Learn more about Old Norse
|Old Norse |
norrœnt mál, dǫnsk tunga
|Spoken in:||Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, Isle of Man, Vinland, the Volga and places in between|
|Language extinction:||developed into continental Scandinavian languages by the 14th century, but largely survived in Icelandic|
|Language family:|| Indo-European|
|Writing system:||Runic, later Latin alphabet.|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.|
Old Norse is the Germanic language spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300. It evolved from the older Proto-Norse, in the 8th century.
Because most of the surviving texts are from Medieval Icelandic, the de facto standard version of the language is the Old West Norse dialect, that is Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. Sometimes, Old Norse is defined as Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. However, there was also a very similar Old East Norse dialect that was spoken in Denmark and Sweden and their settlements. There was no clear geographical separation between the two dialects. Old East Norse traits were found in eastern Norway and Old West Norse traits were found in western Sweden. In addition, there was also an Old Gutnish dialect, sometimes included in Old East Norse because it was the least known dialect. Until the 13th century the three dialects were considered by their speakers to be one and the same language, and they called it dansk tunga (in the eastern dialect) or dǫnsk tunga (in the western dialect). This autonym translates as "Danish tongue". It was also called norrœnt mál ("Norse language").
Old Norse was mutually intelligible with Old English, Old Saxon and Old Low Franconian. It gradually evolved into the modern North Germanic languages: Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish.
Modern Icelandic is the descendant that has diverged the least from Old Norse. In its normalised written form, Old Norse is understandable to modern day Icelandic-speakers. However, pronunciation, particularly of the vowel phonemes, has changed at least as much as other North Germanic languages. Faroese retains many similarities but is influenced by Danish, Norwegian, and Gaelic (Scots and/or Irish). Although Swedish, Danish and the Norwegian languages have diverged the most, they still retain mutual intelligibility. This could be because these languages have been mutually affected by each other, as well as having a similar development influenced by Middle Low German.
 Geographical distribution
Old Icelandic was essentially identical to Old Norwegian and together they formed the Old West Norse dialect of Old Norse. The Old East Norse dialect was spoken in Denmark and Sweden and settlements in Russia, England and Normandy. The Old Gutnish dialect was spoken in Gotland and in various settlements in the East. In the 11th century, it was the most widely spoken European language ranging from Vinland in the West to the Volga in the East. In Russia it survived longest in Novgorod but died out in the 13th century.
 Modern descendants
Its modern descendants are the West Scandinavian languages of Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian and the extinct Norn language of the Orkney and the Shetland Islands as well as the East Scandinavian languages of Danish and Swedish. Norwegian has descended from West Norse (West Scandinavian), but over the centuries it has been heavily influenced by East Norse (East Scandinavian).
Among these, Icelandic and the closely related Faroese have changed the least from Old Norse in the last thousand years, although with Danish rule of the Faroe Islands Faroese has also been influenced by Danish. Old Norse also had an influence on English dialects and particularly Lowland Scots which contains many Old Norse loanwords. It also influenced the development of the Norman language.
Various other languages, which are not closely related, have been heavily influenced by Norse, particularly the Norman dialects and Scottish Gaelic. Russian and Finnish also have a number of Norse loanwords; The words "Rus" and "Russia", according to one theory, may be derivatives from "Rus", the name of a Norse tribe (see Etymology of Rus and derivatives).
The vowel phonemes mostly come in pairs of long and short. The orthography marks the long vowels with an acute accent. All phonemes have, more or less, the expected phonetic realization.
|Front vowels||Back vowels|
Some y, yː, œ, øː, and all æ, æː were obtained by i-mutation from u, uː, o, oː, a, aː respectively.
Some y, yː, œ, øː, and all ɒ, ɒː were obtained by u-mutation from i, iː, e, eː, a, aː respectively.
Old Norse has six stop phonemes. Of these /p/ is rare word-initially and /d/ and /b/ do not occur between vowels, because of the fricative allophones of the Proto-Germanic language (e.g. *b *[β] > v between vowels). The /g/ phoneme is realized as a voiced velar fricative [ɣ] inside words and wordfinally, except when it is geminated.
|Stop||p b||t d||k ɡ|
The velar fricative [x] is an allophone of /h/ pronounced in the combinations hv [xw], hl [xl], hr [xɾ] and hn [xn] in words like hvat "what", hlaupa "run", hringr "ring", hnakki "neck".
