How to Read Rocks: Old Norse Runes

Tags: old norse

"Learn runes," promises the cover of Viking Language 1. I figured it was a gimmick, meant to entice people who think runes are cool-looking, hard to learn, and brimful of magical power. (I myself only believe one of those things.) The rune lessons, I assumed, would consist of a tacked-on appendix.

And in any other Old Norse textbook, I would've been right1. But Viking Language 1 introduces the runes in Chapter 3, with readings reproduced — runes and all — from one of the Jelling runestones.

King Harald commanded these monuments to be made in memory of Gorm his father and Thyri his mother. It says so right there

The runes are easy enough to learn2. (It used to surprise me how many people believe that if they can't read an alphabet just by looking at it – Cyrillic, say – it must also be hard to learn. But that's a thought for another time.) You can even type runes on your computer keyboard.

You know what's weird about Viking runes, though? The Vikings started with a writing system that was a good fit for their language, and then switched to a worse one. This offends my engineering sensibilities.

The Elder Futhark with rough English equivalents

The early runes, the Elder Futhark, are a pretty good match to the sounds of Old Norse. It had a few quirks. For example, the rune with "R" as its English equivalent in the picture was pronounced as "z" in some areas and as trilled r – think Spanish or Italian r – in others, and some carvers used the "R" and "r" runes interchangeably.

The Younger Futhark with rough English equivalents

Beginning around 650 AD, the Elder Futhark evolved into the Younger Futhark, which only has sixteen characters even though Old Norse hadn't lost any sounds. The new alphabet was easier to carve, but also harder to read.

The Younger Futhark was used on a far larger number of carvings than its ancestor, though, so that's the alphabet Viking Language focuses on.

It's exciting to look at a photo of a thousand-year-old stone and puzzle out words in a long-dead language. It's tricky work – not only can one rune represent more than one sound, but some sounds were commonly left out, and spelling wasn't consistent – but you can totally do it.

Byock's choice of Old Norse readings continues to be both instructional and enjoyable. I realize my basic Icelandic background continues to give me a head start on Old Norse (many of the Jelling runestone words are the same as or recognizably similar to Modern Icelandic), but the textbook brings the Viking world to life in a way many language books for modern language don't manage to equal.

Runic fonts and keyboards: a tacked-on appendix

Both the Elder and Younger Futhark are part of the Unicode standard, so if you install a runic keyboard, you can type in runes and share the documents with other people – as long as they have the right fonts installed. I've been using these keyboards from languagegeek.com to type runes. Windows 10 wants every keyboard setup to be associated with a specific language, and Old Norse is not an option, but since you can have multiple keyboards per language it shouldn't be a problem. (Windows 10, like previous versions, includes an On-Screen Keyboard utility that's invaluable for learning new keyboard mappings.)

Windows 10 also comes with a runic font, Segoe UI Historic, though some applications didn't default to using it for characters in Unicode's Runic block. You might not have that problem, though; when I posted on Facebook in Younger Futhark, lots of people with no interest in things Viking could see the characters just fine. If you'd like a different font, Code2000 and Hnias both include the Elder and Younger Futhark.

1. Or so I am pretty sure the author of Viking Language 1 and 2, Jesse L. Byock, wrote. Somewhere. There's a lot to like in the books, but they could use an index. (back to article)

2. Surely you didn't expect me to say runes don't look cool? (back to article)

Written on March 17, 2016