One thing I am sometimes asked by people is if I could write something in runes for them, for example their names, a poem or a prayer. What they do not expect is that, upon such a request, I usually ask them quite a few questions before deciding if it is possible to help them properly. Looking at the copious amount of computerised “rune translators” on the internet, you might think it is simply a question of replacing one alphabetic letter with the corresponding rune – but in reality, the process of transliterating a modern message into runes is fairly complicated and requires some decisions before proceeding.
The first thing to decide is which futhark to take the runes from. Runes were used over more than a millennium, and just like the alphabet we use, they changed over time. Therefore, we now have different rune-rows, or futharks, available. This means you have to pick the period you want your runes to be from. Largely, the futharks can be divided into the Elder Futhark with 24 runes, in use from the very beginning of runic writing in the second century AD until around 800AD, the Younger Futhark with 16 runes, in use mostly during the Viking Age, and the various medieval futharks with new innovations, some of them in use until a few centuries ago. There are also various Anglo-Frisian Futharks, which are very different from the Scandinavian runes.
There is also considerable regional variety, even within any one time period. Greenlanders developed their own way of carving the “R” rune while Icelanders changed their “H” over time. In some regions, dots became increasingly common to account for different pronunciations of various runes, such as “T” and “D”. And this already leads to another problem: Especially the Younger Futhark with its only 16 runes does not have enough symbols to carve many modern names. This means you will have to choose either how to adapt your name to carve it in runes or what later innovations, such as dotting, you want to pick to represent the sounds of your name then you lack the runes for.
The modern runecarver’s tools: flower foam and a cuticle pusher
Obviously, runes were primarily used for writing medieval Germanic languages, and some Latin. So if you want to write something in runes that comes from a completely different language, you might have to be slightly creative. For example, in one Orcadian inscription, the beginning of the Latin Lord ’s Prayer changed from (Pater noster, qui e)”s in caelis, sanctificetur” (nomen tuum) to “sinsilisantifitsitor”. This roughly approximates the pronunciation, if not the spelling, and is an option for writing modern English in runes, too. Obviously, sounds conventionally written with alphabetic letters like “J” are really tricky to “runify” and you might have to make compromises.
Generally, there is not one perfect way to write a modern language with a writing system that is over a millennium old and has developed for a completely different language. However, depending on your purpose, solutions can usually be found.
If all this has not put you off and you still want your name in runes, here is your chance. As part of the Orkney International Science Festival’s Family Day, I will be offering runecarving for children (and grown-ups) at King’s Street Halls on this coming Saturday, 9th of September, from 10 AM to 4 PM. Feel free to visit my stall and ask any runic questions in case you are in Orkney that day!