The standardized Old Norse spelling was created in the 19th century, and is for the most part phonemic. The most notable deviation is that the non-phonemic difference between the voiced and the unvoiced dental fricatives is marked. As mentioned above, long vowels are denoted with acutes. Most other letters are written with the same glyph as the IPA phoneme, except as shown in the table below. A modified version of the letter Wynn called Vend was used briefly for the sounds /u/, /v/, and /w/.
Old Norse was a highly inflected language. Most of the grammatical complexity is retained in modern Icelandic, whereas modern Norwegian has a much simplified grammatical system.
Old Norse nouns could have three grammatical genders - masculine, feminine or neuter. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were declined in four grammatical cases - nominative, genitive, dative and accusative, in singular and plural. Some pronouns (first and second person) could have dual number in addition to singular and plural.
There were several classes of nouns within each gender, the following is an example of some typical inflectional paradigms:
|+ The masculine noun armr (English arm)|
|+ The feminine noun hǫll (OWN), hall (OEN) (English hall)|
|+ The neuter noun troll (English troll):|
The definite article was expressed as a suffix, e.g. troll (a troll) - trollit (the troll), hǫll ( a hall) - hǫllin (the hall), armr (an arm) - armrinn (the arm).
The earliest inscriptions in Old Norse are runic, from the 8th century. Runes continued to be commonly used until the 15th century. With the conversion to Christianity in the 11th century came the Latin alphabet. The oldest preserved texts in Old Norse in the Latin alphabet date from the middle of the 12th century. Subsequently, Old Norse became the vehicle of a large and varied body of vernacular literature, unique in medieval Europe. Most of the surviving literature was written in Iceland. Best known are the Norse sagas, the Icelanders' sagas and the mythological literature, but there also survives a large body of religious literature, translations into Old Norse of courtly romances, classical mythology, the Old Testament, as well as instructional material, grammatical treatises and a large body of letters and official documents.
 Relationship to English
Old English and old Norse were closely related languages, and it is therefore not surprising that many words in old Norse look familiar to English speakers, e.g. armr (arm), fótr (foot), land (land), fullr (full), hanga (to hang), standa (to stand), etc. This is because both English and old Norse date back to Proto-Germanic. In addition, a large number of old Norse words were borrowed into the old English language during the Viking age, becoming loanwords. Examples of old Norse loanwords in modern English are multiple, and include knife, window, bag, skirt (vs. the native English shirt of the same root), and the 3rd person-plural pronoun they, for which the Anglo-Saxons said hi.
As Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse, in the 8th century, the effects of the umlauts varied geographically. The typical umlauts (for example fylla from *fullian) were stronger in the West whereas those resulting in diaeresis (for example hiarta from herto) were more influential in the East. This difference was the main reason behind the dialectalization that took place in the 9th and 10th centuries shaping an Old West Norse dialect in Norway and the Atlantic settlements and an Old East Norse dialect in Denmark and Sweden.
A second difference was that Old West Norse lost certain combinations of consonants. The combinations -mp-, -nt-, and -nk- were assimilated into -pp-, -tt- and -kk- in Old West Norse, but this phenomenon was limited in Old East Norse.
|English||Old West Norse||Old East Norse|
However, these differences were an exception. The dialects were very similar and considered to be the same language, a language that they sometimes called the Danish tongue (dǫnsk tunga), sometimes Norse language (norrœnt mál), as evidenced in the following two quotes from Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson:
Móðir Dyggva var Drótt, dóttir Danps konungs, sonar Rígs er fyrstr var konungr kallaðr á danska tungu. Dyggve's mother was Drott, the daughter of king Danp, Ríg's son, who was the first to be called king in the Danish tongue.
...stirt var honum norrœnt mál, ok kylfdi mjǫk til orðanna, ok hǫfðu margir menn þat mjǫk at spotti. ...the Norse language was hard for him, and he often fumbled for words, which amused people greatly.
Here is a comparison between the two dialects. It is a transcription from one of the Funbo Runestones (U990) meaning : Veðr and Thane and Gunnar raised this stone after Haursa, their father. God help his spirit:
- Veðr ok Þegn ok Gunnarr reistu stein þenna at Haursa, fǫður sinn. Guð hjalpi ǫnd hans. (OWN)
- Veðr ok Þegn ok Gunnarr ræistu stæin þenna at Haursa, faður sinn. Guð hjalpi and hans (OEN)
 Old West Norse
Most of the innovations that appeared in Old Norse spread evenly through the Old Norse area, but some were geographically limited and created a dialectal difference between Old West Norse and Old East Norse. One difference was that Old West Norse did not take part in the monophthongization which changed æi/ei into e, øy/ey into ø and au into ø. An early difference was that Old West Norse had the forms bu (dwelling), ku (cow) and tru (faith) whereas Old East Norse had bo, ko and tro. Old West Norse was also characterized by u-umlaut, which meant that for example Proto-Norse *tanþu was pronounced tǫnn and not tann as in Old East Norse. Moreoever, there were nasal assimilations as in bekkr from Proto-Norse *bankiaz.
