The sounds of Proto-Norse and the Elder Fuþark

If you’re not familiar with the history of the Norse languages, I recommend reading From Proto-Indo-European to Icelandic before moving on.

Note: This post is specifically about their sounds. Though I name them, the post is not about the names. I’ll do a separate post for that later.

The elder fuþark is by far the most popular among modern people with an interest in runes, which I would guess is because it is relatively comparable to our Latin alphabet in size, because it is the oldest fuþark, and because it is the one used in most descriptions of modern rune divination.

1. Crotchety Old Man Rant

The idea that the elder fuþark is “The Viking Runes” is common and terrible. I can think of no reason for it to have come into existence other than to sell mass-produced plastic runes, yet it’s everywhere these days. You can even find t-shirts in downtown Reykjavík written in Icelandic and poorly transliterated in to elder fuþark, even though the medieval runes are nearly perfect for writing Icelandic. It has caused a lot of headaches when people try to write words like Æsir in runes, for lack of an /æ/ rune, and has frustrated many would-be rune-readers who learn the elder fuþark and are surprised to find that actual viking inscriptions are still unintelligible to them.

2. Context of the Elder Fuþark

The most frustrating part of it all is that the actual history of the elder fuþark is awesome.

The elder fuþark first appears on record around the year 150 A.D., on a comb from Vimose, Denmark:

harja comb

harja, transliterated harja and transcribed harją̄ This word is the ancient ancestor of the first name of Heri Joensen from the band Týr. It might be a name or a title – it means ‘warrior’ and is the second element in the word einherjar (the fallen warriors chosen by Óðinn to fight at Ragnarök).

One of the most important inscriptions, which is much more verbose, comes from one of the two Golden Horns of Gallehus.

A better look at the inscription and images can be found here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/Small_Gallehus_horn_images.png

It says: ekhlewagastiz: holtijaz: horna : tawido
ekhlewagastiʀ.holtijaʀ.horna.tawido
Ek Hlewagastiʀ Holtijaʀ horną tawiđō
‘I, Hlewagastiʀ Holtijaʀ (from the holt?), made the horn.’

In Norse, this would probably be: Ek Hlégestr Hyltir horn táða (although táða is not a word in Norse; it had fallen out of use by then). Holtijaʀ is not totally well-understood – it seems to mean “from the holt” but some think it may be an older form of patronymic: “son of Holta.”

3. The Sounds of Proto-Norse

The elder fuþark was used to write languages other than just Proto-Norse, but I don’t know much about West Germanic or East Germanic languages, so I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about them. At the time these languages were in many ways still similar to Proto-Germanic, so there are probably many similarities between each other as well at the time of the Vimose Comb above, although by the time of the Gallehus Horn, Gothic had already shown itself to have changed considerably.

Actually, some scholars don’t even like to call the earliest inscriptions Proto-Norse, arguing that there is no real way to differentiate completely between the language in the inscriptions and the ancestor of the West Germanic languages (like English, German, etc). I’m going to keep saying ‘Proto-Norse,’ for lack of a better term, but keep that in mind.

Through the period of elder fuþark writing, the languages changed and spread out, so what is about to follow is not accurate for all places and all times, but it’s a pretty good starting point.

3.1 – Vowels

Proto-Norse had five vowels, represented by five runes (the (ː) means ‘short or long’; they could also be nasalized):

  • u*ūruʀ – /u(ː)/
  • a*ansuʀ – /a(ː)/
  • i*īsaʀ – /i(ː)/
  • e*ehwaʀ – /e(ː)/
  • o*ōþilą – /o(ː)/

These could be either short or long, and some were also nasal.

In later Proto-Norse, they may not have always sounded exactly like that. The language experienced something called umlaut, where a sound in one part of the word effected a sound in another.

The language had already gone through one of them. A-umlaut has a “lowering” effect. The word horna mentioned above on the Gallehus Horn comes from Proto-Germanic *hurną. The a at the end of the word turned the high vowel /u/ into a lower vowel /o/. Proto-Germanic actually did not have a short /o/ sound, only a long one, but Proto-Norse had plenty thanks for a-umlaut.

Later on, the language would also go through i-umlaut and u-umlaut, in that order. I won’t get into it too much here, but these are the processes that create the sounds of æ, ǫ, ø, and y. In Proto-Norse, the word for ‘child’ was *barna and the plural, ‘children,’ was *barnu. Because of u-umlaut, the latter was actually pronounced more like bǫrnu [ˈbɔrnu] in West Norse. For a while, you would still write them b a r n a barna and b a r n u barnu because the -u ending is actually actively causing the sound change. Therefore a could have the sounds [a] or [ɔ], but it was dependent on other sounds in the word (kind of like in English, bit and bite have two different ‘i’-sounds, which is signaled by the ‘e.’ It’s a good thing we kept the ‘e’ or we’d be screwed trying to tell them apart in writing).

But eventually the ending was lost, but the pronunciation of the first part didn’t change. So the [ɔ] sound needed its own letter to distinguish, and thus ǫ was born.

3.2 – *Īhwaʀ

You may have noticed I left something out among the vowels. ï *īwaʀ or *īhwaʀ. This poorly-understood rune, which is usually transcribed ï, does not fit with our understanding of Proto-Norse. The word *īhwaʀ itself is highly debated – it looks like there were variants and *īhwaʀ itself may not have been any of them, but is a combination of *īhaʀ and *īwaʀ (you might notice I sometimes slip and forget the h… the Norse ýr had to have come from a form with the w). It definitely means “yew,” but what form it had back then has proven extremely difficult to reconstruct.

Whatever the word was, it seems to have started with the same sound as the normal i-rune, *īsaʀ, so following the principle that rune names start with the sound they stand for, it seems redundant. In that case, it’s also possible that it was more like *ingwaʀ or *algiʀ and stood for a sound other than its first value (which would make it not a vowel at all!). It is debated whether that ī is accurate though.

Note: it is a popular belief that the rune stood for a sound written /ē₂/ in transcriptions of Proto-Germanic – I am myself quite guilty of perpetuating this when I’d done less research than I have now. This has not been ruled out by all linguists and runologists, but it is one of the less widely accepted beliefs. Somewhat more likely is that it actually stood for /ē₁/, which disappeared in transition to Proto-Norse, but this too is usually rejected on grounds that among the wide array of functions the rune is put to in West Germanic, none of them have anything to do with /ē₁/.

In Scandinavia, it only ever shows up in inscriptions of the whole rune row like the Kylver stone, or in inscriptions which have not been interpreted  (at least not to general acceptance of other runologists). It’s shape continued to be used for cypher runes however, see: the Rök Stone: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/skaldic/db-jpeg.php?id=22636&zoom=1

It’s used much more in West Germanic languages, where it seems to alternate between a vowel and a consonant, especially /i/ and /h/ ([x]).

Some runologists like Elmer Antonsen and Leo Connelly believe that this rune is evidence that runic writing substantially predates Proto-Norse, and represents a sound that was lost during Proto-Germanic. This idea has had a lot of support from linguists and runologists, but there is no widespread agreement on what that sound was.

Some believe that it really was unnecessary, and was placed there specifically to give the alphabet twenty-four runes, which they say is a special number.

The Yew Rune, Yogh and Yew by Bernard Mees is an excellent description of the scholarship surrounding the rune.

3.3 – Consonants with allophones

Proto-Norse has some consonants that make more than one sound depending on their placement in the word, which are /b/, /d/, and /g/. I try to remember to type them ƀ, đ, and ǥ to remind you of this.

The “default” sounds are fricatives:

  • b – *ƀerkaną – /ƀ/: [β] (sounds kind of like [v] but uses both lips instead of teeth and lips)
  • d – *đaǥaʀ – /đ/: [ð] (like the ‘th’ in ‘there’)
  • g – *ǥeƀu – /ǥ/: [ɣ] (kind of like the ‘ch’ in Scottish ‘loch’ but with the vocal chords vibrating; Icelandic saga).

But in the beginnings of words and after certain consonants, /ƀ/ and  /đ/ sounded like our normal English /b/ and /d/. It’s believed that at least at first /ǥ/ was always a fricative, though it did eventually become more like our normal English /g/ as well.

So when you say the rune name *geƀō, that means you should be saying something more like “gayvo” than “gaybo” (if you make the /g/ a stop like in English; the more archaic way would be… ɣayvo… but I don’t know how to tell you to say that while typing in English).

If you know Icelandic, this should be familiar to you. The /d/ situation is sort of like the alternation between d and ð in modern Icelandic (though loanwords make it impossible to really say it’s the same, and the current situation actually arose as alternation between þ and ð). The Proto-Norse /b/ is the reason that Modern Icelandic /f/ has three different sounds. The Icelandic /g/ still usually sounds like [ɣ].

3.4 – Nasals

Proto-Norse had three nasal sounds: /m/,  /n/, and /ŋ/. This is the same as in Modern English and lots of other languages.

  • m – *mannaʀ – /m/
  • n – *nauđiʀ – /n/
  • ng – *ingwaʀ – /ŋ/

/ŋ/ is the sound that an n makes before a g or a k. If you say “singer” and “finger,” notice how they don’t quite rhyme? Finger has an extra g-sound, like it’s “fing-ger” where singer is just “sing-er.” Well /ŋ/ is that ng– sound in singer, where the one in finger would have to be transcribed /ŋg/.

What is a little strange is that the elder fuþark has three runes just for these sounds, instead of just writing /ŋ/ as ng ng (actually, this happens too). The question is, does it stand only for /ŋ/, or does it stand for the whole /ŋg/? The answer seems to be that different rune carvers disagreed – you can see both ng and ngg.

3.5 – Remaining Consonants

Nothing too fancy to learn about these, other than /ʀ/. Given in fuþark order.

  • f – *fehu – /f/ (not /v/ – see notes for b)
  • þ – *þursaʀ – /þ/ (the “th” in “thing”)
  • r – *raiđu – /r/
  • k – *kauną or *kenaʀ – /k/
  • w – *wunju – /w/ (not /v/ – see notes for b)
  • h – *hagalaʀ – /h/ ([x] like in Scottish loch)
  • j – *jārą – /j/ (like the consonantal y-sound in “yes”; never a vowel)
  • p – *perþu? – /p/
  • z – *algiʀ – /ʀ/ (see: What is ʀ and how do you say it?)
  • s – *sowilu – /s/
  • t – *tīwaʀ -/ t/
  • l – *laguʀ – /l/

4. The Elder Fuþark

To wrap it up, here’s the whole thing altogether (the order is actually not 100% set, but this is about the most common. d and o tend to switch a lot). Note that this is my best take at Proto-Norse, NOT Proto-Germanic, hence *jārą rather than *jērą and /ʀ/ rather than /z/.

  • f – *fehu – /f/ (not /v/ – see notes for b)
  • u*ūruʀ – /u(ː)/
  • þ – *þursaʀ – /þ/ (the “th” in “thing”)
  • a*ansuʀ – /a(ː)/
  • r – *raiđu – /r/
  • k – *kauną or *kenaʀ – /k/
  • g – *ǥeƀu – /ǥ/ ([ɣ] or later also [g])
  • w – *wunju – /w/ (not /v/ – see notes for b)
  • h – *hagalaʀ – /h/ ([x] like in Scottish loch)
  • n – *nauđiʀ – /n/
  • i*īsaʀ – /i(ː)/
  • j – *jārą – /j/ (like the consonantal y-sound in “yes”; never a vowel)
  • ï – *īhwaʀ? – ???
  • p – *perþu? – /p/
  • z – *algiʀ – /ʀ/ (see: What is ʀ and how do you say it?)
  • s – *sowilu – /s/
  • t – *tīwaʀ -/ t/
  • b – *ƀerkaną – /ƀ/ ([β] or [b])
  • e*ehwaʀ – /e(ː)/
  • m – *mannaʀ – /m/
  • l – *laguʀ – /l/
  • ng – *ingwaʀ – /ŋ/
  • d – *đaǥaʀ – /đ/ ([ð] or [d])
  • o*ōþilą – /o(ː)/

5. Sources

  • Barnes, Michael P. Runes: A Handbook. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012.
  • Haugen, Einar. The Scandinavian Languages: An Introduction to their History. Harvard: Harvard University Press (1976).
  • Hreinn Benediktsson, ed. The First Grammatical Treatise. Reykjavík: University of Iceland, 1972.
  • Mees, Bernard. “The Yew Rune, Yogh, and Yew.” Leeds Studies in English, New Series XLII (2011): 53-74. Accessed 15 November 2013.
  • Ringe, Don. A History of English, Volume 1: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Vimose comb picture taken by me.
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7 thoughts on “The sounds of Proto-Norse and the Elder Fuþark

    • Sorry for the delay. To my knowledge, vocalic /l/ is not reconstructed for any of the languages which were written in Elder Futhark. My history of English is not very good, but as I understand it vocalization is believed to have taken place in Early Modern English.

  1. ‘Harja’ is ‘brush’ in Finnish. I know that the object above is a comb, not a brush, but I wonder where the Finnish word derives from?

    • The link between the word brush and comb is more in the form and use of the object.
      Both rods a hard material like wood or bone in contact with hair. This is probably due to the lack of a more specific vocabulary for both terms at that time.

      • Yep, I also noticed that “herja” means to “wage war” in Faroese, a close relative to Icelandic. Also, “herja” in Finnish means “an insult” or “a sacrilege” — I guess a form of waging a verbal war.

        “Her” is “army” in Icelandic, so I wouldn’t be surprised if “harja” is formed in a similar way as “warrior” is derived from “war”.

        Come to think about it, /har-ya/ doesn’t sound that different from /war-ya/.

        Hm.

  2. Strange how much there is resemblance to Finnish. Harja is brush or comb in Finnish. “Holtijar horna” is like “Haltija hornan” which means “owner of the horn”. I think there was some Swedish research which suggested that old Futhark is indeed full of Finnish words. Which would not be a miracle since during Viking times most people north of Stockholm spoke some form of Finnish.

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