Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

A Discourse Analysis of Runic Messages in Two Media

A Discourse Analysis of Runic Messages in Two Media

Graham Sheckels

Messages left in the form of Norse runes provide a method of studying a culture that significantly impacted much of Northern Europe at the end of the first millennia. Surviving examples of the runic writing of the Vikings can be found across Scandinavia and nearly everywhere these seafarers ventured. Runologists have long studied these works, and debated the uses to which this writing system was put. This article asks if a form of discourse analysis can be used to gain a sense of the socioeconomic status of the authors of the runic messages inscribed on various runakefli, or wooden message-sticks, versus the status of the authors/commissioners of stone grave markers or other monuments. Two corpora were examined, chosen for the very different media upon which their messages were carved. The first are two dozen the inscriptions preserved on runakefli excavated at Bergen, Norway, dating to the 12th and 13th century. These comprise nearly the entirety of the surviving runakefli found in Northern Europe, and concern such topics as business ventures, political correspondence, and love poems. The second corpus is a set of 25 inscriptions carved into rune-stones located in North-Central Denmark, dating to the end of the tenth century and later. The messages conveyed in this body are entirely memorial in nature, created to commemorate the lives of various family members. Discourse analysis and estimates of the labor involved in creation suggests that these two corpora were created by two different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) sets of people, for two very different purposes. The runakefli of Bergen were private in nature, meant by the writer for consumption by a single recipient. The messages indicate that most of the writers were likely middle class individuals such as merchants. In contrast, the rune-stones were public monuments carved at significant expense and meant to convey not only the high status of the memorialized individual, but also the corresponding high social status of the commissioner, usually a family member. The Bergen runakefli suggest that a significant portion of the population could read runes and that the monumental rune-stones were not only intended for consumption by fellow elites, but also served to reinforce the status difference between classes.

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April 23, 2010 - Posted by | abstract

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