Norse Runes Do Not Convey Whole Words

Thurs runeFor years, I have been receiving questions like ‘What is the rune for Joy?’ or ‘What is the rune for Happiness?’. The point is, Norse runes aren’t ideograms. Normally, they do not stand for abstract notions like ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’. Neither are they logograms, that is, they do not stand for all kinds of words like ‘go,’ ‘bird,’ or ‘angry’, unlike Japanese kanji or Chinese Han characters. After all, there are over 50,000 Han characters and this pretty explains why you can possibly ask, what is the character for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. There should be some. Even though to read a Chinese newspaper you would need to learn only about 3,000 characters, the 16 runes of the Viking Age Younger Futhark cannot work the same way simply because they are so few. I think, there is no human society that needs only 16 words to function.

In some instances, however, Younger Futhark runes may stand for whole words. These words are usually the names of the corresponding runes. The instances are not very numerous. A great example is the runic inscription known as Storhedder III (192).

At Storhedder, north of the lake Storheddervatnet in the county Aust-Agder in Norway, there is a large overhanging soapstone rock. For centuries, it has been providing shelter for hunters. People who found refuge there in the Middle Ages left several runic graffiti, including a cute one that reads:

I would like to choose the girl who is most beautiful in the worlds

In the last segment of the inscription ihaiminum the runes ih were carved as a bindrune (combined rune sign that features two or more runes carved on a single vertical stave). Later someone added to the same stave the bow of the rune þ. As a result, the segment now reads: iþhaiminum.

The name of the rune þ is þurs, which means ‘giant’ or ‘ogre’. So the intended meaning is ON í þursheiminum. Thus the girl is now most beautiful ‘in the ogre worlds’. The rune þ stands here for the word þurs.

We do not know whether it was a rather crude joke or an attempt at a serious curse. Doomed to be married to an ogre is a motif that sometimes occurs in Scandinavian mythological tradition.

So normally Younger Futhark runes work as an alphabet (a not very convenient alphabet for the Old Norse language). Sometimes they may stand for a word but you cannot write a whole sentence with runes functioning as words.

5 comments… add one
  • NicestPancake

    I checked this site out because on Google images I noticed your runes were different from the ones I learned in my book. It’s really interesting to learn things that I had questions on that weren’t answered and such!

  • Meaghan Grant

    Hi!! Love this website!!! I have been trying to convert the word SAVAGE for quite some time and keep coming up with different answers. Would the translator on here be correct?

  • Chris

    That’s fascinating. I had long thought that runes were, more or less, a substitution (or universal?) character set for foreign languages. I suppose it makes sense that people would create compound characters to represent ideas, kind of like how logos are used today.

    • Viking Rune

      Chris, that’s interesting indeed. I’ve always wondered why certain ancient cultures chose logographic systems and others alphabets or syllabaries.

      • rocketride

        Almost every ancient people went with pictogrammatic systems, which sometimes evolved into ideogrammatic systems– the symbols would simplify or abstractify away from being pictorial representations. One problem that such systems have is representing foreign words. They usually evolve a system of phonetic representation for this- identifying certain of their ‘grams with phonemes. This is how things stood in about 4,000 BCE.

        Egypt had such a system. Actually they had two distinct forms, but that’s neither here nor there for this discussion.

        Sometime around the above date, some genius, probably a Levantine Semite in the service of the Pharaoh, probably somewhere in the Sinai, had the brilliant idea of using just the phonetic symbols and representing ALL words that way. Another brilliant idea was to make these symbols simplified pictorial representation of things and name the letter for the thing– so the sound of the letter was the first sound of the name of the thing the letter pictured– a very useful mnemonic device. Bear in mind that at this stage only consonants were represented with letters– the way Semitic languages construct words made this much less impractical than it would be for, for example, English. This writing system, is usually referred to as proto-Caananite. It is directly ancestral to Hebrew, Arabic, Phoenician and Aramaic writing. The Hebrews developed a partial system of representing vowels. (I don’t know, offhand, whether the Arabs, Phoinokoi or Aramaeans (Syrians) ever did.)

        Long story short, Greeks noticed the Phoenician traders using an efficient writing system and fairly quickly emulated it– discarding consonants that their language didn’t use and using those letters for vowels. The Etruscans got it from the Greeks and tinkered with it some more to suit their phonetics. The Romans and others did likewise from the Etruscans. We’re not sure who those ‘others’ were, but Runic systems seem to descend from that branch.

        Meanwhile, to the east, there was a similar dispersion from Aramaic (which was the main language of commerce and administration of the Achaemenid (Persian) empire, not Persian) all across south Asia– India all the way out to Indochina. All those scripts on horizontal staves are descended from Aramaic.

        As for syllabaries, they are not practical unless the language has a simple syllable structure- CV or CVC (C=consonant, V=vowel)– The number of symbols needed will vary as the product of the number of consonants available to precede the vowel and the number of available vowels (and the number of consonants available to follow the vowel in the case of a CVC language.

        In the case of a language which allows stringing consonants together either before or after the vowel (like English, which is a CCCVCCC language), the number of symbols would increase exponentially. You might as well use logograms/pictograms/ideograms.

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