The earliest body of text appears in runic inscriptions and in poems composed ca 900 by Tjodolf of Hvin. The earliest manuscripts are from the period 1150-1200 and concern both legal, religious and historical matters. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Trøndelag and Vestlandet were the most important areas of the Norwegian kingdom and they shaped Old West Norse as an archaic language with a rich set of declensions. In the body of text that has come down to us from until ca 1300, Old West Norse had little dialect variation, and Old Icelandic does not diverge much more than the Old Norwegian dialects do from each other.
Old Norwegian differentiated early from Old Icelandic by the loss of the consonant h in initial position before l, n and r, thus whereas Old Icelandic manuscripts might use the form hnefi (fist), Old Norwegian manuscripts might use nefi.
From the late 13th century, old Icelandic and old Norwegian started to diverge more. After c. 1350, the Black Death and following social upheavals seem to have accelerated language developments in Norway. From the late 14th century, the language used in Norway is generally referred to as Middle Norwegian.
 Text example
The following text is from Egils saga. The manuscript is the oldest known for that saga, the so called θ-fragment from the 13th century. The text clearly shows how little Icelandic has changed structurally. The last version is legitimate Modern Icelandic, although nothing has been altered but the spelling. The text also demonstrates, however, that a modern reader might have difficulties with the unaltered manuscript text, to say nothing of the lettering.
|The manuscript text, letter for letter||The same text in normalized, Old Norse spelling||The same text in Modern Icelandic|
ÞgeiR blundr systor s egils v þar aþingino & hafði gengit hart at liþueizlo við þst. h bað egil & þa þstein coma ser t staðfesto ut þangat a myrar h bio aðr fyr suNan huit a fyr neþan blundz vatn Egill toc uel aþui. oc fysti þst at þr leti h þangat fa ra. Egill setti þorgeir blund niðr at ana brecko En stein fǫrði bustað siN ut yf lang á. & settiz niðr at leiro lǫk. En egill reið hei suðr anes ept þingit m flocc siN. & skilðoz þr feðgar m kęrleic
Þorgeirr blundr, systursonr Egils, var þar á þinginu ok hafði gengit hart at liðveizlu við Þorstein. Hann bað Egil ok þá Þorstein koma sér til staðfestu út þangat á Mýrar; hann bjó áðr fyrir sunnan Hvítá, fyrir neðan Blundsvatn. Egill tók vel á því ok fýsti Þorstein, at þeir léti hann þangat fara. Egill setti Þorgeir blund niðr at Ánabrekku, en Steinarr fœrði bústað sinn út yfir Langá ok settisk niðr at Leirulæk. En Egill reið heim suðr á Nes eptir þingit með flokk sinn, ok skildusk þeir feðgar með kærleik.
Þorgeir blundur, systursonur Egils, var þar á þinginu og hafði gengið hart að liðveislu við Þorstein. Hann bað Egil og þá Þorstein að koma sér til staðfestu út þangað á Mýrar; hann bjó áður fyrir sunnan Hvítá, fyrir neðan Blundsvatn. Egill tók vel á því og fýsti Þorstein, að þeir létu hann þangað fara. Egill setti Þorgeir blund niður að Ánabrekku, en Steinar færði bústað sinn út yfir Langá og settist niður að Leirulæk. En Egill reið heim suður á Nes eftir þingið með flokk sinn, og skildust þeir feðgar með kærleik.
 Old East Norse
Old East Norse, between 800 and 1100, is in Sweden called Runic Swedish and in Denmark Runic Danish, but the use of Swedish and Danish is not for linguistic reasons. They are called runic because the body of text appears in the runic alphabet. Unlike Proto-Norse, which was written with the Elder Futhark, Old Norse was written with the Younger Futhark, which only had 16 letters. Because of the limited number of runes, the rune for the vowel u was also used for the vowels o, ø and y, and the rune for i was used for e.
