The fact that Norwegians wrote with runes in the Viking Age and Middle Ages is well known. But how did it go when alphabetic writing arrived and we switched from runes to the letters we know today? New research on inscriptions with letters shows that the transition was far slower than many believe.
“We find inscriptions with letters and runes from the same time, on the same kind of artefacts,” says Elise Kleivane.
“Here, the writing is in both Old Norse and Latin, and we see that runes and letters could be used for the same thing. What is interesting to see is what people chose to write in what language, and with what kind of alphabet,” she says.
Kleivane is an Old Norse philologist and associate professor at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies (ILN) at the University of Oslo. Together with doctoral fellow Johan Bollaert, she has done research on precisely these inscriptions.
The written culture flourishes
The first written language culture in Norway begins with the runes in the 100s AD. Researchers assume that an oral culture mainly prevailed at this time, but inscriptions have been found on stone, metal and wooden sticks.
“Based on what has been preserved, it looks as though there has been limited use of runic writing. Memorial stones have been found along with jewellery and precious artefacts, usually with names or other relatively short inscriptions. They probably wrote on more things than we have found – on birch bark, in the sand or on wood,” says Kleivane.
In the early written sources of writing from the Viking Age, the texts are often short and there are not many of them – preserved at least. A common example is gravestones, with standard formulations about the person buried underneath. When the Latin language and writing system came to Norway with Christianity around the year 1000 AD, this changed.
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