How to Write in Old Norse With Futhark Runes: The Ultimate Guide

Old Norse runic inscriptionI often receive requests to write in runes an Old Norse word or phrase. People naturally tend to expect that nothing could be easier, since runes were initially created for the Old Norse language. There should be rules as for how to write with runes in that language. There should be some kind of table. However, tables that give Younger Futhark runes along with letters, usually do the opposite: they explain how to transform runes into letters. Those tables are of no use if you are interested in the reverse process.

Moreover, a mere table would not be enough to write in Old Norse with runes, it takes a whole tutorial to learn how to do that the way it might have been done on a Viking Age runestone ca. AD 1000.

1. Have Your Text in Old Norse

The first step is to make sure your text is in Old Norse. Note that modern Icelandic is very close to Old Norse. Icelanders usually have no difficulty in understanding texts that were written a thousand years ago, because their language changed very little since the time. Also note that a lot of Old Norse texts are available online in modern Icelandic orthography. Thus we have to make sure which of the three possible options we actually have:

  • Modern Icelandic text
  • Old Norse text in modern Icelandic orthography
  • Old Norse text in Old Norse orthography

It is important to know if we want to do the inscription the way it might have been done in the Viking Age. A simple rule of thumb is as follows:

  • If you see words ég (‘I’) and og (‘and’), it’s modern Icelandic.
  • If you see ek and ok instead, but also words að (‘to’) and það (‘that’), and the letter ö in any word, it’s Old Norse in modern Icelandic orthography.
  • If you see ek, ok, at, and þat, and also letters ø or ǫ, it’s Old Norse in Old Norse orthography.

2. Choose Your Version of the Futhark Runic Alphabet

People sometimes want to write in Old Norse with the Elder Futhark runes, simply because they are visually more appealing. Why not. However, the standard runic alphabet for the Viking Age runic inscriptions was the Younger Futhark. It had three variants:

  • Long Branch: Danish runes (also often considered as the standard Younger Futhark set).
  • Short Twig: Norwegian-Swedish or Rök runes (more minimalistic variant).
  • Staveless or Hålsinge runes (triumph of minimalism).

Long Branch runes originated in Denmark but eventually were used more or less throughout Scandinavia (and wherever Vikings pillaged, traded and drank). Staveless runes were used only locally. (By the way, if you wish to emphasize your Norwegian or Swedish descent, I don’t think your choice is limited by the Short Twig option alone.)

3. Discriminate Between the Runes Where Necessary

3.1. Use of either reið or ýr rune for r.

In Proto-Norse and Old Norse (up to a certain time) there were two phonemes for r: /r/ (reið rune) and /R/ (ýr rune). The first one had always been /r/, since the Indo-European times. The second one, /R/, had been /s/ in Indo-European, and then /z/ in Proto-Germanic. Viking Age runic inscriptions differentiate between the two. Old Norse literature written down in the 13th century (and Old Norse orthography, which is based on it) does not. Bad news: we are to know the etymology of the word in order to write it in Viking Age runes correctly. Good news: there is a rule of thumb that covers most cases. It is enough to make an authentic runic inscription, since Viking Age runecarvers were not ideal at differentiating between the two: they often put ýr where reið was needed and vice versa.

Rule of thumb: Nearly any r that is in a case and number ending (for nouns) or in a person and number ending (for regular verbs) is /R/, not /r/.

Examples:

kallar ‘he calls’ (present indicative 3rd person singular) -r < -R < -z

armr ‘hand’ (nominative singular): -r < -aR < -az

skildir ‘shields’ (nominative plural): -ir < -juR < -juz < -iwiz

heiðar ‘of the wasteland’ (genitive singular): -ar < -ioR < -ioz

Note, however, that r at the end of the words faðir ‘father’, bróðir ‘brother’, móðir ‘mother’, dóttir ‘daughter’ and systir ‘sister’ belongs to the stem and not the ending, so all these words have reið rune at the end.

The word Thor also has reið, since r + R gave r: Þórr (þur) < Þonar < ÞunraR < Þunraz

The word er (present indicative 3rd person singular from vera ‘to be’) < es < *est, so reið rune:

3.2. Use of either ár or ą́ss rune for a.

The rune ą́ss < ansuz was used for a nasalized /ã/, that is for groups an + consonant in standard Old Norse orthography. Example: England was spelt ikląt in runic inscriptions:

The rune ár was used for a and á in all other positions (but sometimes for /ã/, too).

3.3. Use of either nauð rune or nothing for n; maðr rune or nothing for m

All the other nasalized vowels did not have special runes for them, so whenever you have a group of vowel + n + g, d, render it as vowel + g, d (without nauð rune). Use nauð for n in all other cases. Example: konung was spelt kunukR in runic inscriptions:

The same applies to groups vowel + m + b: render it as vowel + b (without maðr rune). Use maðr for m in all other cases.

