexplored in runology and linguistics. 

Building on my MA work, this project aims to demonstrate how interdisciplinary approaches can illuminate the study of the written word during a time period where the language is poorly attested, as well as chart how the early runic inscriptions of Britain function in comparison with their European contemporaries. I will study, in total, over 400 inscriptions from the pre-Old English, South Germanic, Frisian, and Scandinavian corpora. This wider approach that considers the British inscriptions in relation to their European contemporaries hopes to produce a framework that can tell us about the function of early runes more broadly in this time period, giving us a bigger picture on how early written Germanic languages were used.

Early Germanic languages are attested primarily through runic evidence. The time period has small data sets and fragmentary evidence, known in linguistics as a Trümmersprache ‘remains language’ (Lass 1997:274). There are issues establishing linguistic context due to the complexity of the Migration Period (c.400-650AD), where Germanic-speaking peoples migrated around Europe, some settling in Britain, and the nature and extent of migration in Britain and continued contact across the ‘homelands’ of Europe is debated. Linguistic context, both immediate, in the sense of written materials for recording communication, and wider, such as societal need for communication and how writing is seen in society, are crucial to understanding the function of written language.

Therefore, this research needs to approach determining function in the widest and most systematic way possible when dealing with these complexities. The best approach is to use multiple academic fields such as historical sociolinguistics (how language relates to society), social semiotics (human signifying and meaning-making practises), and material culture studies. Runological scholarship is interdisciplinary and has started to explore sociolinguistics and semiotics (Bianchi 2010; Zimmermann 2010, Holmberg 2015). However, these studies are based on Viking Age material. My research is inspired by these interdisciplinary approaches, but differs in the depth of theories explored and considered, as well as the historical period examined. The framework produced by my analysis will provide grounding for further research due to its focus on early Germanic language through an interdisciplinary lens.


Research Area

  • Languages and Literature


Higgs, Jasmin (2017). 'Examine the value of place names as evidence for the history, landscape and, especially, language(s) of your chosen area: North Essex'. Innervate: Leading Undergraduate Work in English Studies [https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/documents/innervate/17-18/q33220-jasmine-higgs.pdf] 

Public Engagement & Impact

  • Object Handler for the museum exhibit 'Vikings: Rediscover the Legend' (2017) 
  • Exhibit curator for 'Vikings in the East Midlands: forming relationships, forging identities' (2019) https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/research/groups/csva/events/events/2018-19/vikings-in-the-east-midlands-forging-relationships-forming-identities-the-exhibition.aspx 

Other Research Interests

  • historical linguistics (specifically semantics, pragmatics, and orthography)
  • historical sociolinguistics 
  • social semiotics 
  • onomastics and place-names studies 
  • the use and appropriation of runes or rune-like symbols in folk horror films


Student membership to the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland.