Younger Fuþark Vowels ᚢ u, ᛁ i, and ᛅ a

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).

Long Twig:


Short Twig:


The vowels

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:

  • u1 úr (‘drizzle’) – u
  • an1 ą́ss (‘god; one of the æsir’) – ą
  • i1 íss (‘ice’) – i
  • a1 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:

u1 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.

u1 is for this reason set first, that it is sounded in the lips; an1 next, because it sounds in the mouth; i1 stands next, and sounds in the throat; then is a1 placed, because it sounds in the chest.

The only thing we need to change is that in viking times, an1 represented a nasal vowel, like they have in French. So lets modify the places of articulation just a tiny bit to this:

  • u1 – lips
  • an1 – nose
  • i1 – back of the mouth
  • a1 – 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:

Here are the aforementioned nine Norse vowels, charted out based modern mapping of vowels (unround between vertical bars, round in parenthesis):

Front Back
High |i|  (y)      (u)
Mid |e| (ø)      (o)
Mid |æ| |a| (ǫ)

So let’s try one more time at categorizing the runes, this time using the modern terms:

  • u1 – round vowel. Úr indicates lip rounding like when you say “ooo.”
  • an1 – 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).
  • i1 – front vowel. When you say “Íss” the tip of your tongue reaches toward the front of your mouth.
  • a1 – 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):

Example Description
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’
in ‘bird’
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 i1 and round like u1. What to do?

ög136 - fur - fyru896 - fir - fyr

Two examples of the word fyr, first from the Rök stone, Östergötland 136, and the other from Uppland 896. The first uses úrr for the vowel, the second íss.

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.

u1 i1 a1
a o
e o o*
i o
o o
u o
y o o
ø o o
ǫ o o
æ o o

*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 a1 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 i1a1and ǫ a1u1 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.

vowel chart

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 a1 ár rune than with the u1 úr rune.
  • /y/ and /ø/ are marked with u1 more often than they are with i1, though there are plenty examples going either way.
  • /æ/ is very rarely marked with i1, 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):

  • a a1
  • e i1 (but nearly a split with a1; the diphthong /ei/ usually written a1 i1)
  • i i1
  • o u1
  • u u1
  • y u1
  • ø u1
  • ǫ a1
  • æ a1



11 thoughts on “Younger Fuþark Vowels ᚢ u, ᛁ i, and ᛅ a

  1. Great article. I’ve been doing research for a future tattoo of mine, wherein I’ll be getting “sworn by myself to myself” in runes. Someone advised me to use the Younger Futhark, as the quote comes from a period when the Elder was long out of use. I feel pretty confident that I’ll be using Ur for the “y’s” now because of this article. Thanks 🙂

    • I think that “someone” might have been me — Þorraborinn is my other blog. Keep also in mind that the method of writing vowels presented on this page is only the first stage of development of the Younger Futhark; it became obsolete once they started marking runes with dots in order to be more specific. Keeping that in mind you might consider using the dotted u-rune in order to clear up any ambiguity.

  2. interesting read. I am working on a tattoo that will incorporate Havamal verse 76.
    I did a bit of research into how these runes should look, and guess the right runes for the period the Havamal was written would be the Younger Futhark. Is this correct?
    If so, do you know where I could find that specific verse in Younger runes?
    As I have no in depth knowledge of any Scandinavian language, I rather asked than make a ridiculous mistake that I’ll walk around with for the rest of my life:)

    • Sorry for the delay.

      Yes, it would definitely be more appropriate to use the Younger Futhark to write a verse found in Hávamál than the Elder Futhark. However, since the Younger Futhark continued to develop over time, our work is a little more complicated than choosing between two alphabets. This page describes the Younger Futhark in a very early stage, contemporary to Vikings for example (which might be desirable for you). Or perhaps you would prefer a style from around the time when the poem may have been composed, let’s say the 10th century (that is, the time of Eyvindr skáldaspillir who possibly makes reference to it in Hákonarmál. Or else, perhaps from around 1270, when it was committed to parchment in the Codex Regius.

      For 16-rune Younger Futhark of the Viking Age, I would transliterate something like this (and you can fill in your preferred runeforms for the equivalent):

      tauʀ fi
      tauia frątr
      tauʀ sialfʀ it sąma
      in urþstir
      tauʀ altriki
      huaim iʀ siʀ kuþan kitr

      (I’ve changed ‘ʀ’ to ‘r’ following dental consonants — this is attested but not universally, and you may prefer frątʀ over frątr; however orðstírr with final -rr (< *-rʀ) should be written r).

      A bit later, both the runes and the language would have changed somewhat, so for something from around the 10th century you might prefer to do it something similar to this:

      døyr fe
      døyia frædr
      døyr sialfr it sama
      en orþstir
      døyr aldrihi
      huæim er ser goþan getr

      Here it is in a couple of different styles, the first roughly corresponding to the 900’s or so, the second with some of the extensions to the younger futhark to differentiate certain sounds more closely, and the last being approximately the later medieval Icelandic style:

  3. An interesting point that I would like to note is that in Hávamál Odin says he knows the runes and their Meanings.
    Then in the verses that follow Odin lists 18 runes, which are clearly not 24 runes (elder futhark) but are not the 16 runes of the Young Futhark either.
    I would like to know your opinion, my theory is that this is a mixture of characters from the young and the elder futhark (a transition period for the more advanced young futhark). This falls directly on the meanings of these runes, more specifically on the rune of number 12 believed to be the rune of Yggdrasill.
    In the elder Futhark J rune (harvest), in the Young Futhark P rune (pear-tree?), If this is correct the theory of yggdrasill being a yew is completely wrong. I believe it would be a large text on my observations about it to write all here, but I have gathered information that leads me to believe that the tree is actually the Beech.

    • I am not of the opinion that the 18 songs that are described at the end of Hávamál are the same as the runes that are discovered in the hanging ordeal. I think that two (or more) distinct phenomena are being described. One is the discovery of the runes, resulting from hanging wounded for nine days. The other is the reception of nine(?) “fimbulljóð” from Óðinn’s paternal uncle, involving a drink of mead from Óðrerir (that this is Mímir and Mímisbrunnr is interpretive, but to me seems likely). Despite the discrepancy in number I think we can identify the 18 songs (‘ljóð’) more closely with these 9 “fimbulljóð” than with the runes (although this could just be something completely separate from any of the immediately previous strophes; this is supported by quite a lot of editors who distinguish rúnatal and ljóðatal). I would personally favor an argument that the rúnatal and ljóðatal parts of Hávamál come from two different sources but were edited together in the way that they were because of perceived affinity of their content by the editor.

      It is not clear that there was a period during which time the runic inventory consisted of 18 although it’s true that this could be a result of severely lacking evidence from the period during which it would have occurred. However it’s unlikely that the p-rune would be among them. Already by one of our principle sources for the 24-character elder futhark, the Vadstena bracteate, the p-rune is already missing (and replaced by the b-rune). The Eggja runestone presents the latest evidence before the full transition to 16-rune futhark as seen on the Ribe skull fragment; it has b for p but does still have o, e, d, g, w (though effective differentiation of w and u seems to be breaking down.

      This would also require the the verses, or at least the tradition that produced the verses, to be datable to around 700 or before.

  4. Hey guys,
    enjoying reading your discussion, similar to Sven’s post I am looking to get a few stanzas translated into younger futhark runes short twig style from old norse. I got the originals from the Hávamál in Old Norse orthography. If one of you could help me translate them or point me in the right direction to doing it myself I would really appreciate it.

    Strophe: 15
    Verse: 1 Þagalt oc hugalt scyli þióðans barn
    Verse: 2 oc vígdiarft vera;
    Verse: 3 glaðr oc reifr scyli gumna hverr,
    Verse: 4 unz sinn bíðr bana.

    Strophe: 18
    Verse: 1 Sá einn veit, er víða ratar
    Verse: 2 oc hefir fiolð um farið,
    Verse: 3 hverio geði stýrir gumna hverr,
    Verse: 4 sá er vitandi er vitz.

    Strophe: 38
    Verse: 1 Vápnom sínom scala maðr velli á
    Verse: 2 feti ganga framarr;
    Verse: 3 þvíat óvíst er at vita, nær verðr á vegom úti
    Verse: 4 geirs um þǫrf guma.