3.4. Use of either fé or úr rune for v.

Before vowels v was spelt with úr rune. Example: viking (in the sense of raid, not person) was spelt uikik in runic inscriptions:

The rune fé was used for v in all other positions.

3.5. Use of either úr or ár + úr for o.

O and ó are usually spelt as úr in runic inscriptions and only occasionally as ár+úr. Note, however, that ok ‘and’ was nearly always spelt auk:

4. Refer to This General Table

Rune variants that go first appear more frequently in the Viking Age runic inscriptions. If there is a reference to a paragraph above, the use of variants depends on a rule.

a, á or (3.2) p, b, mb
b, mb, p r or (3.1)
d, nd, t s
e, é or , rarely

t, d, nd
f, v u, ú
g, ng, k v or (3.4)
h x
i , í y, ý or
j z
k, g, ng ø, ǿ (œ) or
l ǫ, ǫ́ or , rarely

m æ , rarely
n ei
o, ó or

(3.5)
þ, ð

5. Do Not Use Double Runes

Viking Age runic inscriptions normally do not have two identical runes in a row. This is valid even for two runes that belong to two different words, one at the end of a previous one, the other at the beginning of a following one (if no separators are used). Cf. raþu for rað þu below.

6. Use Dots or x Signs as Spaces

Viking Age runic inscriptions either do not have separators between words at all, or use dots, combinations of dots or x signs as separators.

7. (Optional) Begin Your Inscription With a Traditional Formula

Some runestone inscriptions begin with words Rað þu (Interpret!) or Rað þu runar (Interpret the runes!):

Runic inscription U 29 (Hillersjö stone) has the word raþu in the eye of a dragon (see the image above left).

This tutorial is © copyright. No part of it may be copied or reproduced.

98 comments… add one
  • Arttu

    Hello,
    I would be interested to know if there is a way to write “skál” as in cheers or toast in runes?

  • Itamar medyoni

    Hi! Your website is amazing. I’m intending to get a tattoo in runes and I want it to be translated correctly. It’s a quote from havamal:
    Deyr fé,
    deyja frændr,
    deyr sjalfr it sama,
    ek veit einn,
    at aldrei deyr:
    dómr um dauðan hvern.

    Please and thank you

    • Viking Rune

      Hello. Do you have any difficulty in following the above guide?

  • Isabela

    Hi!

    Congratulations for your text. I tried to translate a sentence, could you just correct it for me?

    Sem ek andask, ǫnd minn er minn að hafa(ð)
    ᛋᛁᛘ ᛁᚴ ᛅᚾᛏᛅᛋᚴ . ᚢᚾᛏ ᛘᛁᚾᚾ ᛁᛦ ᛘᛁᚾᚾ ᛅᚦ ᚼᛅᚠᛅ

    Thanks a lot!

    • Viking Rune

      Isabella, do not use double n in minn.

  • Mark

    ᚬᚼᚢᚴᛁᛅ – áhyggja – anxiety
    ᛅᚢᚴᛚᛁᛅᚦᛁ – ógleði – depression
    ᛅᛚᚦᛦ – ǫlðr – ale; ale-party
    ᛏᚱᚢᚴᛁᚢᛘᛅᚦᛦ – drykkjumaðr – drinker
    ᚢᚠᛦᛅᛚᚠᛁ – ofrǫlvi – drunk (excessively drunk)

    So is those translations somehow correctly written?

    • Viking Rune

      Ógleði is ‘sikness’ or ‘nausea’. Depression is a very modern concept, so I don’t think it can be translated into Old Norse at all.

      As for the runic form:

      ᚬᚼᚢᚴᛁᛅ: why ᚬ at the beginning?
      ᛅᚢᚴᛚᛁᛅᚦᛁ: why ᚢ as the second rune?
      ᚢᚠᛦᛅᛚᚠᛁ: why ᛦ as the third rune?

      • Mark

        ᚢᚠᛦᛅᛚᚠᛁ should third rune be “ᚱ”? And ᚬᚼᚢᚴᛁᛅ first rune “ᛅ”?

  • Carlos

    I’m really amazed on how much work you put into here. I was wanting to get a tattoo soon with the icelandic word for hope (von). I’ve been searching and seems that hope in old norse is written as “ván”. So after checking with the rune converter i’ve got:

    1. ᚹᚨᚾ (elder futhark)
    2. ᚠᛅᚾ (long branch)

    After reading the text, wouldnt it be correct to write it with ᚢ? Which one of those two ways of writing would be more correct?

    • Viking Rune

      Carlos, the converter is for modern English only. Old Norse texts can be written in runes only manually. Elder Futhark is not a great option, since it was not used with Old Norse, but with Proto-Norse, which is quite a different elder language. Use any version of the Younger Futhark instead (long branch version of it is okay). Yes, v before a is ᚢ.

