Nordic Runes Primer for Starters: Futhark 101

Nordic runes are writing systems developed by Germanic tribes. It is not certain whether the first Germanic runic alphabet was based on a preceding form of writing, for instance Old Italic alphabets. It may well be an original Nordic invention, since the oldest runic inscriptions were discovered in Northern Germany and Denmark. The word Futhark is derived from the first six symbols in the rune row. Runes were used to carve inscriptions on various objects as well as on large stones known as runestones. The branch of linguistics that studies runes is called runology. Runic alphabets were used before the adoption of the Roman letters by the North Germanic peoples and, for some limited purposes, for a long time after.

Elder Futhark Runes: Proto-Norse Language

Nordic Elder Fuhark runesThe Elder Futhark runic alphabet was in use from the 2nd to 8th centuries. The language it transcribed was Proto-Norse. We neither have a developed literature in that language, nor even a complete grammar of it. Elder Futhark inscriptions are rather obscure, their meaning is often only tentatively reconstructed. Proto-Norse did not have any stable orthography, the same words being carved differently by different rune masters. On some ancient Germanic artifacts 24 runes are divided into three groups of eight. Each group is referred to as an Ætt, meaning ‘family.’ The names of individual Nordic runes are reconstructed, they are nowhere attested in the original Proto-Norse. However, the reconstruction is rather certain, being based on the later names of Gothic letters and Scandinavian ‘rune poems’ (medieval explanations given in verse to the Younger Futhark runes).

Younger Futhark Runes: Old Norse Language

Nordic Younger Futhark runesThe Younger Futhark runes were used in Scandinavia from the 9th through the 11th centuries. The reform of the alphabet effected by an unknown rune master was called forth by an important change in the language: Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse. However, the language of the runic inscriptions is more archaic than the Old Norse of the Icelandic sagas written down in the 12th century. Younger Futhark is the runic alphabet that was in use during the Viking Age. Thus Vikings never carved their runestones with the Elder Futhark staves. Younger Futhark has only sixteen runes. The standard set of this Nordic runic alphabet is known as Danish runes or long branch runes. Runes used by Swedish and Norwegian Vikings were slightly different. They are known as short twig runes. Later version of the Younger Futhark is known as medieval runes.

22 comments… add one
  • Justin

    I want to translate the word for strength. Would I be better off finding the original word for it or translating the English word letter by letter?

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