As a common textbook definition, a grapheme is defined as ‘the smallest distinctive unit in a writing system’ and an allograph as a ‘variant of such a distinctive unit’ [Bußmann 2002:264; This definition is also given by Barnes & Page (2006:67).].
‘Smallest’ seems to be unproblematic, however, the second requirement ‘distinctive’ is more difficult to define for the Old English runes.
Although it is relatively easy to define ‘distinctive’ for modern Latin fonts for the computer as <a> and <e> in Times New Roman are clearly ‘distinctive’. But can we say the same when it comes to the Pre-OE fuþorc where only approximately 10 inscriptions can be reliably defined as written between ca. 400-600? Do we have enough data to clearly define, for example, the Pre-OE rune h? What are the criteria for categorizing the mirror runes on the Spong Hill Urn?
In my paper I will mainly look at the Pre-Old English inscriptions (400-600) and make an attempt to provide a catalogue of graphemes for Pre-Old English. As the definition of grapheme has to be made in relation to the phoneme, my catalogue will also include the Pre-Old English phonemes and allophones. This will shed light on the earliest stock of the English language and may lay the basis for further studies on the nature of the fuþark the settlers brought with them to England in the process of the adventus saxonum.