      • Carlos

        So if im not wrong it should be like this:

        1. ᚢᛅᚾ
        2. ᚢᚬᚾ

        I have doubts with the “á”

        • Viking Rune

          The first variant is correct.

  • steve

    hey

    an awesome website mate, i already used it to transform my name into runes.

    but i would need some help.

    i would like to translate the following sentence into old norse and then to runes.

    “I don’t fear death, for my brothers are waiting in walhalla”

    a friend of mine already translated it to Norvegian but i noticed in your comment it is not realy the same thing.

    “Jeg frykter ikke doden, for minne brodre venter i valhall”

    can you help please to transform to old norse and then into runes.

    • Viking Rune

      Steve, I receive dozens of requests to translate a sentence into Old Norse each week, both here and on my FB page. I can’t help everyone with that, it requires time and effort, as with any dead language. However, I leave your comment here, maybe someone in the community will volunteer to help.

  • Sven

    I’m working on some runes to be incorporated into a tattoo. Unfortunately, I have hardly any knowledge of any Scandinavian language, nor of runes.
    I would like to have verse 76 of the Havamal worked into younger futhark, and not really as a straight up swapping of English words and letters with runes.
    So, I would like to work this into runes:
    Deyr fé,
    deyja frændur,
    deyr sjálfur ið sama;
    en orðstír
    deyr aldregi
    hveim er sér góðan getur.

    Would this be an accurate transcript?
    ᛏᛅᛁᛦ᛫ᚠᛅ
    ᛏᛅᛁᛅ᛫ᚠᚱᛅᛏᚢᛦ
    ᛏᛅᛁᛦ᛫ᛋᛁᛅᛚᚠᚢᛦ᛫ᛁᚦ᛫ᛋᛅᛘᛅ
    ᛁᚾ᛫ᚢᚱᚦᛋᛏᛁᛦ
    ᛏᚾᛁᛦ᛫ᛅᛚᚱᛅᚴᛁ
    ᚼᚠᛅᛁᛘ᛫ᛁᛦ᛫ᛋᛁᛦ᛫ᚴᚢᚦᛅᚾ᛫ᚴᛁᛏᚢᛦ

    Thanks in advance for any feedback!

    • Viking Rune

      You missed d in aldregi. And this is not Old Norse. This is Old Norse in modern Icelandic orthography. Old Norse is sjálfr not sjálfur, and, I think, getr not getur.

  • Lundur

    Fantastic tutorial.

    ᚾᚢ·ᛁᚱᚢᛘ·ᛏᚢᚱᚢᛁᛚᛏ
    ᛏᚢᛁᚴᛁᛅ·ᛒᛅᚴᛅ·ᚾᛁᚢᚱᚢᛅ·ᚾᛁᚠᛏ·ᛅ·ᚾᛁᛋᛁ·ᛋᛏᛁᛏᛦ
    ᛋᚴᛅᛚᚴ·ᚦᚢ·ᚴᛚᛅᚦᛦ·ᛘᛁᚦ·ᚴᚢᚦᛅᚾ·ᚢᛁᛚᛁᛅ
    ᛅᚢᚴ·ᚢᚼᚱᛁᚴᛦ·ᚼᛁᛚᛁᛅᛦ·ᛒᛁᚦᛅ

    Wanting to get this done, working on the style with which to actually hand write the runes. Was bouncing between using the futhark and following the style Caroline from AM162 theta manuscript, but I like the idea of trying to capture an oral tradition in script. As you said, not perfect, but stories spoken are never the same. This is the last stanza from Sonatorrek – Egilssaga.

    Cheers

    • Viking Rune

      Thank you Lundur. AM 162 A þeta is beautiful but runes always look great. Great choice as for the text. Your transliteration is perfect.

  • Ana

    This is a wonderful guide, thank you so much for posting it! I have been working to translate “adventure awaits” into short-twig runes for my upcoming wedding in Norway.
    Using both your guides and dictionaries/grammars from the University of Texas, I’ve gotten both “ævintýri bíður” (using a bit of help from Icelandic for “adventure” since there doesn’t seem to be a faithful translation in ON):
    ᚭᚢᛁᚿᛐᚢ ᛧᛁ ᛓᛁᚦᚢ ᛧ
    and a looser translation of “sagar bíða” (or “sagas await”):
    ᛌᛆ ᚴᛆ ᛧ ᛓᛁᚦᛆ
    I would love if you could double-check me before I work this into wedding designs, and would be more than happy to pay you for your time and assistance. Thank you so much!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Ana. The form bíður is modern Icelandic. Old Norse is bíðr. The rune for r in ævintýri is reið not ýr. The rest seems to be okay.

  • Patricia

    I wonder if you have come across many inscribed blessings of objects in old norse? I am looking for something i could inscribe in my handmade glass bowls. Thanks, p

    • Viking Rune

      No, I haven’t seen Viking Age runic inscriptons that could be interpreted as blessings with any degree of certainty.

Leave a Comment