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.

16 comments… add one
  • Carlos

    Hello, my name is Carlos. I was wondering if you could help me with something I just cannot solve. Can you please tell me how the word “rose” (as the flower) is called in Old Norse? Can it be written in runes? If so, could you show me how? This was my daughter’s name, who died last December, and I want to make a little art with it. Thank you very much

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Carlos. Late Old Norse word for rose as the flower is rós. The runic form is ᚱᚢᛋ.

  • Christoph

    …by the way, most of my knowledge about runes is from Klaus Düwel’s (astonishingly quite readable though meant for German Studies) book “Runenkunde”. Do you know if it’s still up to date or there are better sources about runes (scientific, not the esoteric stuff)?
    Another question: Are you also into pronunciation of Old Norse? While the main sources like the edda etc. were written down around 1200AD on Iceland, would it rather make sense to pronounce it the Icelandic way or should one use the “reconstructed” pronunciation? An Example: the vowels in “hraun” (lava) would sound like modern German “Baum” in the reconstructed way, but rather like an “oi”-sound in modern (and maybe 13th century-) Icelandic – just like the Norwegian word for beer (sorry I don’t know how to write that Norwegian Umlaut letter).

    Thanks again for your time.

  • Christoph


    thanks first for this very informative website I just discovered. Great work.
    Just a word on the few things I read so far:
    First, in the comment about “Geirfugl” above, you stated that using the “R” rune instead of “r” fits with the etymological convention, which is absolutely right (from my amateurish point of view), but on many of the old runestones, “R” is dropped in favour of “r”, especially when it comes to names like “Geirfugl” and other composite nouns. Seems like those runecarvers frequently only used the “R”-rune at the very end of a noun.
    Second, while I find your rune converter a fine tool to play with and you give a lot of information how to use it right and what traps to avoid when using runes for modern writings, it still seems somehow misleading for me that your algorithm provides a one-on-one transliteration for every letter I type. Just one example: Old-Norse “drengr” is transliterated letter by letter, while on most ancient sources (e.g. the Jelling stones) the “n”-rune is omitted if it’s followed by g/k. Seems like the writers/readers of that time didn’t have a problem that “drengr” could be read as “trekr”. Maybe integrating things like that would make your converter give a little more “natural looking” results? Just a suggestion.

    Greets, Christoph

  • Matt Hylton Todd

    G’day from Australia. I’m from Scottish, Slavic, Scandinavian ancestries. Getting married in Edinburgh then travelling Iceland and Norway early 2019. I’d like ‘Forever my love” engraved inside my wedding band in Viking age runes that is as close to how this statement, or a translation of it would have been, written in runes during the time period. Hoping for authenticity, should I just use your online translation option? Love your site by the way, amazing passion and work you have put into it. Kind regards Matt.

  • Philippe

    Having a name that actually means something (from the mountain), I may perhaps get lucky to find the real Old Norse translation. After some research it would seem that “fra fjall” is the right translation. But now of-course that doesn’t tell me how it’s written in runes.
    If you would know of a possible way (Viking Age Younger Futhark would be great but any authentic runescript mention would be great), I would very highly appreciate it!

  • Alden

    Hey, I’ve been researching for weeks now and I cannot work out, does Anglo Saxon Futhorc use double letters or not? I have sources saying elder and younger futhark does not.

    So for example would it be fight well or fight wel?

    You make a compelling case to not write phonetically but this point has me slightly stumped.

    • Viking Rune

      Yes, it does use double runes.

  • William

    What about such words that contain the letter j. In such a sense would one use phonetics and use the same as y, due to scandanavian countries pronouncing words like jarl with a y sound.

    • Viking Rune

      Old Norse did not have [dʒ] as in gin, joy or edge.

  • 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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