I 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/.
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
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)|
|i , í||y, ý||or|
|k, g, ng||ø, ǿ (œ)||or|
|l||ǫ, ǫ́|| or , rarely
|o, ó|| or
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).
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