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. Now, each of these is going to touch briefly on the history and use of these runes; however, that’s not going to be my primary focus. Instead, we’ll be focusing on how the runes were USED.
The Younger Futhark (Long Branch Runes)
Last time we covered the Elder Runes, which are the ones most people learn first. This is primarily because they have enough characters with similar sounds to function as letters in modern English. The Younger Futhark runes were developed between 700-800 CE, right near the beginning of what we often call ‘The Viking Age’. The vast majority of rune stones, and inscribed ‘viking’ swords you’ll likely ever see are going to be written in this text. For anyone who has ever wanted to see the Lore transcribed, if you want to write Old Norse in runes the Younger Futhark are what you would use! That being said, there’s a bit of a catch.
When people talk about Old Norse, they almost invariably mean Old Icelandic (because that’s the dialect that most of the Lore is recorded in). Now, the differences between the Western (Icelandic) dialect and it’s Eastern cousins are limited enough that a speaker or one could likely understand the others with relative ease. However, there were still differences in vowel sounds that affect the use of the runes. Contrary to popular belief, the use of runes was never very popular in Iceland until a bit of a revival in the middle ages brought them there. The ones who were known for their rune work were the Swedes, and that means the Younger Futhark were meant to be used to write EASTERN Old Norse. Thus there are several sounds represented in the runes that aren’t quite the same as you’d see in Old Icelandic, and at least one (the Yr rune) which didn’t even exist in Old Icelandic by the time of the Sagas. So while it’s not impossible to do, writing Old Icelandic in runes takes a bit of scholarly reconstruction. We’ll be going into that in a later article, but today’s piece is specifically about the Younger Futhark as they were originally used.
Writing the Runes
As I pointed out in the last article, the runes are not letters, they’re sounds. A lot of charts will try to directly correlate each rune to a letter. This sometimes works out fine, but it can be misleading. What I mean by that, is that when transliterating a word into runes, one should pay less attention to how a word is spelled and more to how the word SOUNDS. In the case of the Younger Futhark, this gets a bit complicated. Near the beginning of the viking era, while the runes were being refined down to a mere sixteen characters, the Old Norse language was simultaneously developing MORE vowel sounds. What this means is that many of the runes represent a number of different sounds, and reading them is a matter of piecing together context and linguistic clues since one runic spelling could actually be multiple different words. It should also be noted that the sounds of the Younger Futhark are a lot more foreign to most modern English speakers. All of this compounds to make this rune set significantly more difficult to learn than the Elder Runes.
(The ( ) mark the sound within each word that the associated rune represents. In cases where a sound does not exist in the English language, the Orthogrphic symbol for the sound is provided along with a description for how to pronounce it.)
In the last article, I mentioned that the commonly known names and meanings of the Futhark runes were all written for the Younger Futhark. There are three well known Rune Poems, the Norwegian poem, the Saxon poem, and the Icelandic poem. These are where we get pretty much every interpretation for the meanings of the individual symbols. For example, here’s a translation of the Icelandic Rune Poem, written by Bruce Dickins.
Fé – Wealth Source of discord among kinsmen and fire of the sea and path of the serpent.
Úr – Shower Lamentation of the clouds and ruin of the hay-harvest and abomination of the shepherd.
Thurs – Giant Torture of women and cliff-dweller and husband of a giantess.
Óss – God Aged Gautr and prince of Ásgardr and lord of Vallhalla.
Reid – Riding Joy of the horsemen and speedy journey and toil of the steed.
Kaun – Ulcer Disease fatal to children and painful spot and abode of mortification.
Hagall – Hail Cold grain and shower of sleet and sickness of serpents.
Naud – Constraint Grief of the bond-maid and state of oppression and toilsome work.
Iss – Ice Bark of rivers and roof of the wave and destruction of the doomed.
Ár – Plenty Boon to men and good summer and thriving crops.
Sól – Sun Shield of the clouds and shining ray and destroyer of ice.
Tyr God with one hand and leavings of the wolf and prince of temples.
Bjarken – Birch Leafy twig and little tree and fresh young shrub.
Madr – Man Delight of man and augmentation of the earth and adorner of ships.
Lögr – Water Eddying stream and broad geysir and land of the fish.
Yr – Yew Bent bow and brittle iron and giant of the arrow.
Today’s article would not have been possible with the help of Sveinn Ullarson!
Sveinn is a professional Old Norse teacher/translator, who offers online lessons to people around the world.
He teaches over Skype, and if you are a paying student then you are also welcome to message him on facebook for further study outside scheduled lesson times. He accepts payment via Paypal at the end of each calendar month. You needn’t arrange weekly lessons if you don’t wish to, you can schedule a lesson as needed, just drop him a message.
His rates are:
UK: £0.15 a word
USA: $0.25 a word
Europe: €0.20 a word
Australia/Canada: AU/CA$0.30 a word
If you are interested, please get in contact and book a free 15-minute trial lesson. If you book your half-hour or hour, it doesn’t have to be Old Norse, He also teaches Futhark, Proto-Norse, and Germanic linguistics.