Until the early 12th century, Old East Norse was a uniform dialect. It was in Denmark that the first innovations appeared that would differentiate Old Danish from Old Swedish and these innovations spread north unevenly creating a series of isoglosses going from Zealand to Svealand.
The word final vowels -a, -o and -e started to merge into -e. At the same time, the voiceless stop consonants p, t and k became voiced stops and even fricatives. These innovations resulted in that Danish has kage, bide and gabe whereas Swedish has retained older forms, kaka, bita and gapa.
Moreover, Danish lost the tonal word accent present in modern Swedish and Norwegian, replacing the grave accent with a glottal stop.
 Text example
This is an extract from the Westrogothic law (Västgötalagen). It is the oldest text written as a manuscript found in Sweden and from the 13th century. It is contemporaneous with most of the Icelandic literature. The text marks the beginning of Old Swedish.
- Dræpær maþar svænskan man eller smalenskæn, innan konongsrikis man, eigh væstgøskan, bøte firi atta ørtogher ok þrettan markær ok ænga ætar bot. [...] Dræpar maþær danskan man allæ noræn man, bøte niv markum. Dræpær maþær vtlænskan man, eigh ma frid flyia or landi sinu oc j æth hans. Dræpær maþær vtlænskæn prest, bøte sva mykit firi sum hærlænskan man. Præstær skal i bondalaghum væræ. Varþær suþærman dræpin ællær ænskær maþær, ta skal bøta firi marchum fiurum þem sakinæ søkir, ok tvar marchar konongi.
- If someone slays a Swede or a Smålander, a man from the kingdom, but not a West Geat, he will pay eight örtugar and thirteen marks, but no wergild. The king owns nine marks from manslaughter and the killing of any man. If someone slays a Dane or a Norwegian, he will pay nine marks. If someone slays a foreigner, he shall not be banished and have to flee to his clan. If someone slays a foreign priest, he will pay as much as for a foreigner. A priest counts as a freeman. If a Southerner is slain or an Englishman, he shall pay four marks to the plaintif and two marks to the king.
 Old Gutnish
The Gutasaga is the longest text surviving from Old Gutnish. It was written in the 13th century and dealt with the early history of the Gotlanders. This part relates of the agreement that the Gotlanders had with the Swedish king sometime before the 9th century:
- So gingu gutar sielfs wiliandi vndir suia kunung þy at þair mattin frir Oc frelsir sykia suiariki j huerium staþ. vtan tull oc allar utgiftir. So aigu oc suiar sykia gutland firir vtan cornband ellar annur forbuþ. hegnan oc hielp sculdi kunungur gutum at waita. En þair wiþr þorftin. oc kallaþin. sendimen al oc kunungr oc ierl samulaiþ a gutnal þing senda. Oc latta þar taka scatt sinn. þair sendibuþar aighu friþ lysa gutum alla steþi til sykia yfir haf sum upsala kunungi til hoyrir. Oc so þair sum þan wegin aigu hinget sykia.
- So, by their own volition, the Gotlanders became the subjects of the Swedish king, so that they could travel freely and without risk to any location in the Swedish kingdom without toll and other fees. Likewise, the Swedes had the right to go to Gotland without corn restrictions or other prohibitions. The king was to provide protection and aid, when they needed it and asked for it. The king and the jarl shall send emissaries to the Gutnish thing to receive the taxes. These emissaries shall declare free passage for the Gotlanders to all locations in the sea of the king at Uppsala (that is the Baltic Sea was under Swedish control) and likewise for everyone who wanted to travel to Gotland.
Note here that the diphthong ai in aigu, þair and waita is not regressively umlauted to ei as in e.g. Old Icelandic eigu, þeir and veita.
 See also
- Gordon, Eric V. and A.R. Taylor. Introduction to Old Norse. Second. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
 External links
- «Kulturformidlingen norrøne tekster og kvad»
- Indo-European Language Resources The resources in question are mostly Germanic, including two dictionaries of Old Icelandic (in English), two grammars of Old Icelandic (one in English, one in German) and a grammar of Old Swedish (in German).
- Old Norse for Beginners
- Old Norse Online, by Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum from the Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
|Major Modern Germanic languages|
|Afrikaans | Danish | Dutch | English | German | Norwegian | Swedish | Yiddish|
|Minor Modern Germanic languages|
|Faroese | Frisian | Icelandic | Luxembourgish|
|Reg. acknowledged Germanic languages/dialects|
|Low German / Low Saxon | Limburgish | Scots|
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