A lot of people don’t like the younger fuþark. It’s very small – only sixteen characters – so it seems to require a lot of guesswork and “close enough”‘s. But the truth is that with just a tiny bit of linguistics they become awesome. And to make it even cooler, we’ll use some linguistics from the 13th century.
Plus, these are the actual viking runes!
Soon I’ll do a post on the expansions that were made to the younger fuþark to identify certain sounds more specifically using diacritics, but for right now we’re only going to concentrate on the 16-character fuþark that was contemporary to the vikings and looks somewhere in the ballpark of one of these (though there are many variants of both).
In Old Norse, there were something like nine vowels, which could be short, long, or long and nasal. Those vowels are: a, e, i, o, u, y, ø, ǫ, and æ (a short æ is written ę; a long ø is sometimes written œ). Since that means to describe all the a-phonemes I’d have to write /a/, /aː/, and /ãː/, let’s just pretend all three are there whenever I place one of them.
The length and nasality was a big deal – it could change the meaning of a word completely. Demonstrating nasals, The First Grammarian (who wrote Fyrsta Málfræðisritgerðun or The First Grammatical Treatise) wrote (not marking length, but marking nasality with a dot above the letter).
Har vex a kvíkendvm enn hȧr er fiſkr
‘Hár (‘hair’) grows on living things, but hã́r (‘shark’) is a fish.’
In Modern Icelandic there are no nasal vowels, but we know from comparative evidence that the hár for ‘hair’ goes back to Proto-Norse *hārą and the word for ‘shark’ goes back to *hanhaʀ, in which the /n/ would make the previous /a/ long and nasal – so the First Grammarian was definitely hearing right! He provided similar examples for all of the vowels.
There are four vowels in the younger fuþark (until ýr is added later). Those four are:
- úr (‘drizzle’) – u
- ą́ss (‘god; one of the æsir’) – ą
- íss (‘ice’) – i
- ár (‘year; harvest’) – a
This is the order that they appear in, and that is helpful to understanding their function.
Around the year 1250, Ólafr Þórðarson hvítaskáld (the nephew of Snorri Sturlusson, by the way) wrote The Third Grammatical Treatise (Þriðja Málfræðisritgerðin), which included two chapters on runic writing. Though he was writing a good 500 years after the period we’re concentrating on now, and runic writing had developed quite a lot, he used a technique that is useful no matter what period is being discussed. He understood the order of the vowels in the fuþark as related to the place of articulation, the part of the mouth that you use to make the sound, starting in the front and working your way back:
er af því fyrst sett, að þat ljóðar í vörrum; ᚮ þarnæst, hann hljóðar í munni; ᛁ stendr þar næst, ok ljóðar í ofanverðum barka; þarnæst er ᛆ skipat, því at hann hljóðar í brjósti.
is for this reason set first, that it is sounded in the lips; next, because it sounds in the mouth; stands next, and sounds in the throat; then is placed, because it sounds in the chest.
The only thing we need to change is that in viking times, represented a nasal vowel, like they have in French. So lets modify the places of articulation just a tiny bit to this:
- – lips
- – nose
- – back of the mouth
- – chest
Modern linguists also use place of articulation to describe sounds, though Ólafr’s are very different from the ones that are used now. Now we consider the important things to be position of the tongue (subdivided into front/back and high (close)/low (open)) and roundness of the lips (so actually, we partially do agree with Ólafr!).
Here is a chart demonstrating this concept, with IPA symbols as well as sample sounds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPA_vowel_chart_with_audio
Here are the aforementioned nine Norse vowels, charted out based modern mapping of vowels (unround between vertical bars, round in parenthesis):
So let’s try one more time at categorizing the runes, this time using the modern terms:
- – round vowel. Úr indicates lip rounding like when you say “ooo.”
- – nasal vowel. Ą́ss stays the same as what Ólafr hvítaskáld said (let’s forget about this for a moment, just concentrate on the other three for now).
- – front vowel. When you say “Íss” the tip of your tongue reaches toward the front of your mouth.
- – low vowel. When you say “aaaahhhh” your tongue compresses toward the bottom of your mouth, which is why dentists ask you to say it when they want your tongue out of the way.
Let’s go through the vowels again in these terms (note that this reconstructed pronunciation of Old Norse is debatable):
|a||father||low, back, unround|
|e||bake (though we Americans
pronounce this as a diphthong,
which is wrong for Norse)
|mid, front, unround|
|i||cheese||high, front, unround|
|o||poke||mid, back, round|
|u||boot||high, back, round|
|y||say “cheese” but with rounded
lips; German ‘ü’
|front, high, round|
|ø||almost like the ‘i’
|mid, front, round|
|ǫ||law||low, back, round|
|æ||cat||low, front, unround|
Some sounds in Old Norse are more than one of these. For example, /y/ is both front like and round like . What to do?
Basically, if the needed vowel is more than one of round, front, or low, you can find an example in the runic record that goes either way. Let’s chart it out. An ‘o’ means it works, a ‘-‘ means it doesn’t.
*Okay, so I lied a little – it isn’t really as systematic as I said, since the non-low vowel /e/ can be marked with the ‘low vowel’ rune. But it ALMOST is. Close enough that this is still useful, anyway. But as for /e/ being represented with even though it isn’t a low vowel – in the short vowels /æ/ and /e/ tended not to stay separate, at least in West Norse (I’m not really sure what the East Norse situation was). You also sometimes see digraphs – two runes – for e and ǫ especially.
Okay, one last chart, and then a little extra explanation, and then we’ll call it a day. This one’s color-coded with the three primary colors. Where they mix, either rune could work.
Now, just to clear things up, because where there is overlap, there are still tendencies one way or the other.
- /ǫ/ is more often marked with the ár rune than with the úr rune.
- /y/ and /ø/ are marked with more often than they are with , though there are plenty examples going either way.
- /æ/ is very rarely marked with , despite being a front vowel, though it’s not unheard of.
Now, one last run through all the vowels with the rune that I would say is its most frequent fit in the runic corpus (honestly – this is just my gut feeling based on looking at lots of stones, I could easily be proven wrong):
- e (but nearly a split with ; the diphthong /ei/ usually written )
- Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language, 9th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011.
- Hreinn Benediktsson, ed. The First Grammatical Treatise. Reykjavík: University of Iceland, 1972.
- Ólafr Þórðarson. Málfræðinnar Grundvöllr. in Edda Snorra Sturlusonar: Edda Snorronis Sturlæi. Legatus Arnamagnæani, 1848.