    • As always there are many ways to do it. Here is one:

      þakalt auk hukalt skuli þiuþąs barn
      auk uiktiarft uisa
      klaþr auk raifʀ skuli kumna huar
      us (s)in biþr bąna

      sa (a)in uait is uiþa rataʀ
      auk hafiʀ fiąlþ um farit
      huariu kiþi sturiʀ kumna huar
      sa is uitąti is uits

      uabnum sinum skala maþr uali ą
      fiti kąka framar
      þui at uuist is at uita naʀ uirþr ą uikum uti
      kaiʀs um þarf kuma

      ᚦᛆᚴᛆᛚᛐ ᛆᚢᚴ ᚽᚢᚴᛆᛚᛐ ᛌᚴᚢᛚᛁ ᚦᛁᚢᚦᚮᛌ ᛓᛆᚱᚿ
      ᛆᚢᚴ ᚢᛁᚴᛐᛁᛆᚱᚠᛐ ᚢᛁᛌᛆ
      ᚴᛚᛆᚦᚱ ᛆᚢᚴ ᚱᛆᛁᚠᛧ ᛌᚴᚢᛚᛁ ᚴᚢᛙᚿᛆ ᚽᚢᛆᚱ
      ᚢᛌ (ᛌ)ᛁᚿ ᛓᛁᚦᚱ ᛓᚮᚿᛆ

      ᛌᛆ (ᛆ)ᛁᚿ ᚢᛆᛁᛐ ᛁᛌ ᚢᛁᚦᛆ ᚱᛆᛐᛆᛧ
      ᛆᚢᚴ ᚽᛆᚠᛁᛧ ᚠᛁᚮᛚᚦ ᚢᛙ ᚠᛆᚱᛁᛐ
      ᚽᚢᛆᚱᛁᚢ ᚴᛁᚦᛁ ᛌᛐᚢᚱᛁᛧ ᚴᚢᛙᚿᛆ ᚽᚢᛆᚱ
      ᛌᛆ ᛁᛌ ᚢᛁᛐᚮᛐᛁ ᛁᛌ ᚢᛁᛐᛌ

      ᚢᛆᛓᚿᚢᛙ ᛌᛁᚿᚢᛙ ᛌᚴᛆᛚᛆ ᛙᛆᚦᚱ ᚢᛆᛚᛁ ᚮ
      ᚠᛁᛐᛁ ᚴᚮᚴᛆ ᚠᚱᛆᛙᛆᚱ
      ᚦᚢᛁ ᛆᛐ ᚢᚢᛁᛌᛐ ᛁᛌ ᛆᛐ ᚢᛁᛐᛆ ᚿᛆᛧ ᚢᛁᚱᚦᚱ ᚮ ᚢᛁᚴᚢᛙ ᚢᛐᛁ
      ᚴᛆᛁᛧᛌ ᚢᛙ ᚦᛆᚱᚠ ᚴᚢᛙᛆ

      This is a 16-rune inventory with óss as a nasal rune and ýr as /ʀ/. That does, by the way, make the runic orthography a good 350+ years older than the copy of Hávamál that we have. No doubles (except those in parentheses), nasal consonants dropped before a homorganic consonant.

      Runes in parentheses are doubles but belonging to different words, and might be dropped. I’d do both runes in ᚢᚢᛁᛌᛐ (óvíst) because otherwise it’s indistinguishable from víst which is literally the opposite although you could also reasonably use the ą-rune here (ᚮᚢᛁᛌᛐ) since the ó-/ú- is nasal.

      I replaced vera ‘to be’ with vesa.

      I didn’t put any word boundary markers (such as “:”) but you might want to depending on what you’re doing, otherwise you might choose to just let it all run together (as is often the case on runestones).

      You can of course switch out whatever actual rune shapes you prefer (these Unicode runes will look different depending on what font you have installed… if you can’t read them at all let me know and I’ll post an image).

      Let me know if something looks wrong, it may well be… It’s easy to make a mistake without a second set of eyes looking it over.

  5. Someone can assure me that this verse of the Grimfrost page is well translated (see the two images):

    They assure me that yes, but I would prefer more opinions, it is for a tattoo and I want to make sure.

    Among the runes, it would be correct to separate them into two points (:)? And the initial word and the ending also have to carry points or not?

    • I don’t know that I would call it wrong but it’s in Modern Icelandic (hence “ið sama” instead of “it sama,” “getur” rather than “getr.” Use of long-twig nauðr and short-twig ár together is a little wacky. I have transcribed the same verse myself, also for a tattoo, as follows (this isn’t the only way to do it… just replace your preferred runes):

      tauʀ fi
      tauia frątr
      tauʀ sialfʀ it sąma
      in urþstir
      tauʀ altriki
      huaim iʀ siʀ kuþąn kitr

      (This is rather conservative, consisting of features lost both from West and East Norse but preserved in the other).

      The dots are not always used, maybe not even usually used. They’re just there to help differentiate word boundaries. They increase readability. I usually use them. You may or may not use them at the beginning and end. You could also do something more decorative at the beginning and end if you wanted.

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