Language is vital when it comes to communication. It is how we express and understand each other’s ideas and personalities. That is why different cultures had their language. It helped individuals from the same culture understand each other, and created a form of unity. For a strong culture like the Vikings’, one would expect that even they had a single language that they spoke.
Often many people wonder, what exactly the Viking language was. The reason is that the answer to the question is complicated. In as much as many would assume that the language was Old Norse, there is more to it than that. That is why this post will focus on discussing the Viking language. We will explore the language they spoke starting from the Viking Age, and as a bonus, we will discuss the influence Old Norse had on English and how one can learn it.
What Language Did The Vikings Speak?
Like we mentioned earlier, the answer to this simple question is a little more complicated than it may appear. The Vikings were diverse people who settled in different nations across Northern Europe. So, the language they spoke depended on where they were and at what time or period. The earliest known language that was spoken by Vikings or Scandinavian people was called the Proto-Norse language. It was an Indo-European language that came from a Proto-Germanic northern dialect. This was around the 8th century and earlier up to the 2nd century AD where inscriptions on personal objects and stones have been discovered.
Since then, the language has evolved and by the 9th to 13th century to the Old Norse which was spoken in Scandinavia and other Nordic settlements. But even the Old Norse was divided into different dialects that were spoken in different regions around different periods. These dialects are as follows:
- Old West Norse – formed from a mixture of Old Icelandic and Norwegian languages. It was spoken in the British Isles that is, England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Normandy, and the Isles of Man. This was from pre-550AD.
- Old East Norse – this language was spoken mainly in Denmark, Sweden, and east into Russia.
- Old Gutnish – has its roots in the Gothic language and extinct East Germanic dialect. It is mainly spoken in the Swedish isle of Gotland.
- The Runic/Norn language – this language was from the Old Norse and contained all the runes that could act like alphabets that could be joined to form words but each rune also had its individual symbolic and spiritual meaning. It was spoken in Orkney, Shetland, and other northern parts of Scotland.
Another language that was spoken included was Icelandic a modern language from the old Icelandic that was spoken by the Vikings in Iceland from 1350 to the present day. The Anglo-Saxo/ Old English which came before English was also a language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon settlers in the British Isles. Although it had roots in the Germanic language, it was influenced by Latin and British Celtic.
There was however no clear-cut border whereby people on one side spoke one language and people from the other side spoke another. Even with the different dialects, there was said to be a mutual understanding between speakers of the Old Norse. The Grey Goose Laws written in the 12th century states that Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes spoke the same language although there were slight differentiations. By the 14th century, these languages developed into the languages we are familiar with today. This put an end to the period we associate with the Old Norse.
The language spoken during the Viking Age is believed to have been the Old Norse. It is a North Germanic branch of the Germanic family of languages which include, German, Dutch, English, and other modern Scandinavian languages. Generally, it was the language spoken by the Norse people during the Viking Age in Scandinavia and other areas where Scandinavian communities have settled. These places include the British Isles, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland as well as parts of Russia and France. As we demonstrated above the Old Norse was divided into several other dialects.
One of the features of the Old Norse was that it was an inflected language meaning that different grammatical categories were indicated by the changes in words, especially the ending of words. For English, Scandinavian and Icelandic speakers, the Old Norse vocabulary does not pose any difficulty, since they can easily find common ground by recognizing the borrowed words. There is however no clear pronunciation when it comes to the old Norse, especially since the original speakers aren’t alive today. The pronunciation will depend on the teacher of the Old Norse.
The earliest known inscription of the Old Norse dates back to the 2nd Century AD, where they were written in Runes on stones or personal artifacts like swords. The majority of these artifacts were found in Sweden and Denmark. Most of the Old Norse literature was written in Iceland, including the Eddas. Later on, between 800-1050 AD the west Norse developed into Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese, and Norn which became extinct. The East Norse on the other hand developed into Danish and Swedish languages.
Old Norse in English
Considering that the Old Norse and English fall under the same Germanic family of languages, it should come as no surprise that the two share similar roots. The English we know today has some influence from the Old Norse. Modern English is often seen as a west Germanic language with mostly French and Latin influences. In the history of its development, however, the most important piece of the puzzle is often overlooked and that is the role of the Old Norse.
Even with the end of the Viking age when their influence was virtually erased, its effect on the English language remained. The English word ‘Wrong’ for example came from the Old Norse word ‘rangr’ which Danes translated to ‘vrang’ and eventually became ‘wrong’. Another example is the word ‘Ugly’ which Danes pronounced as ‘uggligr’. This came from the Norse word ‘ugga’ which meant to fear, hence the term ugly came from the idea of looking scary.
There are many more English words that have been borrowed from the Old Norse including eggs. Want, anger, gift, trust and so much more. Even some animal English names came from the Viking’s vernacular. The term Bull, for example, came from boli, the wing came from vaengr and reindeer came from hreindyri.
How To Learn Old Norse?
Why should you learn Old Norse? Aside from being a rewarding exercise, it opens you up to a vast body of medieval literature. It helps you appreciate the Viking stories and their belief systems more. Learning the language is especially important for those following the Norse religion, much like Arabic is important to Muslims and Latin is beneficial to Catholics.
Before there weren’t very good, updated texts on the language. Most people would learn by piecing together different sources of varying quality of Old Norse and modern Icelandic. Luckily today it is not as tedious and confusing to learn the Old Norse. This is thanks to expert authors like Jesse L. Byock. He is the author of the Viking Language volume one and two which contains a lesson in the Old Norse vocabulary and grammar. The book also contains graded lessons that make it easier for you to track your progress. Aside from that, you will also need a dictionary that you can easily look up meanings of unfamiliar words that are crucial to the passage. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic by Geir T. Zoëga is by far the best-recommended dictionary to use
The Old Norse may be harder to learn than your average language but as a Viking enthusiast, it will take your understanding of Norse mythology to a whole other level. Like with any language all you need is dedication and daily practice.
Although Vikings were a diverse people, and the Old Norse had differing dialects, there was still mutual understanding. Like the Viking culture has had a major influence in today’s world, so has their language in modern English, the most commonly spoken language across the world. Even though the Old Norse is not widely spoken, it is never too late to learn it, at the very least so you can better understand Norse Mythology and Viking beliefs. This is especially if you are a believer in the Norse religion.