Runes

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What are Runes?

The Old Norse alphabet comprised of runes which was called the ‘futhark’. Futhark had several regional variations. It originally appeared in the 1st century CE. and continued to change over time. Different Germanic peoples, including Goths, Anglo-Saxons, Frisians, and early Scandinavians, used somewhat different runic alphabets. Into the 8th century, the basic Scandinavian futhark consisted of 24 letters. This early futhark is known as the Elder Futhark. Its 24 letters were divided into three groups or families called ættir.

The Secret Message of Runes

With their navigational skills and advanced longships, the Vikings sustained their seafaring for over 300 years. But for all their might, they left few monuments. Instead, fragments of stone, bark and bone found in the sites of ancient settlements provide the keys to their culture. Many of these objects are inscribed with Old Norse written in runic letters. Learn the history of Viking runes, the ancient Norse language of symbols that make up an alphabet called the futhark.

The Elder and the Younger Runic Alphabets

The Old Norse alphabet, which was called the futhark, had several regional variations. It originally appeared in the 1st century CE. and continued to change over time. Different Germanic peoples, including Goths, Anglo-Saxons, Frisians, and early Scandinavians, used somewhat different runic alphabets. Into the 8th century, the basic Scandinavian futhark consisted of 24 letters. This early futhark is known as the Elder Futhark. Its 24 letters were divided into three groups or families called ættir.

Roughly 260 of the approximately 350 known Elder Futhark inscriptions are found in Scandinavia. The remainder are from continental Europe, with some from as far east as the Black Sea. Surviving inscriptions in the Elder Futhark are usually short and appear on artifacts such as jewelry, tools, and weapons. Typically they are found in graves and bogs and on materials that have the best chance of preservation, such as bone and metal. Presumably, there were longer inscriptions on wood, leather, and other organic materials, but most have been lost. The 65 or so early inscriptions found on runestones appear mostly in the late Elder Futhark or Proto-Norse period and principally in Scandinavia. The Elder Futhark is given here in order to provide background for better understanding the Younger Futhark of the Viking Age. From here on the lessons and exercises teach the Younger Futhark.

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Around the start of the Viking Age in late 700s, the futhark was shortened to 16 runes. This shortened alphabet is known as the Younger Futhark. The Gørlev Runestone from Sjælland (the island of Zealand in Denmark) dates from ca. 900; it preserves an early complete Younger Futhark.

The runic letters of the Younger Futhark are simpler than those of the Elder Futhark. Each letter in the Younger Futhark has only one vertical mark or ‘stave’ and can be carved easily and quickly. The runes of the Younger Futhark are called ‘long-branch runes,’ because they are carved with full or long vertical strokes. With local variations and differences among carvers, the Younger Futhark’s 16 long-branch runes were the common form of Old Norse writing throughout the Viking Age. Like the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark divides into ættir, but the ‘families’ are shorter.

Inscriptions in the Younger Futhark have been found in many overseas regions of Norse activity, some at a great distance from Scandinavia. For example, an inscription from the fourteenth century was found in the north of Greenland. A runic inscription found in Iceland from around the year 900 was carved on a stone spindle whorl and names a woman called Vilbjǫrg as the owner. Detailed descriptions of runic writings are also mentioned repeatedly in the sagas. Many inscriptions in the Younger Futhark have been found in the British Isles, and runic inscriptions have also been found as far away as Greece and Russia. Especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate of Baghdad were frequent destinations for Norse traders and warriors.

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Short-twig runes are usually found in Sweden and Norway. They grew in popularity toward the end of the Viking Age and in the following medieval centuries. Short-twig runes were easier to carve than long-branch runes, and they were often used as a kind of cursive script among traders. Some inscriptions mix the two systems, such as those found on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, where Viking Age settlers came from different regions of Scandinavia.

Consonants (Voiced and Voiceless). Because the Younger Futhark has only 16 letters, single runes often represent more than one sound. For example, the runic symbol represents the consonant sounds /b/ and /p/, and represents /d/ and /t/. The difference in these similar sounds is the distinction of /b/ and /d/ being voiced while /p/ and /t/ are voiceless. Like English consonants, Old Norse consonants are voiced or voiceless. The distinction is whether the vocal cords vibrate while the air passes through (producing voiced consonants), or do not vibrate (producing voiceless ones). The results are varying sounds altered one from the other by an obstruction of the free flow of air. For instance, compare the voiceless /s/ in English ‘singer’ to the voiced /z/ in ‘zinger.’ A similar distinction is found in the voiced ð and voiceless þ pronunciation of the single rune, serving for both sounds. Demonstrate this distinction for yourself. Put your fingertips on your throat when you make the above sounds: you will feel the buzz of voicing in the voiced consonants and not in the voiceless ones. Try also to feel the difference when pronouncing v and f: v is voiced whereas f is voiceless. One can guess that Viking Age individuals who devised and used the Younger Futhark and its variants understood this distinction.

Additional variants of the Younger Futhark appear toward the end of the Viking Age. For example, eleventh-century dotted runes added sounds such as /e/, /g/, and /y/.

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In the mid-eleventh century an expanded medieval futhark came into use in Norway and a few other areas. Sometimes called ‘futhork,’ it incorporated short-twig runes. This alphabet, like other revised, later runic alphabets, continued in active use for several centuries after the Viking Age.

Following the conversion to Christianity, runic writing was increasingly influenced by medieval Latin. In some instances, runes were used to carve Latin inscriptions. One such inscription, dating to the end of the twelfth century, is found on a leather shoe from Bergen. It has a phrase known from Virgil (Amor vincit omnia, ‘Love conquers all’) written partially in short-twig runes amor.png(omnia:uinciþ:amor, note the short twig i twig.png for the letter ‘i’ in uinciþ, ‘conquers’). Uinciþ in long branch runes isamor short.png Runes, often with variations and innovations, remained in usage in Scandinavia until early modern times, especially in rural regions.

Spelling often varies among runic inscriptions because of differences in pronunciation, regional dialects, personal ability in distinguishing sounds, and the lack of a recognized spelling standard. For example, gerði, the past tense of gera, is spelled gera 3.png on the Jelling stone in this lesson but takes the form gera 2.png in the Swedish Ramsund inscription.
Similar spelling variations widely exist in Old Norse manuscripts. For example, the infinitive form of the verb gera ‘do, make’ is spelled gøra, gǫra, gǫrva, gǫrwa, giǫrva, giora, and gjǫra in different manuscripts. To overcome the problem of variation, scholars adopted a standardized Old Norse spelling for saga editions, dictionaries, and transcriptions of runic writing. Standardized ON is based principally on Old Icelandic, the most conservative of the Old Norse dialects and the one that we know most about because of the large number of written sources.


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