Runes in Sweden, 1987/The 16-rune futhark

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Runes in Sweden, 1987 — The 16-rune futhark
автор Sven B. F. Jansson
Источник: Runes in Sweden. — Sweden, 1987. — С. 25-30

The 16-rune futhark

We have relatively few runic inscriptions from the centuries before the Viking Age, their language often hard to understand, their messages obscure. They cast only a fitful light in the darkness enshrouding that period. As we saw above, alteration in the form of runes can be observed and some vacillation in their use, the latter partly the result of the radical changes the language was then undergoing. These changes—which evidently took place with some rapidity—meant that the linguistic foundations of common North Germanic were shattered. New sounds came into being through mutation and breaking, and it must have been a difficult matter for a rune-writer to decide which of the now out-of-date 24-rune series was best fitted to represent a new sound or sound-variant of hitherto unknown quality. As the number of phonemes grew, the 24-rune futhark became inadequate for rendering current speech-sounds with any precision. The old rune series had done good service up to now, and for its time it was undeniably a very impressive creation. But adapting the writing system to meet the challenge of phonetic novelty presented problems difficult to solve. Either order had to be imposed on the disarray by increasing the number of characters or else the same rune had willy-nilly to be used for several considerably different sounds. Creation of a rune series capable of representing every sound, a sort of phonetic alphabet in runes, was doubtless beyond men’s powers at the time. Nor would it have been very desirable, for a large number of runes would have been needed and inscriptions in such an alphabet would have severely taxed both writer and reader. It comes as no great surprise, therefore, to find that the problem was solved by a simplification and reduction of the 24-rune futhark.

About AD 800, at the outset of the Viking Age, we meet the 16-rune series. It appears then in two fully-developed variants. This younger futhark must undoubtedly be seen as the outcome of conscious reforms: it is hardly thinkable that any kind of “natural” evolution could have produced such a rigorous system.

[26]The two types of the Viking Age 16-rune futhark: normal runes and short-twig runes.
The two types of the Viking Age 16-rune futhark: normal runes and short-twig runes.

This 16-rune futhark has been found, over and over again, cut or scratched in complete or fragmentary form on many different objects. It often occurs on the walls of medieval churches. In many cases it was evidently inscribed with the same purpose as the 24-rune futhark on the Kylver stone and the Vadstena bracteate: people continued to put faith in the supernatural character of the runic series. During excavations in Novgorod (ON Holmgarðr, Holmgård) a piece of bone (from a pig) was found with the 16 runes of the new series inscribed on it; archaeologists date it to the first half of the eleventh century. There is a font in Övre Ullerud church in Värmland which has this futhark carved on it twice.

This Viking Age script is greatly simplified: from a linguistic point of view it is decidedly inferior to the 24-rune series, which in its time corresponded considerably better with phonetic realities. But the writer of it gained because the simplification spared him the need of making any close analysis of the sounds he wished to represent. It is a primitive form of writing but practical and convenient to use. It was easy for the writer to spell words in this new alphabet but not always easy for a reader to decide what was meant, for obviously some runes had to be used with a number of different sound-values. This was particularly true of the vowels. Scholars in the linguistic field may justifiably complain of the failure of the Viking Age writing system to convey any very precise impression of the phonemic complement of Viking Age speech.

In spite of everything, the Primitive Norse and the Viking Age futharks were intimately related: as is shown at once by the fact that the new series adopted no less than 10 of its 16 characters more or less unaltered from the older futhark.

As I mentioned, we meet the 16-rune futhark in two forms from the start. They have had a variety of designations in writings about runology. The one type has been called “ordinary” or “Danish runes”; the other type, which represents a somewhat simplified form of the first, has been referred to, with bewildering lack of uniformity, as “Swedish-Norwegian runes”, “Rök runes”, “short-twig runes” and “short runes”.

These two types of the 16-rune series were used side by side but served [27] different purposes. In several cases the “ordinary” runes have a more decorative form and they were consequently better suited for inscription on monuments of stone. That they have been counted more “ordinary” than others is simply because for us the “ordinary” place to find a runic inscription is precisely on a stone monument. This in turn naturally hinges on the fact that inscriptions on stone have lasted better than any on more perishable material. It is predominantly memorial inscriptions on stone that have remained for us to discover, but that does not justify the conclusion that runic writing was predominantly employed in this very limited function. A term like “ordinary runes” is inappropriate because it easily leads our thoughts in a wrong direction. It is unhistorical too, for in the eyes of their contemporaries the situation certainly appeared quite different.

As I said, the two forms of the 16-rune series served different purposes—and that explains the external differences between them. The “ordinary runes” have a more epigraphic character, the “Swedish-Norwegian runes” are simpler in shape and were undoubtedly chiefly used for recording matter of less ceremonious import. They were mainly cut in wood, not in stone—though, not surprisingly, we now know them mostly from stone-cut inscriptions. The demarcation between the functions of the two types was not rigid—nor of course is there any reason why we should expect it to be.

As for the names we should give the two types, it seems simpler and more perspicuous to distinguish between them on the basis of their different appearance. The so-called “Swedish-Norwegian runes” are undoubtedly a development, a simplified variant, of the so-called “ordinary runes”. The difference between them chiefly lies in the fact that the former have shorter side-strokes, “twigs”, than the monumental “ordinary runes”, so a practical way of escaping the present terminological confusion is to adopt the old term, “short-twig runes”, in place of “Swedish-Norwegian runes”, and for want, of anything better, to call the “ordinary” or “Danish” type, “normal runes”.

