A Guide to Writing in Norse Runes

If you want to write something in Norse runes, you have probably discovered that the task is rather challenging. This guide will help you through all the necessary steps. To begin, one has to look into how it works, and then figure out what kind of inscription is needed, since each type of converting into runes requires a separate approach.

How it Works

VikingAll European and many other languages use Roman letters. It may seem that taking an alphabet devised for one language (Latin in this example) and using it for another one or a whole set of different languages works all right. In fact it took about a millennium to adapt the alphabet we know today for various vernacular uses. The same applies to runes. Runic alphabets cannot and should not transcribe modern languages. We may use them to this end, but we have to invent some rules for this new and unnatural application. The nature of these rules may be illustrated by the following mental experiment: force Seneca who spoke Latin and knew no other language to write the modern German word schwarz (‘black’). To be sure, he would be stuck with both ‘sch’ and ‘z’, since no such sounds (phonemes) existed in his mother tongue. For ‘w’ and ‘r’ he would have only similar counterparts. Perhaps ‘a’ would create no problem. This example might seem forced, but ancient Greek historians had exactly the same difficulties with ancient Persian names. Europeans needed centuries to invent rules that everybody accepted for Roman letters to represent the sounds of their languages. We know these rules as orthography. However, there are no accepted rules for using runes to stand for modern English phonemes. No rules means no way to do it ‘right’.
What’s worse, ancient Germanic tribes did not have any orthography, either. Like both ‘through hardships to the stars’ and ‘thru hardships 2 the stars’ having equal rights to be ‘right’ variants. Runes were used phonetically, that is literally as people heard what they pronounced. So even if you don’t write in modern English, it doesn’t solve all of the riddle. Besides, some words, such as personal names, simply cannot be translated into the ancient Germanic languages for which the original runic systems were invented.

Types of Tasks

  1. Elder Futhark used to write in Migration period Germanic dialects
  2. Younger Futhark used to write in Old Norse
  3. Any of the above runic alphabets used to write in modern English or represent a personal name

On Right and Wrong

Even though there were no orthographic rules at the age when the runes were in usage, some ways to write them are more or less in line with the historical evidence, while others are not. Thus instead of ‘right’ ways to spell something in runes, I suggest to speak about more or less ‘authentic’ or ‘historical’ variants. Below are some recommendation based on my personal understanding of what ‘authentic’ or ‘historical’ is. By no means do I think that other approaches are ‘wrong’.

1. Elder Futhark

The Elder Futhark runes were used for the Proto-Norse language between about 3rd and 7th centuries. We know very little about that language, that is we don’t have a grammar and a dictionary for it. We have numerous Elder Futhark inscriptions but their meaning is largely obscure and the attempts to reconstruct the language that stood behind them are not very fruitful. Viking Age runestone inscriptions were not carved in Elder Futhark runes. Vikings spoke the Old Norse language, not Proto-Norse.

  • Recommended: Finding an existing inscription with clear meaning and copying it — you may be interested in so called formulaic words that often occur in the inscriptions.
  • Not recommended: Using Elder Futhark for Old Norse. Even worse is using it for Old Norse words in their Anglicized form, like words Odin or Mjolnir spelt in Elder Futhark (I see them time and again in tattoo designs). When the Elder Futhark was in use, these words were perhaps pronounced *wōðanaz and *melðunii̯az but no one is sure, it’s a reconstruction.

2. Younger Futhark

The Younger Futhark runes were used for the early form of the Old Norse language during the Viking Age. We do have a grammar and a dictionary for that language but it doesn’t mean that any Old Norse phrase or quote can be easily represented in Younger Futhark runes. The distinguishing trait of this runic alphabet is its use of the same runic sign for voiceless and voiced consonants (p and b, t and d, etc.) and even less logical indiscriminate use of the same runes for various vowels (for instance, the rune úr could stand for u, o, y, au etc.).

  • Recommended: Same as above — find an existing inscription and use it (you may be interested in Younger Futhark love quotes). However, writing in runes an Old Norse word or a quote that you have in Roman letters is also possible, since the conventions used by Younger Futhark rune carvers are more or less clear.
  • Not recommended: Permanent use if you converted an inscription into runes yourself. Your own later research or advice from an expert may reveal that you made a mistake.

3. Modern English to Runes

This task is usually much more complex than the previous ones. Transcribing words having sounds that never existed in the languages for which runic alphabets were created requires a lot of research. You may want to use my rune converter that works with modern English only. It is based on my own understanding of phonology and is provided ‘as is’ and free of charge.

Photo courtesy Olli Wilkman. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence.

Article by Viking Rune · published on September 28, 2013 · updated on February 3, 2014.

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