You are on page 1of 6

Patel 1

Mitul Patel
NFI 1100
Qualifying Paper
Transitioning from Elder to Younger
The transition from the Elder to the Younger futhark took place somewhere between the
7th to the 10th century. As it often is with runic inscriptions, the inability to properly and
accurately date them precisely leaves much of the dating of this transitional period up to
guesswork and interpretation, but we can make some solid conclusions about what happened,
what the changes were, and we can create a rough timeline of this transition. This transition did
not create an entirely new alphabet, but one that was distinctly different from the Elder Futhark
in both the shape of the runes and the sound value some of them corresponded too. This new,
Younger futhark had less and differently drawn runes compared to its predecessor. The transition
can first be seen on the Eggja stone, which was written using something that was based primarily
in the Elder futhark, but with certain changes. This transition is seen to continue with the Ribe
skull fragment, the Gorlev stone, and others. By looking at these inscriptions and how the runes
they used differ in both shape and function, we can piece together when this transition took
place, a rough outline of what changes happened in relation to each other, and what those
changes were.
The Eggja stone is one of the first runic inscriptions to show the transition away from the
Elder futhark. Though the alphabet and grammar is mostly based on the Elder futhark, there are
some signs of the change. Firstly, there is the reduction in runes. The Elder futhark contained
twenty-four runes, which was reduced by three to twenty-one runes for the Eggja stone. The
Eihwaz and Ingwaz runes were already known to be redundant in Proto-Scandinavian, so it could

Patel 2

be that they were dropped because they were not needed. Also lost was the rune for the <<p>>
sound. This marks the beginning in the reduction of the number of runes in the alphabet. It is also
noted that the langue used in this inscription was Old Norse, not Proto-Scandinavian. The dating
of the inscription is difficult, and the date of this stone is important to figuring out roughly when
the beginning of the transitional period happened. There are a few ways to date this stone, all of
which lead to different dates. In class it was said that linguistically the stone has been dated to be
from around the 8th- 9th century, while the image of the horse drawn into it is dated to a style
most commonly associated with the 6th century. The Eggja stone is a grave stone, and the grave
style is from the 8th century. So, from linguistic, art-history, and archaeological perspectives the
stone is dated to different periods, but experts have dated the stone to about 650 AD. That date is
then generally considered around the beginning of the shift from the Elder to the Younger
futhark.
Looking at the Ribe skull fragment, found in the city of Ribe in Denmark in 1973, the
next step in the transition is seen. Since the runes were written on piece of skull from a human, it
was easier to date the piece than runes carved into stones. The skull fragment was dated to
roughly 720 AD so it can be said that the inscription was from around this time too. Looking at
the alphabet, we see that the character reduction that was started with the Eggja stone is
complete. The alphabet used with in the Ribe inscription contained five less runes than the Eggja
stone inscription, so eight runes less over all from the Elder futhark. With sixteen runes the Ribe
inscription has the same number of runes as the Younger futhark, meaning that by roughly 720
when the skull inscription was made, the reduction was complete. The runes had also changed
graphically by the time the Ribe inscription was made, since the runes were made with only one
stave, with the exception of the h and m runes. This reduction of the runic alphabet is seemingly

Patel 3

paradoxical, considering that it is expected that as a language and culture grows, the need for
more complex words arise thus expanding the language and alphabet. Instead, we see the exact
opposite with a reduction in the alphabet. The Ribe skull gives us a good date on when the
transition was almost done though. The only thing left in the transition is fully simplifying the
runes, which is seen with the Gorlev stone.
Moving to the Gorlev stone, we find that the transition is basically done. The Gorlev
stone is considered to be the oldest Danish runic inscription written in the Younger futhark, and
is dated to sometime in the 9th century. The <<h>> and << m>> runes on this inscription have
been reduced to a single stave, thus making all the runes in the futhark simplified from their
earlier forms.
Two forms of the futhark emerged towards the end of this transitional period, which are
referred to at the long branch and short branch. The Gorlev stone contained the long branch
runes. They are characterized by having branches on both sides of the stave. The runes found in
Hedegy, a Viking town that was at its peak during the 9th and 10th centuries and functioned as a
Northern European trade center, were characterized as short branch runes, in opposition to the
long branch ones found with the Gorlev stone. These runes, aside from two, had branches only
on side of the stave. This was another graphic reduction and it is theorized that it made it easier
to create bind runes when only one side of the stave had branches, thus allowing for easier binds.
They both have the same number of runes though, and the runes stand for the same values. Long
and short branch runes are not different futharks, but merely different forms of the same
alphabet.

