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At Hogwarts, one of the subjects that students can chose in 3rd year is Ancient Runes. This means that they potentially spend a total of 5 years on this subject. From what little I can see in the wiki, it almost looks like they simply study the symbols, rather than their uses.

It talks about how things like Alchemy, which would dovetail well with Ancient Runes, are offered occasionally, but other than that it mentions almost nothing.

Are they really only learning the alphabets and numbers?

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    I think it's analogous to learning Latin. Which, incidentally, dovetails well with some sciences. – amflare Jul 10 '17 at 14:13
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    Useful for reading ancient magical scrolls written in runes. Or mago-archeology work. Or breaking curses on ancient tombs. (Isn't that what the oldest Weasley brother did?) – RichS Jul 10 '17 at 15:41
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    Bill Weasley was a Curse-Breaker, yes, though I should note Arithmancy rather than runes is the listed course requirement - “Listen to this: Are you seeking a challenging career involving travel, adventure and substantial, danger-related treasure bonuses? Then consider a position with Gringotts Wizarding Bank, who are currently recruiting Curse-Breakers for thrilling opportunities abroad… They want Arithmancy, though; you could do it, Hermione!” – Glimmervoid Jul 10 '17 at 19:17
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Ancient Runes is purely a language course. We can see this from the numerous if disperse references to it throughout canon.

Book 3 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban said:

“Every night, without fail, Hermione was to be seen in a corner of the common room, several tables spread with books, Arithmancy charts, rune dictionaries, diagrams of Muggles lifting heavy objects, and file upon file of extensive notes; she barely spoke to anybody and snapped when she was interrupted.

Book 3 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban said:

“Harry looked around at the cluttered table, at the long Arithmancy essay on which the ink was still glistening, at the even longer Muggle Studies essay (‘Explain Why Muggles Need Electricity’) and at the rune translation Hermione was now poring over.

Book 3 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban said:

“Why don’t you just drop a couple of subjects?” Harry asked, watching her lifting books as she searched for her rune dictionary.

Book 3 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban said:

Ron threw something down onto Hermione’s rune translation. Hermione and Harry leaned forward. Lying on top of the weird, spiky shapes were several long, ginger cat hairs.

Book 4 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire said:

“Well, now we know what to do next time I can’t manage a spell,” Harry said, throwing a rune dictionary back to Hermione, so he could try again, “threaten me with a dragon. Right…” He raised his wand once more. “Accio Dictionary!” The heavy book soared out of Hermione’s hand, flew across the room, and Harry caught it.

Book 5 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix said:

Harry did not read any further. Fudge might have many faults but Harry found it extremely hard to imagine him ordering goblins to be cooked in pies. He flicked through the rest of the magazine. Pausing every few pages, he read: an accusation that the Tutshill Tornados were winning the Quidditch League by a combination of blackmail, illegal broom-tampering and torture; an interview with a wizard who claimed to have flown to the moon on a Cleansweep Six and brought back a bag of moon frogs to prove it; and an article on ancient runes which at least explained why Luna had been reading The Quibbler upside-down. According to the magazine, if you turned the runes on their heads they revealed a spell to make your enemy’s ears turn into kumquats. In fact, compared to the rest of the articles in The Quibbler, the suggestion that Sirius might really be the lead singer of The Hobgoblins was quite sensible.

This is just another example of reading runes. Admittedly, in this case, upside down and in the Quibbler. The article is called ‘Secrets of the Ancient Runes Revealed’.

Book 5 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix said:

Every single Divination and Care of Magical Creatures lesson was now conducted in the presence of Umbridge and her clipboard. She lurked by the fire in the heavily perfumed tower room, interrupting Professor Trelawney’s increasingly hysterical talks with difficult questions about ornithomancy and heptomology, insisting that she predicted students’ answers before they gave them and demanding that she demonstrate her skill at the crystal ball, the tea leaves and the rune stones in turn.

