Reading Rune Transliterations

I’ve been using this notation on this website with only a brief description of it, so I thought it was worth it to go a little more in-depth for people who are interested in reading actual runic inscriptions.

A single runic inscription contains a lot of information that is valuable to people reading it, including the size and shape and even direction of the runes themselves. On the other hand, if every time scholars wanted to describe a transcription, they had to describe every last detail, they would never get around to saying anything useful. While nothing can replace the actual inscription itself, sometimes its just not that important whether it’s short- or long-twig.

When people reproduce runic inscriptions in a more manageable form, they usually use a system of transliteration and transcription along with a translation.

I picked the first two lines of the Jelling 2 stone, because I think it’s the right combination of clear, confusing, and well-documented to show how these tools are used. I’m just going to use the first two lines of a much longer inscription.

Jellingsten - haraltr etc

The image is from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jellingsten.1..jpg, and I played with the contrast a bit to try to make it easier to read, but as you can see it’s still not all that clear. Maybe I could have tried harder, but maybe I have no idea how to use a graphics program, or maybe I’m writing an article that’s going to be printed in black-and-white and the contrast will get messed up. Maybe I can’t use pictures at all. Also, that m-jelling rune is a little weird, but I don’t have time to talk about rune variations and stuff like that.

Transliteration

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, one option I have is to use actual Unicode runic text. That would look something like this:

᛬ᚼᛅᚱᛅᛚᛏᚱ᛬ᚴᚢᚾᚢᚴᛦ᛬ᛒᛅᚦ᛬ᚴᛅᚢᚱᚢᛅ
ᚴᚢᛒᛚ᛬ᚦᛅᚢᛋᛁ᛬ᛅᚠᛏ᛬ᚴᚢᚱᛙᚠᛅᚦᚢᚱᛋᛁᚾ

That’s pretty good, but there are some problems. First of all, I’m pretty sure for some of you, that just looks like a bunch of rectangles. If you don’t have a font installed on your computer with entries for the runic Unicode block, you can’t read that.

Second, it’s going to look like whatever your font wants it to look like. That might give a false impression that the glyph forms used by the font are the same ones used in the inscription. Using Unicode, I can’t differentiate between s-z and s-chair, two different s runes, for example. In the current example, the m rune m-jelling is rendering on my computer totally differently from the inscription. Maybe at some point in the future, Unicode will expand the runic block with more variants, but in order to actually represent inscriptions with 100% efficiency, there would have to be a separate glyph for every single rune ever carved.

I circumvent both of these on this webpage by making images, so I have a lot of control over what they look like, but sweet merciful crap is that a pain. And even then they’re not perfect representations, and to make them any better would take even more time. If I were certain that everyone could read the runic Unicode, I’d switch to that in a heartbeat and only make images when absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, like I said — maybe those variants don’t make a difference for what the author is saying, so why bother going trough the trouble?

A much more common method of representation is to use a Latin transliteration. That’s when each rune is represented by a Latin letter. A Latin transliteration is generally given in bold text. That would look like this:

: haraltr : kunukʀ : baþ : kaurua ¶
kubl : þausi : aft : kurm faþur sin ¶

In the notation used by Samnordisk Runtextdatabas, the paragraph mark  stands for a line break.

If this had any bindrunes, it would be shown with an arch. So if kunukʀ had ended with a bindrune kz, it would be written kunuk͡ʀ.

Take note of a couple of things. There is absolutely no attempt to explain what sound these runes made. It’s a purely one-to-one relationship between runes and letters. The k in kaurua actually stood for a /g/ sound, but the rune is definitely k, no different from the one in kunukʀ, so we don’t write it any different here, since the goal is to say which runes are used. If I wrote g there, it would mean I thought the rune was gg-dotg-dash2, or maybe g-dash1 – something that definitely is differentiated graphically from a k.

In some inscriptions from the period when the younger fuþark was still developing, there are combinations of elder and younger fuþark symbols. Since that can be important scholars usually differentiate them using capital and lower-case letters.

Here’s a weird case. The Stentoften runestone:

Stentoftenstenen - niuhagestumz

Our first step is figuring out the inventory of runes the carver had at his disposal. In just this bit (a small part of a longer inscription, see the link above), we see:

  • n – n
  • i1 – i
  • u – u
  • h – h
  • a – a
  • g – g
  • e – e
  • s – s
  • t – t
  • m – m
  • z2 – z or ʀ
  • h – A
  • þ – þ
  • w – w
  • o – o
  • l – l
  • f – f
  • r – r
  • J-stentoften – j

Samnordisk Runtextdatabas gives the following transliteration:

niuhagestumz ¶
hAþuwolAfz gAf j 

The transliteration uses the elder fuþark as the standard, because runes like g make sense here and are used how they are expected in elder fuþark inscriptions, but there are two weird things here.

The elder fuþark rune j *jārą has developed into a shape h. In the North Germanic languages, a word that started with /j/ lost that sound, so by now the word itself was probably *ārą or *āra, and it’s being used as the same way as the younger fuþark a rune, a1 ár. But at the same time, the older a rune a is still being used. Since h is the odd man out – basically a younger fuþark rune in an elder fuþark inscription – it’s marked with a capital A.

