In the Spring of 2019, the Swedish National Heritage Board began a pilot project to record a small number of runic inscriptions being read aloud. These recordings were uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY license, and linked against the corresponding categories and Wikipedia articles for the inscriptions they describe.
Runes are an ancient alphabet used in various forms by Germanic-speaking peoples from around the third century AD to the middle ages, with runic use in some areas continuing as late as the 19th century. Most runic inscriptions have been found in Scandinavia, Germany, and the British Isles. Inscriptions were carved on wood, metal, stone, or bone; their content ranges from short personal messages, to large monumental inscriptions, to idle graffiti. In Scandinavia in particular there was a brief fashion in the late Viking Age for raising monumental rune stones to commemorate the dead, associated with the conversion to Christianity.
Recordings were made in both the original languages of the inscriptions, with reconstructed pronounciation, and in modern translation to English, Swedish, and in some cases Danish. The aim of the project was twofold: Firstly, in the case of the recordings in modern translation, the aim was to make the content of the inscriptions more accessible to visually impaired users and those who may have difficultly reading.
Secondly, in the case of the recordings in the inscriptions' original languages, we hoped to help satisfy a more general curiosity about how ancient languages may have sounded. The sound values associated with runic inscriptions in Old East Norse can be reconstructed from a combination of factors including comparision with later texts, the application of phonological laws for sound changes in Germanic languages, and even the runic orthography itself. However, this reconstructed pronunciation is not generally very accessible to the layman reading translitterated or orthographically normalised texts. This further distances the modern reader from the original inscriptions. The project was thus an attempt to bridge this gap and make textual traces of an oral culture from the past accessible to the predominantly written culture of today.
We see potential both for an expansion of our pilot project to other runic inscriptions, but also for the application of the same model to other similar material – namely inscriptions and other text in ancient languages. The same methods could be applied to short texts using scripts such such as cuneiform, ogham, or hieratic, making them accessible in the same way.