The tendency towards simplification of the normal runes which we observe in the short-twig runes was completed in a radical way—very illuminating from the point of view of their use—in the so-called Hälsinge runes or “staveless runes”. They can be called the “rapid writing” system of the Viking Age.

The reformer who created this kind of stenography on the basis of the short-twig runes was swayed by one fundamental principle. As far as possible, he dispensed with all the upright staves and left it to the “twigs” alone to indicate the sound represented by the symbol. The location of the marks, high, middle or low, decides how the runes are to be read. In the short-twig series the t-rune had the form —it now becomes , an l-rune becomes , an n-rune becomes , and an a-rune becomes . The principle could not be put into practice in [28] every case but as a whole the operation was a success. The complete series looks like this:

Staveless runes — the “rapid writing” system of the Viking Age.
Staveless runes — the “rapid writing” system of the Viking Age.

The very existence of such a rapid writing system for everyday use permits us to conclude that people employed writing for various purposes and to a far greater extent than is commonly believed. There was need for a script that saved time and space.

It is obvious that this cuneiform-like script was not created for memorial inscriptions on stone monuments. On rune stones the characters look jumbled and agitated and far from decorative. They were meant for cutting in wood with a knife. That they have been preserved for our inspection on a few eleventh-century stones only means that in exceptional cases they stepped out of their proper everyday sphere.

As remarked in passing above, these runes have been called “Hälsinge runes” or “staveless runes”. The name “Swedish runes” has also been proposed. The first name, “Hälsinge runes”, has the weight of tradition behind it—given to them because they were once known only from inscriptions in Hälsingland (and Medelpad). Most of the inscriptions found in this individual script, and the longest of them, are still those of that northerly Swedish province, but again it seems more suitable to go by their appearance and prefer the term, “staveless runes”. The name “Hälsinge runes” also suggests too narrow a regional limit, for we now have inscriptions in this futhark not only from Hälsingland and Medelpad but from Uppland and Södermanland as well. Inscriptions in “Hälsinge runes” cut in wood have recently come to light in Norway too, so the old term becomes still more misleading.

The names to be used here for the three varieties of the 16-rune futhark are consequently normal runes, short-twig runes and staveless runes. They at least have the advantage of neutrality. They are based on the forms of the runes, and their forms were after all conditioned by the different functions in which the three varieties were chiefly employed.

The fortuitously preserved inscriptions with staveless runes show that at least in Hälsingland, Medelpad and the central Swedish regions a need was felt already [29] in the Viking Age for a quick, easy and economical script. This is a sure indication that quite extensive runic writing on wood was readily undertaken.

It ought to be emphasised that wood was by far the commonest material for runes, right from the beginning. It was this medium which dictated their form. Continental writers—Venantius Fortunatus in the sixth century, Hrabanus Maurus in the ninth—tell us that Germanic people cut runes on wooden boards, and Icelandic sources refer on several occasions to runes cut on sticks. Practically all these inscriptions have been lost—it is very sad, for example, that the rune-inscribed piece of wood found in the Kragehul bog on Fyn two hundred years ago is no longer with us, for if it were, we should then have a Primitive Norse inscription on the material for which runes were first intended. A lucky find of just such a piece was made in 1947 at Stenmagle on Sjælland, when a wooden box with a Primitive Norse inscription was excavated. The runes tell us who made the box. The excavations at Bryggen in Bergen have produced longer and shorter runic inscriptions on wood by the hundred, but they are all medieval in origin. All the same, it is of the utmost interest to see how varied these Bryggen inscriptions are: messages with a political content, business agreements and commercial contracts, verse in the old metres, menacing spells, prayers and private letters. A goodly number of inscriptions on wood have also been found in Sweden in recent decades, brought to light by excavation in medieval towncentres (Lödöse, Lund, Uppsala, Skara, Nyköping). In general, Swedish “medieval runology” has made considerable advances in recent years.

In connection with runes cut on wood, the Scandinavian word bokstav “letter” may be mentioned since it throws some light on the use of runes (cf. German Buchstabe, OE bocstæf, etc.). Its original meaning was a “stave”—a rune—cut on (a piece of) beechwood. The tree-name “beech” and the word “book” are thus properly one and the same. In a similar way, Latin caudex, codex originally meant “a piece of split wood”, but later came to mean “document, book, manuscript” as well. In Sanskrit bhūrja means both a kind of “birch-tree” and “bark to write on”.

Before we leave this summary account of the futharks and their uses and return to the inscriptions themselves, I shall just mention some forms which occur sporadically already in the late Viking Age. These are the so-called “dotted runes”. They were created to help overcome the disadvantage of having to use a single rune to represent several different sounds. The need to expand the 16-rune futhark was thus felt at an early stage. An i-rune, for example, stood for at least three different vowels—i, e, ä. With a dot in the middle of the stave (') a specific character for e (æ) was produced; in the same way a dot in the space between the main and subordinate staves of the u- and k-runes created specific characters for y (ø) and g (, ).—The dotted rune system had a future in Sweden. Under [30] the influence of the Latin alphabet it developed into a complete dotted rune alphabet with good resources for matching the changing sounds of speech. (Examples of medieval inscriptions in the dotted rune alphabet are given on pp. 164, 168 below.)

The Sparlösa stone is from the ninth century. It has carvings on all four sides, but as the runes are damaged in some important places the text is difficult to interpret. The pictures are mysterious too.
The Sparlösa stone is from the ninth century. It has carvings on all four sides, but as the runes are damaged in some important places the text is difficult to interpret. The pictures are mysterious too.