Meanwhile another reflex of j also makes an appearance. The J-stentoften shape seems to be an abbreviation for its name, which became Norse ár (‘year’ or in this case ‘harvest’). Since it’s not acting as an a rune of any kind, it’s given its normal elder fuþark transliteration, j. That doesn’t mean it was pronounced with one – we just need a different letter to show that it’s a wholly different rune.

In theory, the letters used to transliterate the runes do not actually have to correspond to their sound. The letters are really just variables. Technically, you could assign a number rather than a letter (as long as you let your readers know what the numbers mean), but that would be pretty pointless,. But the younger fuþark rune an1 is often transliterated o even when it is better characterized as a “nasal vowel” rune, when others might transliterate it ą. The goal is to let you know it’s a an1 rune (even if it’s a different graphic variant).

Transcription

The next step is figuring out what the words actually were that the carver intended to write. From our transliteration of the Jelling stone:

: haraltr : kunukʀ : baþ : kaurua ¶
kubl : þausi : aft : kurm faþur sin ¶

we get a transcription (given in italics) like this (transcription by Samnordisk Runtextdatabas):

Haraldr kunungʀ baþ gørwa kumbl þøsi æft Gorm, faþur sin

This is the entry for the “original language” field in the database, and in this case it’s Old East Norse (or more specifically, this is the language of Denmark in the 900’s). The letter ⟨w⟩ is used in gørwa because it’s believed to be the actual sound in the language of the person who wrote the inscription.

You might notice is looks quite a bit different from the transliteration. For example, kunukʀ becomes konun. In runic writing, nasal consonants (/m, n, ŋ/) were often left out when they came right before a stop consonant made at the same place in the mouth (/p, b, t, d, k, g/). There also weren’t enough vowel runes to go around for all the actual vowel sounds, but we know from descendant languages that there’s an /o/ in that word (OIce konungr ‘king’). The /ø/ vowel is here written with two runes, au, but *gaurva doesn’t make sense there (especially in Old East Norse, where /au/ became /øː/ anyway… hence OIce haukr vs. Danish høg ‘hawk’).

Another way to transcribe it is into normalized “Old Norse” (which is better described as Classical Old Icelandic):

Haraldr konungr bað gera kuml þessi ept Gorm, fǫður sinn

This is much more understandable for many people who know Old Norse (well, maybe not much more in this case because it’s not all that different, but it can be sometimes). On the other hand, it’s not the best representation of what was written. For example, the final -ʀ in konungʀ is not shown to be different from the -r in Haraldr. It also turns that w into a v, because although early Old Icelandic probably still pronounced that /w/, standards for Old Icelandic orthography determine it should be written ⟨v⟩. Which kind of transcription is used depends on the author and what their purpose is for writing.

Brief digression – The word kuml or kumbl shows up a lot in runic inscriptions. It might be written kumblkuml, or kubl. It means some kind of monument or something, and seems to often refer to the stone itself. It seems the word was originally kuml, and the b forced its way in there by the same process that happened with the d in English thunder (OE þunor > ModE thunder). After the b was securely in the word, carvers could drop the m by the same process of dropping nasal vowels described above regarding kunukr konungʀ.

For what it’s worth, the modern Icelandic form of the word is kumbl.

Anyway, now that all this is done, we can put it all together and add a translation (between single quote marks ‘ ‘). Everything altogether looks like this:

: haraltr : kunukʀ : baþ : kaurua ¶
kubl : þausi : aft : kurm faþur sin ¶

Haraldr kunungʀ baþ gørwa kumbl þøsi æft Gorm, faþur sin

‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father’

Final Note

One last thing to keep in mind is that while most of the standards I’ve described here are fairly universal for people working with runes, there are some details that scholars disagree on, especially regarding at what point a rune becomes truly different from another one. For example, should both p1 and p2 be transliterated as p? As I described here, the Norwegian runologist Terje Spurkland has argued that at least in Bergen, Norway, they are used differently enough that they should be kept apart, and he suggests transliterating p1 as p, and p2 as K (though p and P would work just as well, as long as they’re kept separate). I’m not sure if anyone has picked that up, but it’s a good example of the kinds of debates that happen.

Michael Barnes especially comes to mind as having written a lot about the need to follow established standards, so that different researchers’ works can be compared easily. Since most of the work on Samnordisk Runtextdatabas is from before Terje Spurland’s article, there is no differentiation between the two p runes, and if I were doing research on the difference between the two I would have to actually observe the inscriptions themselves, rather than be able to simply run a search through the Rundata program made for searching the database.

All transcription, transliteration, and translation from Samnordisk Runtextdatabas: Jelling Stone, Stentoften Stone except runic Unicode transliteration by me (backformed from SRD Latin transliteration since I can’t read the photograph either). All photographs from Wikimedia Commons and edited by me.

See also:

  • Barnes, Michael. 2013. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
  • Spurkland, Terje. “ᛕ and ᛔ: One Grapheme or Two?” Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Ed. James E. Knirk. Runrön 9. Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska språk, Uppsala universitet, 1994: 269-278.

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