Definition of Old Norse

To commemorate Grimfrost's 10th anniversary, this is the third in the series of 12 monthly blog posts by acknowledged academics about their chosen Viking Age subject. 

About the Author

Jackson W. Crawford is an American scholar, translator and poet who specializes in Old Norse. He holds a B.A. in Classics and Classical Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics; an M.A. in Linguistics; and a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Studies (specializing in Old Norse). He is a former university instructor in the Old Norse language, Norse mythology, and the history of the Scandinavian languages. As of 2020 he is a full-time public educator on his popular YouTube channel where he lectures on Old Norse language and discusses literature and mythology. In recent years, he has also been an Old Norse language and runes consultant on such major multimedia projects as Ubisoft Montréal’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Disney’s Frozen. He has published a number of translations of Old Norse sagas and texts, such as the Poetic Edda and the Saga of the Volsungs.


Definition of Old Norse

A simple definition of Old Norse is: The vernacular (common) written language of Scandinavia during the Viking Age and the Middle Ages, from shortly before the beginning of the Viking Age (A.D. 800 or a little earlier) until approximately the Black Death (ca. A.D. 1380 on mainland Scandinavia).

But how do we distinguish Old Norse from what came before it and what came after? Let's start with defining it at the beginning of that time range, by looking at an inscription in the preceding language stage, Proto-Norse. This is part of the inscription on a bracteate discovered in Denmark recently (probably from ca. the 300s A.D.), which is the oldest known inscription to name a Norse god:

ᛁᛉᚹᛟᛞᚾᚨᛊᚹᛖᚱᚨᛉ

This is in the oldest known form of the runic alphabet, the Elder Futhark. Transliterated into our Roman alphabet, and with word spaces inserted, we read:

iz Wōðnas weraz
"He (is) Odin's man."

Rendered in Old Norse (here I'll use the Classical Old Icelandic of the sagas, ca. 1200s A.D.), the language of several centuries later, we would need to say:

Hann er Óðins verr.

Immediately we see some of the characteristic sound changes of Old Norse that separate it from its ancestor language, and indeed from the other Germanic languages (such as German and English), namely:

  1. The earlier pronoun 'iz' for "he" (cognate with German 'er') has been replaced by a new form unique to the Scandinavian languages, 'hann' (probably originally a compound, related to English "he yon(der)").
  2. The consonant /w/ has disappeared before the vowels /o/ and /u/. This results in numerous correspondences such as Old Norse orð vs. English word, Old Norse orm- vs English worm, Old Norse Óðinn vs. Old English Wōden (the name of the god).
  3. The /z/ of earlier language stages (Proto-Germanic and then Proto-Norse) has been replaced by /r/.
  4. Many unstressed vowels from the ends of words have been dropped: weraz > verr, Wōðnas > Óðins (the /i/ in Old Norse may be inserted by analogy to other, similar words).

 

The Vindelev bracteate with the runes reading: iz Wōðnas weraz "He (is) Odin's man."


These changes are already evident in inscriptions from the 700s A.D. (e.g. on the skull fragment from Ribe, Denmark) and the 800s A.D. (e.g. on the Rök runestone in Sweden), and mark the transition from Proto-Norse to Old Norse. In addition, many of the vowels that are lost in words' endings (by the tendency in no. 4 above) leave their mark in Old Norse by mutating the vowels that preceding them (a process called "umlaut" in historical linguistics). This results in a language characterized by a large number of vowel alternations within the root of one word, such as in the verb "take" (taka) in Old Norse:

hann tekr "he takes" (root vowel /a/ mutated by /i/ in Proto-Norse ending: *takiz)
vér tǫkum "we take" (root vowel /a/ mutated by /u/ in the ending)

Other such vowel mutations are visible in the plurals of many nouns, often with close cognates in the closely-related English language (which was affected by a similar process):

maðr, root mann- "man, person," plural menn "men, people"
fótr, root fót- "foot, leg," plural fǿtr "feet, legs"

 

Photograph of the ribe skull fragment, showing bored hole and inscription.

 

The resulting Old Norse language was fairly stable for the next half millennium, so that the words of an inscription like that on the Rök runestone (early 800s, Sweden) are readily readable to someone accustommed to reading the variety of Old Norse usually taught in classes and textbooks, the Old Icelandic of the 1200s A.D.

There was some variation between regions during the Old Norse period, principally between two broad dialect groups referred to as Old West Norse (including Old Norwegian and dialects derived from it, especially Old Icelandic) and Old East Norse (Old Swedish, Old Danish, and Old Gutnish). Noticeable differences include the pronoun "I" (Old West Norse 'ek,' Old East Norse 'jak') and the lack of mutation in the root of the present singular of the so-called "strong" verbs in Old East Norse (Old West Norse tekr "takes," vs. Old East Norse taker).

Early Old Norse was written in the 16-letter Younger Futhark runic alphabet, descended from the 24-letter Elder Futhark of the Proto-Norse period, but with several letters dramatically overworked--for example, ᚢ writes u, o, ø, ǿ, and v! Following the adoption of Christianity around the turn of the millennium in A.D. 1000, the Roman alphabet was adapted for writing Old Norse under the guidance of scribes who knew the closely-related Old English language. These scribes introduced several special letters for writing sounds not present in Latin, for example "thorn" (þ), which represents the "th" sound of "thin," and "eth" (ð), which represents the "th" sound of "then." The earliest documents in the Roman alphabet in Old Norse come from the 1100s A.D. Most regions abandoned runic writing in the next few centuries following, though in remote parts of Dalarna (Sweden), they were still used well into the 1800s.