Patel 4

In addition to the long and short branch runes, there also came into being staveless runes.
Known at the Halsing runes and found in Halsingland, they comprised only of twigs. This was a
further reduction of the already simplified short branch runes. Since they only comprised of
branches, the position of the runes relative to each other is important to note in order to read the
inscriptions, since the lack of staves made it impossible to figure out what a rune could be
individually. For example, the <<t>> and <<b>> runes normally had the name number of
branches on the same side of the stave, going in the same direction. With the staveless runes,
they would be the same branch but the <<t>> would be on top of the inscription line and the
<<b>> would be on the bottom. Thus, since they looked the same it would be impossible to
figure out what rune they were out of context. This staveless futhark is theorized to be meant for
quick and less formal writing. They also are primarily found in Sweden, with few in Bergen but
otherwise localized to Sweden. This further reduction and localization of the futhark shows that
functionality of the futhark was the primary consideration of the changes.
This gives us a rough idea of what happened graphically during the transition from the
Elder to the Younger futhark. Two kinds of reductions happened, first there was a reduction of
the total number of runes from twenty-four to sixteen, and then there was a reduction in form.
The runes in the Younger futhark are simpler than the ones in the Elder futhark, containing one
stave, or none in the case of the Halsing Runes, and a sometimes a reduction in the number of
branches. Functionally, this makes it much easier to inscribe the runes. By reduction the form,
the time to make an inscription goes down, and they become less complex to remember and
carve. Exactly why the graphic changes were made is unclear and can be theorized about, but
practical results are clear.

Patel 5

Looking at the eight lost runes from the Elder futhark, some reasoning can be seen as to
why they disappeared. As noted before the <<>> and <<>> runes represented sounds that were
redundant, since the sounds they stood for could be made by other runes or combinations of
runes. Others, such as the runes for <<j>>, <<w>>, <<e>>, and <<o>> were lost due to either
graphic changes or the fact that the phoneme they represented disappeared from use. The
disappearance of the runes for <<d>> and <<g>> is more interesting though. The sound value for
<<d>> did not disappear as others did, but instead was also assigned to the rune for <<t>>. This
also marked a shift into having runes represent more than one sound value. Similarly, the rune
for <<g>> disappeared but the sound it represented did not, which instead went on to be paired
with the rune for <<k>>. One of the theories put forth for this was how similar they were in the
way the tongue moves to make the sound. The t and d sounds are made with the tip of the tongue
while the k and g are made near the throat. The sounds made are distinct and cannot function
interchangeably in word construction but they are related closely enough phonetically that one
rune could function for both sounds.
The transition from the Elder futhark to the Younger is difficult to precisely track. By
analyzing and nothing the changes in writing between different inscriptions, and using the dates
of those inscriptions, we can create a working knowledge to what happened. Looking at the
Eggja stone we can deduce that the transition started in the mid-seventh century and the Ribe and
Gorlev stone tell us that it ended somewhere in the eighth to ninth century. The alphabet was
reduced and simplified both in terms of the number of runes and the graphic shapes of the runes.
This gives us the Younger futhark and its forms, most certainly in use by the tenth century.

Patel 6

Bibliography
Spurkland, Terje. Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Rochester : Boydell Press,
2001.