So a lot of people have been asking for in-depth guides to the various sets of runes. In order to do this properly, I’m going to be writing an entire series of articles, with each individual entry focusing on a different set of runes. This particular piece is going to be slightly different from the others. In both of the other rune articles so far, we focused on their history, usage, and pronunciation. Today, we’re instead going to work on how to transcribe Old Norse into runes!
Old Norse Literature
Okay, first and foremost we should clarify a few things. I get asked on an almost daily basis “Where can I find the original text of The Lore? You know, in RUNES.” Simply put, you can’t. It doesn’t exist. Not only that, it has never existed. During the time period when the runes were still the primary writing system in most of Northern Europe, those stories were part of a purely oral tradition and thus were not written down. So while there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the Lore in a more native script it’s important to know that this was never done, historically speaking.
The other thing that’s important to note here is that almost all of the preserved ‘Lore’ that we have today is written specifically in Old Icelandic, and that’s an important detail when it comes to runes for a few reasons.
1- The use of runes was never particularly popular in Iceland, which was an early adopter of the Latinized alphabet.
2- As we discussed in our last article, the Younger Futhark runes were designed to be used in the eastern Old Norse dialect more commonly spoken in Sweden at the time.
Just as the Elder Futhark had to change due to shifts in the sound of the spoken language into what became the Younger Futhark, Old Icelandic also had some distinct linguistic shifts that make it difficult to transcribe into those runes. That said, it’s far from impossible, and later medieval Icelandic scholars made some innovations that can be used to help fill the gaps while maintaining some degree of regional authenticity.
Old Icelandic Sounds
The Younger Futhark has two runes that represent sounds that were no longer present in Old Icelandic by the time the Lore was written down. The ‘Yr’ rune, and the ‘óss’ rune. Nasal vowels like óss had been eliminated a couple centuries before and the Yr had become just another way to write the Reið rune with an identical sound. Later Icelandic scholars reassigned the Yr to make a ‘Y’ sound, while the unused óss became the symbol for the range of ‘o’ sounds present in Old Icelandic vowels. This allowed the Medieval Runes to be used as kind of ‘font’ for the Old Icelandic alphabet pictured to the left.
The problem is, the Medieval Runes followed none of the other conventions of early rune usage and were primarily used as a form of decoration centuries after the conversion. What they do offer us is a potential insight into how the Younger Futhark might have developed if it had had time to catch on in Iceland before the Latinized alphabet became the norm. If we take those innovations (which were still created by native speakers of Old Icelandic) and apply them to the Futhark, what you end up with is this.
Transcribing The Lore
There are a few simple things to keep in mind when trying to write out a word or phrase in the Futhark. Most importantly: the runes are not letters, they’re sounds. That’s the difference between the Futhark and the Medieval Runes. Medieval Runes are letters and can be transcribed directly where Futhark cannot.
Here are a few extra rules you might want to know if you want to try and be as accurate as possible:
- Just as we saw in the previous articles, you won’t transcribe double letters.
- If a V is at the start of a word (viking), it’s written as ‘Úr’ and pronounced as a W, but in the middle or end of a word a (Sif, Þórr’s wife) f or ‘Fé’ also makes a V sound.
- Before an ‘S’ or a ‘T’, the Old Icelandic ‘G’ will make an ‘X’ sound. (which sounds like the CH found in the Scottish pronunciation of ‘Loch Ness’) And is therefore written with Sol instead of Kaun.
- If you can keep the last rule straight in your head on the first try, congratulations, you’re a wizard.
Today’s article would not have been possible with the help of Sveinn Ullarson!