 

Old Norse compared to modern Scandinavian languages

The Scandinavian languages spoken today can be distinguished from Old Norse in several respects, most of them already becoming visible around the Black Death ca. 1380. Modern Icelandic is the least changed of the living standard languages, retaining the "th" sounds of Old Norse (like in English "thin" and "then") as well as four noun cases. Faroese falls somewhere between Icelandic and the standard languages on the continent, losing the "th" sound (and dramatically changing several other aspects of its sound system), but retaining a relatively robust case system for nouns.

The Black Death, a bubonic plague pandemic, occured in Europe killing as many as 50 million people, perhaps 50% of Europe's 14th century population

Meanwhile, on the continent, the three standard languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) have undergone extensive change both in sound and grammar. The changes in sound are less dramatic; in fact the vowels of Modern Norwegian and Swedish are more like those of Old Norse than the vowels of Modern Icelandic are. But all the languages on the continent have lost the "th" sound in "thin" (written with the letter "thorn" þ in Old Norse and Modern Icelandic), and most have lost the "th" sound in "then" (written with the letter "eth" ð in Old Norse and Modern Icelandic), though Danish retains it in some contexts (spelled with d), and some isolated dialects retain it elsewhere.

In grammar, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish radically simplify the Old Norse case system. Consider a word like "fjord," which in Old Icelandic has sixteen different forms, depending on the role of the word in a sentence:

"A fjord is blue." (fjǫrðr)
"I see a fjord." (fjǫrð)
"A certain fjord's waters are blue." (fjarðar)
"I swim in a fjord." (firði)
"Fjords are blue." (firðir)
"I see fjords." (fjǫrðu)
"Some fjords' waters are blue." (fjarða)
"I swim in fjords." (fjǫrðum)
"The fjord is blue." (fjǫrðrinn)
"I see the fjord." (fjǫrðinn)
"The fjord's waters are blue." (fjarðarinnar)
"I swim in the fjord." (firðinum)
"The fjords are blue." (firðirnir)
"I see the fjords." (fjǫrðunu)
"The fjords' waters are blue." (fjarðanna)
"I swim in the fjords." (fjǫrðunum)

Standard Swedish has only half as many forms answering to these sixteen: a normal singular ("fjord," fjord), a definite singular ("the fjord," fjorden), possessive forms for both ("fjord's," fjords, "the fjord's," fjordens), a normal plural (fjordar), a definite plural (fjordarne), and possessive forms for both ("fjords'," fjordars, "the fjords'," fjordarnes), with Standard Danish and Norwegian having corresponding forms. Along with a less complicated system of noun endings, verbs are conjugated very simply in present-day Scandinavian languages on the continent. Compare the Old Norse present-tense forms of the verb "to be" (vera):

ek em "I am"
þú ert "you are"
hann er "he is"
vér erum "we are"
þér eruð "y'all are"
þeir eru "they are"

...with the drastically reduced system in Modern Swedish, where "am/are/is" is represented by only one verb form, är (er in Danish or Norwegian). The reduction in noun and verb endings didn't happen overnight, and it took place much faster in Denmark than in Norway or Sweden. Nevertheless, by the end of the Old Norse period in the late 1300s, the standard languages on the continent had taken big steps away from this system of endings already.

The modern languages are also removed from the cultural and conceptual world that underpinned Old Norse--notably, there is a reluctance to use abstract nouns in Old Norse, where one will read often about brave and honest men but almost never about bravery and honesty. And while Old Norse has borrowings from other languages (Celtic names are particularly noticeable in Old Icelandic), and contributed a huge amount of vocabulary to English following the Viking conquests in Britain, a thousand more years of time has led to the Scandinavian languages adapting massive amounts of vocabulary from Europe's recent prestige languages such as German, French, and English.

 

What language did the Vikings speak?

Once the characteristics that define Old Norse from its neighbors in space and time are resolved, the question is often still asked: Well, so what language did the Vikings speak? If we take the Viking Age as about AD 800-1100, the answer is early Old Norse (and more specifically, depending on region: Old Danish/Norwegian/Icelandic/Swedish). Viking-Age Old Norse was still a little more archaic than the Classical Old Icelandic of the sagas and Eddas, but recognizably the same language, differing in some minor details of pronunciation (for example, preserving nasalized vowels that were later lost) and grammar (e.g. using the more English-like es for "is" rather than the later familiar Scandinavian er). But while we can't record a Viking speaking, we can expect that a person familiar with the written language of the sagas and Eddas could have recognized the language spoken by the Viking raiders as an earlier version of the same language.

 

For further information please visit: https://jacksonwcrawford.com

You can find Jackson Crawford's Old Norse YouTube channel here: www.youtube.com/@JacksonCrawford

 

About the images:

IMAGE 1: The Vindelev bracteate with runes reading iz Wōðnas weraz "He (is) Odin's man.". Photographer unknown, published online by Vejlemuseerne / Konserveringscenter Vejle, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

IMAGE 2: Photograph of the ribe skull fragment, showing bored hole and inscription translating to "Ulfr and Odin and High-tiur. buri is help against this pain. And the dwarf (is) overcome. Bóurr." Photograph by Lennart Larsen, Nationalmuseet, Danmark Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

IMAGE 3: Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken, a painting from 1499 by Josse Lieferinxe. Provided by the Walters Art Museum and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License. 

IMAGE 4: Photograph by Grimfrost showing a Viking warrior.

FEATURED IMAGE: Lars-Erik "Korp-Erik" Wiss photographed by Grimfrost

 

 

 


1 comment


  • Justin ODonald

    First, may I say I am a huge fan of Jackson Crawford and his work. I subscribe to his YouTube channel and own almost all of his books. Such an interesting article, specifically how it rounds it all out by relating the article to the languages that the Vikings most likely spoke. Thanks for the great read!


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


Select tag to filter blog posts