In Old Norwegian a phenomenon dubbed vowel harmony affects the realization of the unstressed phonemes /i/ and /u/. Researchers see this phenomenon as a progressive distant assimilation, where the closeness of a stressed vowel influences the closeness of the vowel in the following syllable. There has been debate concerning both the geographical distribution of this trait, as well as the rules that govern the assimilation itself. Marius Hægstad claimed that the south-western parts of Norway lacked vowel harmony in the Old Norse period, whereas other scholars have claimed that vowel harmony is found in manuscripts originating in the same area. Previous research has used Roman script manuscripts as empirical sources. The contemporaneous runic material, however, has not been systematically scrutinised.
In my talk I make use of runic inscriptions to discuss the geographical distribution of vowel harmony in Old Norwegian, and also the rules that govern it. Because the vast majority of runic inscriptions are originals and therefore a primary expression of the rune carver’s language, the runic inscriptions provide excellent complementary data when discussing Old Norwegian vowel harmony. Accordingly, I have sought to examine to what degree vowel harmony is exhibited in the Norwegian runic material from approx. 1050 to 1400 CE, and furthermore whether the runic material shows any geographical variation.
Based on the results of my study I argue that vowel harmony is present in most parts of the country. The data from the coastal region of south-western Norway are ambiguous, however. Furthermore, vowel harmony largely seems to be governed by the supposed rules for the assimilation, though there are some interesting aberrant data. I use concepts from articulatory phonology to discuss patterns in the anomalous data, and propose additional factors governing the phonetic realisation of unstressed /i/ and /u/.
This study is relevant to Old Norse philology and related historical linguistic research for the added insight it gives into dialectal differences within Old Norwegian and for the fresh data added to the ongoing discussion surrounding the rules of vowel harmony. Furthermore, the study makes the methodological point that runic inscriptions are suitable for historical linguistic research, and that the study of the Old Norse language would benefit from the independent data runic inscriptions can provide.