This post is specifically about the names of the runes. For their sounds see this page.
Intro: About the Rune Names
As is well known, the runic characters of the various fuþarks each have a name, usually beginning with the same sound that they represent in writing. This is called the acrophonic principle. For example, the first rune in all of the fuþarks is (or a similar-looking variant), which makes an /f/-sound in writing, and while its name varies from language to language, it always begins with an /f/-sound.
I think that most people who work with runes nowadays would probably identify as “fehu.” That isn’t wrong, but the word “fehu” was never actually written anywhere in ancient times as far as we can tell. How do we know it’s called that then? Centuries after the runes were first used to write, long after the Germanic languages had split up into their many descendant languages, speakers of both Old English and Old West Norse (Icelandic and Norwegian, which had only recently split from each other and were still nearly the same language) wrote down the names of that rune in their own respective languages, which are feoh in Old English, and fé in Old West Norse.
Since feoh and fé both mean the same thing, it’s believed that the common ancestor of these two words was the original name of the rune. Another possibility is that either the English or the Norse started calling their runes by names, and the other learned it from them. However, there is evidence that the runes were used as ideograms, or abbreviations for their own name in writing, and that practice may have gone back a long way. Here is a part of the inscription from the Stentoften runestone:
The inscription doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if taken at face value. The second and fourth runes actually look like different variants of the same rune, which both come from an older *jārą, which originally stood for a /j/ sound and meant “year,” but also with a secondary meaning of “good harvest.” The word developed into Old Norse ár. In Heimskringla, Snorri wrote that Norwegians drank to Freyr and Njörður til árs ok fríðar (‘to good harvest and peace’).
When this runestone was carved, the word *jārą had already lost the initial /j/, so it was just *ārą (or maybe just *ār), and because of the acrophonic principle mentioned above, it couldn’t really stand for a /j/ sound anymore. But the rune-writers had use for a new /a(ː)/ rune, because while they already had , that one had a name beginning with a nasal /ãː/, and since there was a big difference between nasal and oral vowels in their language, it was useful to keep both a-runes. Rune #2 in the inscription is doing just that – standing for an /a/ sound.
The whole word spelled out by the first three runes is gaf, ‘gave.’ The fourth rune really only makes sense if it stands for a whole word, and “harvest” seems to make sense in context, so we’re pretty sure that’s what it’s doing. The carver used a graphical variant to specify that it was different from the runes that are just standing for sounds. It seems to be crediting a man with providing a good “year,” or a good harvest, possibly because he made sacrifices to the gods. Check the Wikipedia page or Scandinavian Rune Text Database page for more details on the inscription.
Another source of information about the rune names is the Gothic alphabet (not to be confused with the “Gothic” script type, a style of Latin-letter writing that was used in the middle ages). A bishop made up a new alphabet for writing Gothic when he translated the Bible into his mother tongue. A manuscript from England, which is also one of our sources on the English runes, contains a list of the Gothic letters and their names. Because centuries had passed since the Gothic Bible was first written, the names had changed a lot, but many of them are clearly related to the names of the runes. For example, in this manuscript, the letter 𐍆 is named fe, believed to derive from the Gothic word faihu, and the letter 𐌾 is called gaar, believed to come from the Gothic word jēr. In both cases, they mean the same thing as their Old English and Norse equivalents.
By comparing Old English, Old Norse, and Gothic sources, scholars have arrived at something that probably is close to the full list of rune names. Unfortunately they don’t always agree on everything. For example, the names that each alphabet gives to its own equivalent of are all different, so we don’t really know for sure what it was. It may simply be that it does not have a single common source, and that there were always two different names for it.
The Rune Names
In the following table are four names for each rune. The first is in Proto-Germanic. They probably were not actually ever used to describe runes, because the language had probably already split up by the time the runes were being used. Nonetheless, they are the linguistic predecessors of the words that would later be applied to runes.
The second is Proto-Norse. These are much better guesses for the actual names of the elder fuþark runes at the time they were used. Notice that it’s not really very different from Proto-Germanic. There are some words that seem to have had slightly different forms ancestral to Old Norse and Old English. For example, OE þyrs and ON þurs both mean the same thing, but the first shows signs of i-umlaut, so its ancestor is reconstructed as *þurisaʀ, but the ON appears to come from *þursaʀ. In the Proto-Germanic section, I try to represent the variation, but in the Proto-Norse section I choose the characteristic Norse variant.
In the West Norse and Old English sections, I bold the names of actual runes in those alphabets, but since I’m representing all variants I’m also including hypothetical names which are cognates of the names in the other fuþark. For example, the Norse fuþark has a rune called þurs, and the Anglo-Saxon one doesn’t. I put the cognate, non-bolded, in that space, just in case readers are interested. Some of these are words that don’t actually exist, and which I came up with by following normal phonological processes in each language. Those are marked with an asterisk. Obviously those are very highly subject to incorrectness but I’m not so concerned with that since they don’t actually exist anyway.
