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

The word er (present indicative 3rd person singular from vera ‘to be’) < es < *est, so reið rune:

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.

193 comments… add one
  • Rose

    Good day, vikingrune.com

    I’m looking forward to transliterate the word skjaldmær (Shieldmaiden), and I don’t precisely know how the right rune would be, specially for the “æ”.

    Any recommendations? I’m lost too.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Rose. The rune variants for æ are in the table in §4. The Old Norse word for shieldmaiden in the Younger Futhark runes (long branch variant) would have been carved in the Viking Age like that:

  • nik

    Hi, and thanks for this really well researched website. I don’t know if you can help, but my sister and I want to get a tattoo. I want ‘brother’ and she wants ‘sister’.

    I have used your converter and come up with the following: https://i.imgur.com/qwRSCFa.jpg

    I was wondering if you could review this? I’d hate to have a mistake on me for the rest of my life!

    Thank you.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Nik. There is no right or wrong way to write modern English words with the Elder Futhark runes (more about it in this article: How to Translate Into Runes Correctly). Your variant looks okay. However, I’d rather suggest to write words brother and sister in Old Norse with the Younger Futhark runes that were in use during the Viking Age:

  • Brandon

    Could you please help me correctly write the word “dreki,” which I understand to be Old Norse for a Viking dragon ship? Thanks!!

    • Viking Rune

      Icelandic-English Dictionary by Cleasby and Vigfusson comments on dreki: “This word, which undoubtedly is of foreign origin, is however very old; it occurs in Vsp. 65 (there is no reason to suspect the genuineness of this verse); it is most freq. used by poets of the 10th and 11th centuries, and is especially used of ships of war bearing a dragon’s head as beaks.” In the Younger Futhark runes (long branch) it would have been carved like that:

  • Madeleine

    Hello everyone,
    can someone please double check this for accuracy? It’s from the Völuspá stanza 57 and I’m trying to translate to younger futhark long branch. It’s for a tattoo :)

    Sól tér sortna, sígr fold í mar
    (Old Norse in modern Icelandic orthography)

    Here is how I translated it: https://imgur.com/a/64l86Aa

    • Viking Rune

      S is mirrored (it’s okay if you intended it to be so).
      R in sortna should be reið not ýr.
      A is short twig, not long branch (it’s okay too, if intended).

      • Madeleine

        Dear Viking Rune,

        thank you very much! The font pack I downloaded is a huge mix of many runic alphabets so it was a bit of a challenge to find the exact ones. I’ve implemented the suggested changes :)

  • Aaron Parsons

    Hello vikingrune.com,

    I want to make sure I am translating things correctly. I first translated the phrase I wanted, “I am His disciple” into Icelandic which is “Ég er Hans lærisveinn”. It looks like it is not allowing me to copy how it is translated into Long Branch in your translator so I can’t show you what I got. Would you be able to comment how it should be correctly translated from Icelandic into runes? This is for a tattoo and I wanted to make sure I am doing things correctly. Thank you!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Aaron. Google Translate is not a reliable source for translating texts into foreign languages (it is okay if you translate into English, because even if it makes silly grammatical mistakes, you still get the idea of what it says). Only human translation should be used for texts intended for permanent use like tattoos. I will help (for free) with how to write it with runes, but first do contact someone who knows Icelandic and pay her/him for translating your phrase correctly.

      • Aaron Parsons

        I will come back once I have translated it into Ieandic. Thank you!

  • Ani

    Hi!
    I looked at your other page about how to write names in Runes, and my mom’s last name “Prass” came out as ᛒᚱᚾᛋᛋ , but in this page you mention that letters shouldn’t be doubled. How should handle the double ‘s’?

    Thanks!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Ani. Yes, the runes shouldn’t be doubled in the sense that they were not doubled in Old Norse runic inscriptions. But you are free to keep the two runes to keep it more easily recognisable. After all, there are no set rules for how to write modern names in Norse runes.

  • Ms Olsen

    Hello dear vikingrune.com,
    First of all congratulations on a great tutorial and website, it’s been a real help.
    Secondly, I was wondering if you could correct my translation. My family comes from Norway and I wanted to tattoo my last name, Olsen, and the word Viking, in Viking age Old Norse runes. Kinda like ‘private Ryan’, but ‘Viking Olsen’.
    As per my attempts it would go as: ᚢᛁᚴᛁᚴᛦ•ᚢᛚᛋᛁᚾ

    Is that correct?

    Thank you so much for the help!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello dear Ms Olsen. Yes, it is correct.

  • Vlad

    I’ve coined a name for myself but I found some problems with the beginning “Vór-”
    Would it be something like “ᚠᚢᚱ-” being that it wasn’t common for two same runes to be written/ carved together?
    Thanks!

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Vlad. In such a case the group of runes uau was used. Example: vǫrðr in the runic inscription U 617 is rendered as uaurþr. Also see paragraph 3.5 above.

  • David

    Hi!
    I’ve been a few days trying to write the Old Norse word “hjarta” in younger futhark runes, but I don’t know how the consonant group “hj” sounded in Old Norse. I have searched its pronunciation, but I don’t find a clue. Could you help me with this?
    Thank you very much for your time :)

    • Kate

      The ‘hj’ in “hjarta” is like an ‘hy’ sound which sounds like ‘he’ (he | ar | tah) or (he | art | uh).

  • Lithrat

    Hello dear vikingrune.com, normally I wouldn’t bother with such a thing but I may be lost. I was converting Vǫluspá, Stanza 44 to Younger Futhark. I’m pretty confident I’ve done most of the thing thanks to your guide. But one word bugs me; “Renna”. I cannot use two same letter in a row, I cannot write “n” before a vowel. I couldn’t decide what to do. Any help would be wonderful. Thanks for your time and effort :)

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Lithrat. Paragraph 3.3 means n wasn’t used before consonants after vowels, not before vowels.

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