Should I Write in Runes Phonetically?

Runic manuscriptThe idea of writing phonetically is probably the first thing people hear when they delve into the problem of having a runic inscription. Vikings used runes phonetically, they say, so should we, if we want to get something authentic, do the same?

A few points have to be cleared up with respect to the way runes were used in the early Middle Ages. Where does the whole notion of ‘writing phonetically’ come from? This is simply another way to state that Old Norse inscriptions carved with the Younger Futhark runes did not have a stable spelling.

This is not something unique or characteristic for the Viking Age Old Norse language. Spelling variants are found throughout the ancient literatures. Even today we have orthographical differences between British English and US English. Any writing system develops from a relative lack of uniformity to a growing number of generally accepted rules. Runes are no exception. Roman letters—used for modern English—went through the same stages.

An authentic runic inscription should not deviate far from the original ways of using runes, agreed. But this does not mean that runes should be written ‘phonetically’. Actually, it is not possible altogether. Let us consider a couple of practical examples.

Case A. We have to write an Old Norse saying with the Younger Futhark runes. Classic sagas were composed, or at least written down, in 1200s. These texts are the basis for our knowledge of the Old Norse language. Viking Age runic inscriptions are also in Old Norse, but a few hundred years earlier the language was not the same. There were regional differences as well. If you have a quote from a saga and want to get a 100% authentic runic inscription, you should: a) have a Norseman, who lived during the Viking Age, say it the way he used to speak Old Norse in his time; b) have him spell it in runes the way he would have done it in his time. All the other ways would not be 100% authentic. Reconstructing possible spelling requires years of research and even then it is a mere guess. Solution? Keep the standard Old Norse spelling.

Case B. We have to write an English saying in runes. The runes were invented for the languages that existed during the periods when these runes were in use and were adapted for the respective phonological systems. Did you ever compare the English and Old Norse phonology? Believe me, the number and character of the phonemes is not the same. For instance, Old Norse did not have [dʒ] as in gin, joy or edge, [ʃ] as in she, sure or emotion, [tʃ] as in chair, nature or teach, [z] as in zoo or rose, [ʒ] as in pleasure, vision or beige. To be sure, Old Norse did not have any runes for such sounds as well. So how can we write in English with runes phonetically, if we have no runes for a whole range of phonemes? There is no way to do so. Solution? Keep the standard English spelling.

Of course, there is no generally accepted chart of correspondences between Norse runes and Roman letters, but there are a few rather convincing variants, including my own, which is hardwired into my runic converter.

Substituting runes for letters with a certain degree of authenticity is feasible, whereas substituting runes for modern English phonemes (writing phonetically) is technically impossible if we do not invent additional runes (that is what Anglo-Saxons did adapting the Elder Futhark for their language).

See also:

A Guide to Writing in Norse Runes
How to Translate into Runes Correctly
How to Write an Authentic Runic Inscription

Photo: Alcuin manuscript, 9th century.

7 comments… add one
  • Travis

    I would like Honor in Anglo Saxson Runes on my forearm. I’ve been researching. Is your converter accurate when I put Honor in and it converts? This is gonna be permanent on me so doing all research I can. Please get back to me when you can. Thank you. -Travis

  • Dameon Miller

    Ummmm i am thinking of just writing “Death Smiles at us all, but only the brave will smile back” so im just thinking of converting letter for letter english letter to the oldest runes letters but i know the oldest runes dont have an C so im just gonna use runes K twice for CK how does that sound

  • Ellyn

    I would like to stitch the Virtues around the bottom of my gown that I use when I am performing weddings or Blots – I am unsure as to whether I should pick the runes that speak to me of what each virtue is or to do it phonetically. Could you provide some feedback? I would really appreciate it. I have translated the key word for each such as honor into Norwegian as a beginning.


    • Viking Rune

      Hello Vinterulf. While I have nothing against Norwegian, I still prefer to relate a cetrain type of runes with the language of the time period, for which the runes were originally created and thus fit best. If we speak about the Younger Futhark, a more logical choice would be probably Old Norse. And yes, I would rather write it in full words.

  • Chris

    Hello, my name is Chris and my linage descends from Norway through the Ivar line.

    I’m trying to create a piece of art based on the name Geirfugl (garefowl). For inspiration I’m trying to find runes that depict that bird, but I’m having a hell of a time. I tried just taking the literal translation “spear bird”, but that wasn’t very inspiring. Since there is an actual word for it, I thought a phonetic translation would do well, but I can’t seem to work out some of the sounds, like the ae sound of the first syllable… Substituting modern english characters translated into runes seemed overkill, unnecessary and silly.

    I reasoned that since they gave a name to the bird, the word may appear in some text in the old Norse runes, and maybe someones already done the work for me. Unfortunately I haven’t a clue where to look to find that side by side Norse and English translation of poems in order to find a workable passage…

    I’d very much appreciate any direction/advice you could lend me on the subject.

    Thank you kindly,


    • Viking Rune

      Hello Chris. The word geir is an element of several Old Norse names. Some of them appear in the Viking Age runic inscriptions. For instance, the Hillersjö stone (Rundata U 29) mentions a certain Geirmundr and his wife Geirlaug. The first elements in names are spelt, respectively,


      The second variant is more correct from the point of view of etymology, since it should be *gæiR, not *gæir. However, by that time the difference between R (from common Germanic z) and r probably started to disappear.

      Runic inscription on a stone at Bo gård on the island of Lidingö in Uppland, Sweden (Rundata U Fv1986;84), mentions a certain Geirbjörn. The inscription is from the 2nd half of the 11th century. By that time the use of the Younger Futhark changed a lot through the introduction of the dotted variants of runes. The first rune here is kaun with a dot (to designate that it stands for g not k). The second rune is not ár but iss with a dot (to designate that it stands for e not i). I like this variant less, since it is from the late Viking Age.

      The word fugl was also a personal name. It appears in several runestone inscriptions, among others on Br Sc14 (Iona, Scotland, ca. 1000). There are no peculiarities as for the spelling:

      So the Viking Age Younger Futhark (long branch) version for the name Geirfugl would be as follows:

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