Kendra Willson (University of Turku):

Uralic languages attested in runic inscriptions?

Could Finnic or Sámi languages be attested in Scandinavian runic inscriptions? A significant portion of runic inscriptions, particularly earlier ones, are regarded as indecipherable (34/201, or 17%, of Looijenga’s 1997:57 corpus of inscriptions in the Elder Futhark). Nonetheless, interpretations of runic inscriptions involving non-Germanic languages (apart from Latin, which is frequently used in the Middle Ages (Gustavson 1994, Knirk 1998)) are rare. Eliasson (2007) provocatively suggests that a Danish runestone may be in Basque. While Basques traveled widely in the Late Middle Ages, evidence for their presence in Funen in the 11th or 12th c. is lacking. By contrast, there is ample evidence for contacts between Germanic and Finnic and Sámi languages during the main periods of runic production.

Explanations that treat runic inscriptions as representing Finnic or Sámi languages have occasionally appeared (Olsen & Bergsland 1943, Antonsen 2002:114, Källström 2010, 2014). However, in general the runological literature has not engaged in detail with these interpretations. They have either been ignored, categorically rejected, or repeated uncritically (Hætta 1993:54) or agnostically (Grünzweig 2004). In earlier work (Willson 2012, 2019) I have discussed case studies of inscriptions that have been interpreted as containing Finnic and Sámi elements. While the presence of these languages in the relevant contexts is not impossible, the specific examples are at best uncertain, and it is the lectio facilior to prefer a Germanic interpretation when one is available. The case for a Finnic or Sámi interpretation would be stronger if corroborated by established parallels or by archaeological evidence.

One reason for a lack of engagement is a dearth of scholars with the background to evaluate such proposals. A general problem is anachronism. Few runologists have much knowledge of Uralic linguistics. They may notice similarities between a string in a runic inscription and a word or name in modern Finnish or Sámi, but fail to take into account changes in these languages since the time of the inscription. While more linguists working with western Uralic languages control the history of the Germanic languages, runology requires additional skills and knowledge.

The reception of these interpretations reflects some implicit assumptions about language contact and the use of writing in earlier times. Occasional use of runic writing for Finnic or Sámi languages would present a partial parallel to the Novgorod birchbark letter 292 (on which see e.g. Nichols 1999). By an accident of preservation we have a single example of writing in a Finnic language from a context that shows many similarities to medieval runic literacy (Zilmer and Jesch 2012).