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Old Norse orthography

Old Norse orthography

The orthography of the Old Norse language since the introduction of the Latin alphabet in Iceland is a thorny subject. In particular the names of Old Norse mythological characters often seem to have several different spellings. This article will explain the reasons for some of the confusions.

Table of contents
1 Manuscript spelling
2 Standardized spelling
3 Icelandic spelling
4 Anglicized spelling
5 List of names

Manuscript spelling

The original Icelandic manuscripts which are the source of our knowledge of Norse mythology did not employ a unified system of spelling. Thus the same name might be spelled several different ways even back then. In particular the length of vowels was only sporadically marked and various umlauted vowels were often not distinguished from others. Another complication is that several shortcut forms for common words and grammatical ending developed. One example is the use of the rune named 'mar' (man) for the word 'mar'. Another is the use of a special glyph for the various r-endings so common in the Old Norse language.

Standardized spelling

For various reasons 19th century scholars came up with a standardized spelling of Old Norse which remains in use. It is primarily based on the so called First Grammatical Treatise. This spelling is designed to be phonemically precise rather than representative of the manuscripts. Vowel length is marked and umlauted vowels are unambiguously represented.

The standardized spelling employs a few characters that are not available in the most common electronic character sets. Replacements are commonly defined, the most important is to use instead of o-with-tail.

Icelandic spelling

In many modern Icelandic publications of Old Norse works the modern Icelandic spelling is used. Since it is based on the same basic system the difference is not great. The most notable difference is probably the insertion of u before r in many names. Thus the Old Norse name Baldr comes out as Baldur in modern Icelandic.

One of the advantages of using Icelandic spelling is that all the relevant characters are available in the most common character sets and most fonts. In fact, if it weren't for Icelandic, characters like '' would not be as easily available for writing Old Norse and Old English.

Anglicized spelling

For the convenience of English writers and readers the Old Norse characters not used in English are commonly replaced with English ones. This, of course, leads to ambiguity and confusion. Here is a sample conversion table:

-> a
-> e
-> i
-> u
-> o
-> o
-> o
œ -> o, oe
-> ae
-> th
-> th, d, dh

Another common convention in English is to drop consonant nominative endings:

Egill -> Egil
Yggdrasill -> Yggdrasil
Gunnarr -> Gunnar
Sveinn -> Svein
Freyr -> Frey
Hildr -> Hild

When a name ends with r which is not an ending it is often changed to er or (Modern Icelandic) ur to facilitate pronunciation.

Baldr -> Balder, Baldur

One more convention is to use i instead of j.

Njll -> Nial
Freyja -> Freyia

Sometimes the j is simply dropped.

Freyja -> Freya

Sometimes the ending i is spelled e (supported by manuscript spelling and mainland Scandinavian custom).

Loki -> Loke
Bragi -> Brage

Other quirks sometimes seen include adding 'a' to the names of goddesses.

Frigg -> Frigga
Iunn -> Iduna

Obviously the various permutations allow for many possibile spellings for a given name.

Some authors, for example, replace '' with 'th' and '' with 'th', 'dh' or 'd' but keep the accents. Others may not replace o-with-tail with '' but prefer 'o'.

Thus, in addition to the various versions below, the name of 'Hr' could come out as:

Hor, Hdhr, Hdr, Hd, H, Ho

List of names

A list of some commonly encountered Old Norse names with some of their English versions follows.

Gods

inn (Odin, Odhin, Othin, Odinn)
rr (Thor, Thorr)
sa-rr (Asa-Thor)
ku-rr (Oku-Thor)
Baldr (Balder, Baldur)
Hr (Hoth, Hod, Hothr, Hodr, Hoder, Hodhr)
Freyr (Frey)
Tr (Tyr, Ty)
Forseti (Forsete)
Heimdallr, Heimdalr (Heimdall, Heimdal)
Vili (Vilji, Vile)
V (Ve)
Lr (Lod, Loth, Lodr, Lothr, Lodhr)
Hœnir (Honir, Hoenir)
Bragi (Brage)

Goddesses

Iunn (Idun, Idunn, Iduna)
Frigg (Frigga)
Freyja (Freya)
Nanna
Hln (Hlin)
Gefn
Gefjun

Giants

Loki (Loke)
gir (Aegir)
Bleistr (Byleist)

Giantesses

Rindr (Rind)
Gerr (Gerd, Gerth, Gerthr)
Hel (Hela)

Animals

Huginn (Hugin)
Muninn (Munin)
Ratatoskr (Ratatusk, Ratatosk)
Geri (Gere)
Freki (Freke)
Jrmungandr (Jormungand, Iormungand)
Migarsormr (Midgardsorm, Midgard Serpent)

Places

sgarr (Asgard)
tgarr (Utgard)
Niflheimr (Niflheim)
Hel
Migarr (Midgard)
Ginnungagap

Other

sir (Aesir)
Vanir
Hvaml (Havamal)
Vlusp (Voluspa)
Yggdrasill (Yggdrasil)
Askr Yggdrasils
Ragnark (Ragnarok)