Note: Sometimes you see word-endings written -an, like *kaunan. That’s kind of a different way to write -ą. It means a nasalized /ã/. I prefer the ą notation because there were words with actual /an/ as well, developed from a previous /ant/.
Old English Pronunciation Note: say ċ like “ch” and ġ like a modern English consonantal “y” (or Scandinavian “j”).
|Rune||PG||PN||West Norse||Old English||Translation|
|₁||*ūrą||*ūra||úr||*ūr||ÍS: rain; NO: slag? (see notes)|
|*ansuz||*ą̄suʀ||óss (áss)||ōs||god of the æsir, mouth (of a river)|
|*raiđō||*raiđu||reið||rād||wagon, transport (“ride”)|
|*nauđiz||*nauđiʀ||nauðr||nȳd (/nīed)||need, distress|
|*īhwaz?||*īwaʀ||ýr||ēoh||yew tree, bow|
|*elhaz||*elhaʀ||elgr (<*alǥiz)||ēolh(secg?)||elk (see below)|
|*tīwaz||*tīwaʀ||Týr||Tīw||the god Týr|
|*ōþilą||*ōþila||ǿðli? / óðal||ø̄ðel > ēðel||allodial land|
Notes on Rune Names
*fehu is securely reconstructable but is something of a linguistic oddity – a grammatically neuter word ending in –u is extremely rare. In Icelandic the “livestock” meaning of the word usually refers to sheep (sauðfé). The double-meaning of livestock and money is put to use on the fékort, a credit card with a picture of a sheep on it.
if the Norwegian rune poem entry is interpreted correctly as “iron slag”, it’s the only one that has three seemingly unrelated variants in all three rune poems. The Norwegian word meaning “iron slag” is very obscure, it seems to only come forth in the rune poem, and so the proposed meaning is taken only from context. We furthermore have seen use of rune kennings in Norway from before the Norwegian rune poem that make use of the meaning “rain”. For these reasons, Inmaculada Senra Silva concluded that “rain” is the real meaning, and that the Norwegian poem refers to a shower of sparks when forging.
*Ūruz (from the English) is often taken to be the original, but I can’t think of why – the Icelandic úr meaning ‘rain’ had no equivalent in Old English, but úrr meaning ‘aurochs’ was a part of Icelandic. It seems strange to me to assume that the Icelanders had the word, knew what it meant, but dropped it anyway. But that’s just me.
– the English rune became the name of the letter, which is still used in Icelandic. I tend to lean toward þurs being the original for the reason that it seems to appear in Eddic poetry as such.
– Óss is the actual expected phonological descendant in Icelandic rather than the more common áss. However the whole inflection of the word had three different root vowels so it got levelled out. Ós is still a perfectly acceptable word for “god” in Icelandic though it’s much less common than ás. I admit that as regards the Proto-Norse I’m guessing a little bit that the ą̄ had already absorbed the /n/ and lengthened but I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been contrastive at that point in the language anyway.
– *kauną has no Old English reflex, nor does *kiznaz have a Norse reflex. The Old English ċēn meant ‘torch’ but it seems especially applied to a pine- or fir-wood torch (see: Bosworth Toller). The meaning of the corresponding Gothic letter chozma (probably actual Gothic kusma) is unknown; some suggestions including that it is a cognate to Norwegian kusma ‘mumps’ and accepting it as the source of the loanword into Finnish kusma, kuisma ‘blood boil.’
The often-given rune name **kenaz is wrong for a variety of reasons. The form *kiznaz is given by Gus Kroonen (2013, 289-290). My Proto-Norse *keʀnaʀ is based on meʀ from the Opedal Stone, from earlier *miz (ON mér ‘me’).
– The Old English word is pronounced like something we would now write yivu. The modern English word gift is actually a Norse loanword. The Anglo-Saxons made up a new rune to stand for a “hard” (velar) /g/ (the gār rune).
Hagall is not a real word in Norse, where the word for ‘hail’ is hagl (from PG *haglaz) However the rune retained the name hagall in Icelandic manuscripts confirming the *hagalaz reconstruction.
Reconstructing the name of this rune is stupidly complicated. I wrote a bit about it here.
We have no idea what the hell this was called. The Old English name peorð could have come from quite a variety of older forms (so the hypothetical Norse one I gave is also just one of several guesses, some others being pjarðr, pjǫrðr, pirðr). Bosworth-Toller says it’s grammatically masculine but I don’t know they tell that from the rune poem verse. Sometimes it’s reconstructed as *perþrō with a second /r/ (based on the Gothic pertra) but I think that would give an Old English *peorðor… but I dunno. It’s meaning is completely obscure. All we know about it is that people sitting at sumbl/symbel like it. Some guesses are “chess piece,” “dice cup,” and “pear wood” (that is, maybe a game piece made out of pear wood).
