Runes and alphabets in
Viking Ireland
The first people who learnt to write
used pictures to represent words
These are Egyptian hieroglyphs as found painted on
the walls of the chambers inside the pyramids.
Over time, people learnt to use letters
which each represented a sound.
The alphabet we use today was
first developed by the Etruscans
in north Italy and then
popularised by the Romans.
Etruscan letters
This is a Roman building
brick, stamped with the
name of the Tenth Legion
(The Romans used X = 10)
They brought their writing
system all over the known world
when they created the Roman
When the Romans brought their alphabet to
new lands, the letters often didn’t represent
sounds in the new languages.
People had to use combinations of letters so
they would represent local sounds.
• Bean is the Irish word for woman.
How do you pronounce the first letter?
But sliabh is the Irish word for mountain – and how do
you pronounce the final two letters?
Bh in Irish is a very different sound from B.
• Rzecz is the Polish word for “thing”.
RZ should be pronounced as j in the French word bon
jour and CZ should be pronounced as in English
Instead of inventing combinations of letters, the
ancestors of the Vikings and the Irish both
developed alphabets of their own.
The Viking letters are called RUNES.
Spears from Denmark made around the
years 200 AD are inscribed with letters
like this.
This alphabet is called the Elder Futhark
and they are the oldest type of RUNES.
In Ireland, the alphabet the Irish
developed is called ogham
This alphabet was used on standing stones to
inscribe the names of the dead.
The man buried here was called “Little Bald
one, son of Calf-Lord” and he died around the
time of St Patrick.
Both these alphabets – the runes and the ogham
changed over time. Sometimes sounds dropped
out of the languages so the symbols to represent
them disappeared. Other times, new sounds were
added so new symbols were necessary.
• Runes also differed in various countries as
the teachers and writers in each area worked
out alphabets for themselves.
• If you want to look at the story of this in more
detail, look up the website:
Runes in Ireland
We know what the runes used by Vikings
in Ireland looked like because a man in
Dublin carved the full alphabet on a piece
of wood from an old barrel.
Both runes and
ogham letters
were designed to
be carved with a
knife rather than
written with a
This is why so
few of the
symbols have
curves in them.
One of these is
the Viking runic
alphabet from
Ireland and one
is ogham –
which is which?
The same sound in different alphabets
• Sometimes the same sound existed in both languages but the
Vikings and the Irish each had their own letter.
Say the word KICK aloud. Now say the word CAN.
What sound do both these words begin with?
The Irish represented this sound with a C while the Vikings
represented it with a K. So the Irish would write a man’s name as
CORMAC and the Vikings would write the same name as KORMAK.
Similarly, the Irish would write FIACC and the Vikings would write
• Can you write your own name in ogham or in runes?
If there are not enough letters in the alphabet the Vikings used in
Ireland – try writing it in the Elder Futhark like the Danes.
The Viking learn the use of the dot from
the Irish
• You may notice on old shop signs writing that
looks like this. It is called the seanchló and it
represents an Irish alphabet in which a dot is
used where today we’d use a “h”. This dot
changes our pronounciation.
What is the English version of
this name?
The dotted runes
• Over time the Vikings also
began to use a dot and, like the
Irish, they used it to represent
sounds for which they did
already not have runic symbols.
These new symbols were added to the
Viking alphabet around the year AD 1000,
in the lifetime of King Brian Boru.
Thorgrim’s grave marker at Killaloe
The dead man’s name was carved in runes as þurkrim
but there is a dot over the k which changes the sound
to a “g”.
The first letter is the special Viking letter “thorn” which
does not exist in our modern alphabet but which we
represent with the letters “th”.
So this man’s name was THURGRIM. In the Ogham
alphabet, however, they spelt his name as TORQRIM.
He remains one of the very few early Viking settlers in
Ireland whom we know by name. It is fascinating that
his family decided to commemorate him with a grave
stone carved in both the Viking and the Irish alphabets.
Can you invent an alphabet of your
When J.R. Tolkien was writing the Lord of the
Rings he invented languages and alphabets for
his various characters.
Can you invent a language and an alphabet of
your own?
Decide what sounds your language has and
then draw symbols to represent them.
Act out a scene in class where you try and talk
to people in your own “secret” language.

Runes and alphabets in Viking Ireland