Divination can apparently involve ‘rune stone’. What a rune stone is, or if they are any relation to study of ancient runes, is unclear. Whatever the case, runes as an ancient form of writing still works fine in this instance. No one is claiming tea leaves can be used to cast powerful magic; it’s just a way of making random shapes, or in the case of runes, letters.

Book 5 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix said:

“She’s been breaking into your broom shed in the garden since the age of six and taking each of your brooms out in turn when you weren’t looking,” said Hermione from behind her tottering pile of Ancient Rune books.

“Oh,” said George, looking mildly impressed. “Well - that’d explain it.”

“Has Ron saved a goal yet?” asked Hermione, peering over the top of Magical Hieroglyphs and Logograms.

According to Wikipedia, “A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of language).” Likewise, a hieroglyph is just a method of writing. So this Ancient Runes book (as identified in the first paragraph) is about the Hieroglyphs and Logograms used in the magical world.

Book 5 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix said:

“That’s the trouble with Quidditch,” said Hermione absent-mindedly, once again bent over her Runes translation, “it creates all this bad feeling and tension between the houses.”

She looked up to find her copy of Spellman’s Syllabary, and caught Fred, George and Harry all staring at her with expressions of mingled disgust and incredulity on their faces.

“Well, it does!” she said impatiently. “It’s only a game, isn’t it?”

“Hermione,” said Harry, shaking his head, “you’re good on feelings and stuff, but you just don’t understand about Quidditch.”

“Maybe not,” she said darkly, returning to her translation, “but at least my happiness doesn’t depend on Ron’s goalkeeping ability.”

Notice the repeated references to translation. Also, the book she is using is a Syllabary which Wikipedia defines as “A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent (or approximate) syllables, which make up words. A symbol in a syllabary typically represents an optional consonant sound followed by a vowel sound.” Again, words not magic.

Book 5 - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix said:

“How were the Runes?” said Ron, yawning and stretching.

“I mistranslated ehwaz,” said Hermione furiously. “It means partnership, not Defense; I mixed it up with eihwaz.”

The exam includes translation. Nothing else is mentioned.

Book 6 - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince said:

“I know I messed up Ancient Runes,” muttered Hermione feverishly, “I definitely made at least one serious mistranslation. And the Defense Against the Dark Arts practical was no good at all. I thought Transfiguration went all right at the time, but looking back —”

Again, the exam is referenced as containing translation.

Book 6 - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince said:

“Yes, I’ve already agreed it was fishy, Harry,” said Hermione a little impatiently. She was sitting on the windowsill in Fred and George’s room with her feet up on one of the cardboard boxes and had only grudgingly looked up from her new copy of Advanced Rune Translation. “But haven’t we agreed there could be a lot of explanations?”

Book 6 - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince said:

“We got so much homework for Runes,” she said anxiously when Harry and Ron joined her. “A fifteen-inch essay, two translations, and I’ve got to read these by Wednesday!”

Again, Runes is shown, even at NEWT level, to be translations. There is no, ‘practise casting Rune X’.

Book 7 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows said:

“Oh, of course,” said Ron, clapping a hand to his forehead. “I forgot we’ll be hunting down Voldemort in a mobile library.”

“Ha ha,” said Hermione, looking down at Spellman’s Syllabary. “I wonder . . . will we need to translate runes? It’s possible. . . . I think we’d better take it, to be safe.”

She dropped the syllabary onto the larger of the two piles and picked up Hogwarts, A History.

Spellman’s Syllabary is previously noted as an Ancient Runes textbook. Notice that its sole mentioned use is in translating runes. Also, if runes were used to cast some kind of defensive ‘ward’ magic, as is common in fanon, don’t you think it would be on the ‘definitely take’ list and not the ‘to be safe’ list?

Book 7 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows said:

Scrimgeour now pulled out of the bag a small book that looked as ancient as the copy of Secrets of the Darkest Art upstairs. Its binding was stained and peeling in places. Hermione took it from Scrimgeour without a word. She held the book in her lap and gazed at it. Harry saw that the title was in runes; he had never learned to read them. As he looked, a tear splashed onto the embossed symbols.

