Runes and elvish in the Valley of the Älv

“Älv” in Swedish means “river”. But the origin of “elf” in English is the old English “ælf”. So when it is found that in Älvdalen, runes were used just 100 years ago and they still speak their own ancient Norse language, Elfdalian, it is difficult not to conjure up visions of Legolas and Elrond and of Galadriel in Lothlórien.

ScienceNordic: Elfdalian (älvdalska in Swedish and övdalsk in the language itself) sounds like something you would more likely encounter in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings rather than in a remote Swedish forest. But the small town of Älvdalen, which gives the language its name, is not an Elven outpost. It is one of the last strongholds of an ancient tongue that preserves much of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. …. has preserved linguistic features that are to be found nowhere else in Scandinavia, and that had already disappeared from Old Norse by 1200AD. ….

Because of its relative isolation, Elfdalian evolved in an entirely different direction than the modern Scandinavian languages. Its sounds, grammar and vocabulary differ radically from Swedish. So, while speakers of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian can easily understand each other in simple conversations, Elfdalian is completely unintelligible to Swedes who are not from the area.

Only about 2,500 people still speak Elfdalian but it is now being taught again in primary schools in the region.

Älvdalen is a municipality in Sweden and the name actually means River Valley. It is isolated from the rest of Sweden by its mountains, forests and lakes.


ScienceNordic: “Älvdalen lies extremely deep within the Swedish forests and mountains. You can get there by boat up the river, Dalälven — a journey of more than 100 kilometres — and getting there and back used to be quite an expedition. So people in the area weren’t particularly mobile and were able to preserve this very special culture, considered in Sweden to be extremely traditional and old fashioned,”

The runic script was the dominant written language in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia until the advent of Christianity in the ninth and tenth century introduced the Latin alphabet.

By the 15th century the Latin alphabet had almost wiped out the use of runes – but not in Älvdalen. Here, the Swedish linguist Henrik Rosenkvist recently saw a letter dated 1906 written partly in runes.

“The runes we see in Älvdalen are probably the most recent use of the script we know of. Runes otherwise died out in the Middle Ages so their use in so recent times is exceptional,” says Rosenkvist who speaks and studies the unique language spoken in Älvdalen.

The runes of Älvdalen — dalrunerne — are reminiscent of those used on runes stones in Denmark but there are a number of differences. Dalrunerne developed over time, influenced partially by the Latin alphabet. Here are the runes as they looked in the period leading up to the 20th century. (Illustration: Tasnu Arakun/Wikimedia Commons)

Nielsen agrees. “The use of runes in Scandinavia gradually ceased during the 15th century. There are the odd areas of Gotland in Sweden and in Iceland where the rune tradition survived until the 17th century, but in Älvdalen their use was widespread until the early 20th century,” he says.

According to Nielsen the runes in Älvdalen were most commonly found on houses and inscribed in furniture. In addition to this, they were also engraved into ’message blades’ which were sticks of wood that were circulated among the farms in the area. “The people who herded the cattle up in the mountains would write messages to each other in runes,” says Nielsen.

Tolkien took much of his inspiration for his elves (and fairies) from a mixture of Norse and Celtic mythologies and medieval writings. But his elves and their love of ships and their writing are straight out of Norse mythology. In that sense the real world Älvdalen is probably as close to  the enchanted – but fictional – forests of Lothlórien as it is possible to get.


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One Response to “Runes and elvish in the Valley of the Älv”

  1. Mapping Älvdalen to Middle Earth places Rivendell at Trondheim | The k2p blog Says:

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