We often tend to think of the Vikings as a homogenous collection of marauders. In reality, of course, they were a hugely disparate group, with wildly varying origins and objectives. 

There is no question, however, that the system of writing and linguistic roots pervasive throughout Scandinavia at this time provide firm evidence of their shared culture and origins.

But to what extent can the famous runes of the Vikings provide us with insight into the way they communicate and their linguistic heritage? 

To find out, The Viking Herald speaks to Alessandro Palumbo, associate professor of runology and Scandinavian language history at the University of Oslo.

A personal passion

Our first question is the obvious one: How did an Italian from Naples become so deeply involved in Scandinavian languages and the world of runes? Alessandro insists that music was his primary inspiration, though he was soon captivated by the history of the region, too.

"Like quite a few Italians who have a passion for this area, I was first drawn to Scandinavian culture thanks to rock and metal music. Runology came after I moved to Sweden to study in Uppsala, where there is a long tradition of Runic studies. I encountered some really inspiring teachers in the field."

Carving a name for yourself

The name "runes," of course, refers to the letters of an alphabet first used by Germanic peoples from around the first century CE. 

The oldest inscriptions were found mainly in Scandinavia and northern Germany, though they were also used in Great Britain around 450-1000 CE. 

The alphabet is thought to have been based on other alphabets in use around the Mediterranean, particularly Latin. The runic alphabet formed the main writing system of Norse people, though the surviving examples of it are limited.

The main evidence is found in the form of runestones, where inscriptions were usually carved into stone – though sometimes metal or wood – and typically paid tribute to fallen warriors or deceased family members. 

"Runes were used all over Scandinavia for more than a thousand years," explains Alessandro. "We have the older runes before the Viking Age, the Viking Age period, then the Scandinavian medieval tradition, which starts around the end of the 11th century. But rune carving was not common in every place or in every period.

"The custom of raising runestones was thought to have begun in Denmark, where the royal family initiated the custom, before spreading to Sweden. We have thousands of runestones from the late Viking Age Sweden, for example – around 2,500. In Norway, on the other hand, it is thought to have been a marginal phenomenon."

Both formulaic and non-conformist

Alessandro informs us that though the actual content of the runes was usually very similar, there was also a distinct lack of conformity in terms of spelling, perhaps because of the lack of any central authority. 

"The runes in Scandinavia were used in a much less standardized way compared to the Roman alphabet. How people spelled was very much dependent on local traditions, or the individual inscribers."

"We don't have any direct knowledge about how they learned the art, but the amount of variation suggests there was no central institution concerned with the teaching of runes. People could develop according to their own norms. There was also no school system – it seems that they learned by being apprentices to master craftsman, before later developing their own visual and linguistic style."

Pictured are inscriptions on the famous Rök runestone in Sweden. Photo: Rolf_52 / Shutterstock

Deciphering the runic stone

Naturally, great skill is needed to decipher the meaning of the runes, especially as only 16 runes in total were used in the Viking Age. "Many runes had to be used for more than one sound. This might make it easier for the person writing the inscription, but definitely not for the person decoding it."

"What does help us now, and also surely helped people in the Viking Age, is that runestone inscriptions are extremely formulaic. You have a lot of repetition, with the same vocabulary used over and over again. For example, we know that 'to carve' and 'stone' were both used a lot. You have certain elements that were almost always present in late Viking Age inscriptions. Once you have identified the word for 'stone,' say, you can more or less know what to expect."

A persistent mystery

We wonder why there were only 16 runes at this time – far fewer letters than in many other alphabets. "That's a big question," admits Alessandro. 

"There were originally 24, but that later fell to 16. The reason for this is hotly debated. Some people believe this reflected certain changes in the spoken language. Others argue that it was likely a planned reform, more top-down. But we don't know."

"Personally, I would guess that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The languages spoken in Scandinavia underwent big changes right before the Viking Age, and I do think those changes prompted changes in the written language. But purely spontaneous alterations would probably have led to much more variation. Given the relative homogeneity of form across a very large geographic space, there was probably a limited group of people that were masters of the written language. And dropping from 24 to 16 is a radical change."

Divided by a common language

We also ask Alessandro about ease of communication with other peoples during the Viking Age, particularly with those of Germanic origin. 

"One clear indication is the spread of Nordic place-names throughout England. What's interesting is that the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons could probably understand each other to quite a high degree at that time, and we can see some areas where Scandinavians became fully integrated with the local people."

Alessandro also points out that even in the Isle of Man, where people spoke a very different Celtic language, there is still clear evidence of cultural exchange, with stones informing us of marriages between Norse men and Celtic women, for example. 

"There, the runic inscriptions are also carved on raised crosses, not blocks of stone. This reflected the local visual language, rather than the native Scandinavian culture."

Evolution over time

In terms of what remains of the spoken word of the Viking Age, Alessandro tells us that while the languages of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden have evolved dramatically over time, there are still thought to be many similarities between Old Norse and Icelandic, perhaps due to the country's relative isolation.

"Icelandic has changed, but not nearly as much as the other Scandinavian languages. With the others, there would no longer be any mutual intelligibility. On the contrary, an Icelander who reads a normalized text in Old Norse would probably understand a fair amount. Though we shouldn't forget that there is still a thousand years in between, of course."

In a world that can sometimes feel like it is becoming increasingly homogenized, perhaps it is reassuring to see that in the runes of Sweden and the modern language of Iceland, we can still today encounter the linguistic fragments of a long-lost culture.

We get to provide readers with original coverage thanks to our loyal supporters. Do you enjoy our work? You can become a PATRON here or via our Patreon page. You'll get access to exclusive content and early access.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share with The Viking Herald?
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at hello@thevikingherald.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.