Runes are for reading, not magicing.

Book 7 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows said:

"And as for this book." Said Hermione, "The Tales of Beedle the Bard … I've never even heard of them!"

"You've never heard of The Tales of Beedle the Bard?" said Ron incredulously. "You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not," said Hermione in surprise. "Do you know them then?" "Well, of course I do!"

Harry looked up, diverted. The circumstance of Ron having read a book that Hermione had not was unprecedented. Ron, however, looked bemused by their surprise.

"Oh come on! All the old kids' stories are supposed to be Beedle's aren't they? 'The Fountain of Fair Fortune' … 'The Wizard and the Hopping Pot'… 'Babbitty Rabbitty and her Cackling Stump'…"

"Excuse me?" said Hermione giggling. "What was the last one?"

"Come off it!" said Ron, looking in disbelief from Harry to Hermione. "You must've heard of Babbitty Rabbitty –"

"Ron, you know full well Harry and I were brought up by Muggles!" said Hermione. "We didn't hear stories like that when we were little, we heard 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' and 'Cinderella' –"

"What's that, an illness?" asked Ron.

"So these are children's stories?" asked Hermione, bending against over the runes. "Yeah." Said Ron uncertainly. "I mean, just what you hear, you know, that all these old stories came from Beedle. I dunno what they're like in the original

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is written in runes and it is a book of children’s stories. Likewise, Hermione reads the title as The Tales of Beedle the Bard which is also in runes, as said by Harry.

Book 7 - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows said:

Apparently she had not been listening to him. She leaned forward and held out The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

“Look at that symbol,” she said, pointing to the top of a page. Above what Harry assumed was the title of the story (being unable to read runes, he could not be sure), there was a picture of what looked like a triangular eye, its pupil crossed with a vertical line.

“I never took Ancient Runes, Hermione.”

“I know that; but it isn’t a rune and it’s not in the syllabary, either. All along I thought it was a picture of an eye, but I don’t think it is! It’s been inked in, look, somebody’s drawn it there, it isn’t really part of the book. Think, have you ever seen it before?”

To sum up a very long post: every single instance of runes being used for anything in the books has been about translating them or reading them. So the practical part of the subject is likely just more translation. The only slight exception to this are the runes on Dumbledore’s Pensieve and since they never do anything (glow, pulse etc), and Harry does not read runes (as he states in the above quote), they might say ‘property of Dumbledore’ for all we know.

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    A rune stone is something used for divination in modern esoterica, usually using the Elder Fulthurk, although other glyphs can be used. These symbols are considered to represent entire concepts (HP acknowledges this in the quote about mistranslating the symbol ehwaz in the exam) as well as letters. So one can 'cast the runes' to answer questions, much like Tarot. It was actually that line about mixing up ehwaz (transportation or betrayal) and eihwaz (defense or confusion) that started this idea in my head. – KittenWithAWhip Jul 10 '17 at 16:16
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    Hogwarts is based off of English boarding schools; "Ancient Languages" is one topic you learn, where you translate from Greek/Latin into English. Possibly Ancient Runes is a simple translation of that relatively dry (if challenging) subject into a magical school subject. Learning Greek/Latin is tangentally useful in todays world (it makes medical terms easier to understand, for example), but it doesn't directly provide practical skills. – Yakk Jul 10 '17 at 17:55
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    @KittenWithAWhip: The "funny" thing is that ehwaz and eihwaz don't look even remotely the same. I found it hard to believe that Hermione (of all people) would confuse so dissimilar runes just because their names are similar... – DevSolar Jul 11 '17 at 8:13
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    @Yakk: But if you take the runes as language (as opposed to e.g. the language Norse written in runes), you end up with a language having somewhere between 16 and 33 "words" or "meanings". It's really just learning an alphabet. It is a bit funny that you should study something like that for five years... – DevSolar Jul 11 '17 at 8:16
  • @Yakk One topic you might learn. – Pharap Jul 11 '17 at 12:31

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