Some people like to interpret it as “vagina” but while undoubtedly many warriors sitting at sumbl are big fans of vaginas it doesn’t really seem like the time or place, and I’d like to think the Anglo-Saxons thought a little more highly of women than to define their reproductive parts in terms of how enjoyable they are to men. But that’s just me.
I’m basing the reconstruction on the assumption that it means “elk,” and backforming it from the Old English word eolh since that is the one which is actually attested as a rune name. It is, however, not necessarily a safe assumption that this was the meaning of the rune. The Norse word for elk, elgr, definitely seems to have come from a word *algiz, but I can’t say for certain that that is the word that was applied to the rune. The Old English is kind of confusing because it seems to be two words shoved together in order to represent the sound it made, which was different from the sound it represented in the elder fuþark, which was /ʀ/.
As the (graphical) descendant of this rune in the Norse runes is ýr, the belief that this symbol at one point had a different name comes entirely from the English runes. To my mind it’s not inconceivable that the English made the switch, rather than the Norse, and that this was always *īwaz until the English moved the name to a different graphic (though accepting that puts us in the unenviable position of knowing even less about ).
The “ġ” in the Old English is a reflex of *w (see also the name Tig which alternates with Tiw — these are just two ways to spell the same thing). The name of this rune hasn’t got the slightest thing to do with sigr (‘victory’) other than superficial similarity. The sigrúnar mentioned in the poem Sigrdrífumál have no linguistic connection to the sól rune.
Like hagall, the Norse word bjarkan refers only to the rune. The normal word for “birch” in Old Norse was bjǫrk (like the Icelandic musician Björk Guðmundsdóttir).
is usually translated simply as “horse,” though in Old English eh is specifically a warrior’s horse, and in Old Norse jór is used almost only (or actually only) in poetry, usually in kennings for ships.
the Proto-Germanic ending of this word is not securely reconstructable. It seems to have developed differently into different languages. In Proto-Norse it’s safe to say it was levelled out to *mannaʀ because of the Norse maðr, but if all of its oddities had been levelled we wouldn’t have the strange plural “men” (Ice. menn).
Some people think the original word was laukaʀ, because the word appears frequently in inscriptions (notice the lack of asterisk), presumably as a magical word. I think that it being written out confirms the opposite – if the rune stood for that word then they wouldn’t have had to write it out. All three rune poems point to an earlier *laguʀ.
The form *Ingwaʀ or *Inguʀ (it’s not possible to differentiate based on Old English Ing) does not have a direct reflex in Old Norse, but the *Ing(w)- root is used very frequently in personal names. The form Yngvi appears to go back to a Proto-Norse *Ingwan-, which could actually mean that Yngvi-Freyr is not the same person as Ing (hypothetical Norse *Yngr). It’s not
Though there is no Norse rune called dagr, the elder fuþark (or Anglo-Saxon) rune seems to be used as an abbreviation for the word on a viking age Swedish runestone Ög 43, suggesting the Norse were at least somewhat aware of it and its meaning (whether by maintained knowledge from elder fuþark times or by contact with English people I can’t say, but I lean heavily toward the latter). This is also the name of a god, Dagr.
The reconstructed form *ōþilą comes from the i-umlaut of the /o/. There was also a word *ōþalą but it is fairly certain that the form with an /i/ was the name of the rune, especially since it made the rune unusable to the English. The umlauted sound would have begun as /œ(ː)/ but quickly lost that sound when it merged with /e(ː)/ in most dialects. This might also be related to its disappearance from the Norse runes.
I pieced most of this together from different sources.
- Barnes, Michael P. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012.
- Bosworth, Joseph. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement. ed. and additions by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Online edition: http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/
- Haugen, Einar. Scandinavian Language Structures: A Comparative Historical Survey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. (nominal paradigms hosted at the personal webpage of Johan Schalin).
- Krause, Wolfgang. 2014. Schriften zur Runologie und Sprachwissenschaft. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.
- Lehman, Winfred. 1989. A Gothic Etymological Dictionary. Leiden: Brill.
- Page, R. I., ed. The Icelandic Rune-Poem. London: The Viking Society for Northern Research, 1999. Retrieved from http://vsnrweb-publications.org.uk/
- Page, R. I. Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 1998.
- Page, R. I. Runes: Reading the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
- Ringe, Don. A History of English, Volume 1: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Senra Silva, Inmaculada. ”The Names of the u-Rune.” Futhark: International Journal of Runic Studies 1 (2010), 109-22.
I didn’t check specifically just now but the primary source for my hypothetical constructions into Old Norse is informed particularly by The First Grammatical Treatise. ed. Hreinn Benediktsson. Reykjavík: University of Iceland, 1972.
Unfortunately for lack of a better source my hypothetical Old English constructions are from the Wikipedia page on Old English phonology, but conferred somewhat with Ringe and Bosworth-Toller.