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

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.

234 comments… add one
  • Fernando

    Hey Viking Rune.
    Im beggining to learn about this. I want to write the word “cold” in Old Norse. I believe its “Kaldr”. Im not quite sure how it would be in runes.
    ᚴᛅᛚᛏᚱ is that correct?

    • Viking Rune

      “Cold” as a substantive or adjective? The runic form is all right.

  • NIELS

    Hi, i’m 22 years old and have a passion for the Viking Era and all the nordic culture.

    I am truly fascinated by your work and website, and even though I’ve made some research I would like to be sure of the transcription, as I would like to get a tattoo.

    The sentences are “Son of the North”, “Heir of the Wild”, “Viking soul”

    Thank you so much

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Niels. Step one above reads: Have your text in Old Norse.

      • NIELS LECOUTY

        Hi that is what I’ve found in modern Icelandic

        sonur norðursins (Son of the North)
        erfingi náttúrunnar (Heir of the Wilds)
        Víkingasál (Viking Soul)

        As a translation in Young Futhark I came up with

        ᛋᚬᚾ•ᚬᚠ•ᚦᛁ•ᚾᚬᚱᚦ (Son of the north)
        ᚼᛁᛁᚱ•ᚬᚠ•ᚦᛁ•ᚢᛁᛚᛏᛋ (Heir of the Wilds)
        ᚢᛁᚴᛁᚾᚴ•ᛋᚬᚢᛚ (Viking Soul)

        Is that correct ? Or could you help me translate the sentences from modern Icelandic to Young Futhark please.

  • benedikt

    im trying to write in young futhark runes i am writing it in icelandic i dont really understand how to write it im trying to write ‘guð geymi þig’ witch means ‘god save you’ can you help me?

    • Viking Rune

      ᚴᚢᚦ ᚴᛅᚢᛘᛁ ᚦᛁᚴ

  • Max

    Hey there Vikingrune,
    I was hoping you may be able to help me out.

    I am trying to translate a quote from the Völsunga saga chapter 19 into Younger Futhark and I have both the english and old norse translations of the quote. My problem is that I have no idea where the quote starts in old norse.

    Here it is in english:
    “Where wolf’s ears are, wolf’s teeth are near.”
    And my best guess at it in old norse:
    “ok þar er mér úlfsins ván, er ek eyrun sá.”

    If you could spare the time could you clarify what the quote actually is in old norse?

    Thanks so much, Max.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Max. Yes, the quote is in Old Norse.

      • Max

        Thanks so much.
        I plan on using the quote in a tattoo but I want to make sure it has a decent level of authenticity before doing so.

        I have attempted to transcribe it into Younger Futhark runes although I am not entirely confident with my understanding of the difference between the runes ár or áss and reið or yr.

        Nevertheless here are the runes
        ᛅᚢᚴ:ᚦᛅᚱ:ᛁᚱ:ᛘᛁᛦ:ᚢᛚᚠᛋᛁᚾᛋ:ᚢᛅᚾ:ᛁᚱ:ᛁᚴ:ᛁᚢᚱᚢᚾ:ᛋᛅ

        If you could spare the time it would be awesome if you could show me if and where I have gone wrong with the runes so I may correct them.

        Also, the website is brilliant is there a donate button yet?

        • Viking Rune

          ᛅᚢᚴ:ᚦᛅᚱ:ᛁᛦ:ᛘᛁᛦ:ᚢᛚᚠᛋᛁᚾᛋ:ᚢᛅᚾ:ᛁᛦ:ᛁᚴ:ᛅᚢᚱᚢᚾ:ᛋᛅ

          • Max

            Brilliant thank you so much :)

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