Introducing the Language
“The term ‘Old Norse’ has been used in various ways. For some it is a broad concept covering the language of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as Iceland and the other Scandinavian colonies, throughout the Viking Age (c. 750–1050) and the early and high Middle Ages (c. 1050–1350). At the other extreme it has been taken to mean only the Old Norwegian of the early and high Middle Ages. In the present context it is used principally to signify the language of Norway in the period c. 750–1350 (after which Norwegian changes considerably) and of Iceland from the settlement (c. 870) to the Reformation (c. 1550 — a date that sets a cultural rather than a linguistic boundary).”
— Michael Barnes, A New Introduction to Old Norse, 1.
Old Norse (generally speaking) is the parent language for modern Scandinavian languages such as Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Faroese.1 This language was actively spoken throughout the Viking Age, which lasted from 793 to 1066 AD. The language continued to be spoken for several centuries afterward, and the changes throughout this period (and for some time afterward) were relatively small in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics (how the language sounded).2 There were, of course, dialectal differences between speakers, but these were minor enough so that each could understand another without much difficulty. In linguistics, this means that the dialects of Old Norse were mutually intelligible.3
In terms of its history as a language, Old Norse can be traced back to Indo-European through the Germanic ‘branch’ (shown below). Although this tree is a bit simplified, it shows that Old Norse comes from North Germanic, or Proto Old Norse, and then splits into two groups: East and West Old Norse. In total, these two groups offer four major dialectal variations of Old Norse, although there were others, as well. Standard Old Norse, which is used by scholars for teaching and transcribing, is based primary off of the Old Icelandic branch.
The reason for basing the Old Norse standard on the Old Icelandic branch is due to the amount of written material that has survived in Old Icelandic. Yet, it is important to remember that the four major branches were very similar, being mutually intelligible up until 1500.4 As a result, basing the standard on a specific branch does not result in any severe damage.5
In terms of modern Scandinavian languages, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish have changed considerably from their Old Norse parent. This resulted from a strong influence on these languages from Low German dialects, and even English.6 Icelandic, on the other hand, has developed in relative isolation. The differences between Old Norse and Icelandic are still very minor; most of the grammar and vocabulary are still the exact same.7 As a result, an Icelander today can read Old Norse with much less difficulty than speakers of other Scandinavian languages, which themselves need training in order to understand most of modern Icelandic.
The Norse themselves did not call their language Old Norse. Instead, it was referred to as Dǫnsk tunga, meaning ‘Danish tongue’. The reason for this is a bit unclear, but it may have been because Denmark was the first of the Scandinavian regions to centralize and gain considerable power.8 This is not an uncommon trend in linguistics; although language does not actually have a standard, society often creates one. In other words, the most prestigious dialect of a language is what comes to be regarded as the ‘standard’, or ‘base’ dialect.9 The speakers of Old Norse had various dialects, but the name of their language could have easily come from this ‘prestigious’ dialect of the Danish court.
The primary (native) sources for learning Old Norse exist in two major forms: runic inscriptions and Latin script. Both of these writing systems will be discussed in more detail during the next installment of this course, but, for now, here are primary examples for each writing system:
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In the next lesson, we shall look more carefully at these two writing systems, giving a basic introduction to runes followed by a few lessons breaking down the transition into Latin script. There is no assignment with this lesson, but the next installment will include the opportunity to translate a simple runic sample in the younger futhark. It may also include a small quiz about runic alphabets, writing, and history.
Verið vel, vinir!
(Be well, friends!)
– Fjorn the Skald
- Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 1: Learn Old Norse, Runes, and Icelandic Sagas. (Pacific Palisades, CA: Jules William Press, 2013), 20.
- Vedrana Mihalicek and Christin Wilson ed., Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics, 11th ed., (The Ohio State University, 2001), 410.
- Ibid., 22.
- I would like to take a moment, though, to point out a few specifics. Language is fluid and is always changing, and Old Norse was no exception to this. The standard version is a snapshot of the language, or, perhaps more accurately, an idealized construction. Even within the Old Icelandic branch, spelling and pronunciation varied considerably.
- Byock, Viking Language, 22.
- Ibid., 21.
- Mihalicek and Wilson, Language Files, 413.
- Byock, Viking Language, 77.
- Ibid., 19.