It evolved from the older Proto-Norse around the 8th century and evolved into the modern North Germanic languages after the Viking Age.
Most speakers of Old Norse dialects spoke the Old East Norse dialect in what are present-date Denmark and Sweden. In texts which date from Medieval Icelandic time, writers wrote with Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian dialects. These dialects derive from the Old West Norse dialect.
No clear geographical boundary exists between the two dialects. Old East Norse traits were found in eastern Norway and Old West Norse traits were found in western Sweden.
Old Gutnish is sometimes included in Old East Norse because it is the least known, third dialect. It shares traits with both Old West Norse and Old East Norse and also has developed on its own.
The Icelandic Gray Goose Laws states that Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Danes spoke the same language, dǫnsk tunga. Speakers of the eastern dialect, spoken in Sweden and Denmark, would have said dansk tunga (Danish tongue) or norrønt mál (Nordic language) to name their language.
Modern Icelandic is closest to Old Norse. Written modern Icelandic derives from Old Norse the modern Icelandic phoneme system. Contemporary Icelandic-speakers can understand written Old Norse, which differs slightly in spelling as well as semantics and word order. However, pronunciation, particularly of the vowel phonemes, has changed at least as much as in the other North Germanic languages.
Faroese retains many similarities but is influenced by Danish, Norwegian, and Gaelic (Scottish 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.
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, Scottish Gaelic and Waterford Irish Gaelic. Russian, Finnish and Estonian 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). Also, the current Finnish words for Sweden and Swedish are Ruotsi and Ruotsalainen respectively.
|Front vowels||Back vowels|
Some y, yː, ø, øː, e, and all æː were obtained by i-mutation from u, uː, o, oː, a, and aː respectively.
Some y, yː, ø, øː, and all ɒ, ɒː were obtained by u-mutation from i, iː, e, eː, and a, aː respectively.
The long open back rounded vowel /ɒː/ does not appear in Old Norse texts of the classical period. It seems to have existed in an earlier stage of the language, and to have merged with /aː/ before the classical period.
|p b||t d||k g|
|Fricative||f (v)||θ (ð)||s||(x) (ɣ)||h|
The velar fricative [x] is an allophone of /k/ and /ɣ/ before /s/ and /t/.
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 - the oldest texts as well as runic inscriptions use 'þ' exclusively. 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.
There was no standardized orthography in use in the Middle Ages. A modified version of the letter Wynn called Vend was used briefly for the sounds /u/, /v/, and /w/. Long vowels were sometimes marked with acutes, but also sometimes left unmarked or geminated.
|Phoneme||9th-10th c.||11th-13th c.||12th-14th c.||Standardized West Norse|
|/v/||ᚠ||ᚡ||f, ff, u, ffu||f|
|/w/||ᚢ||ᚢ||u, w, ƿ||v|
|Phoneme||9th-10th c.||11th-13th c.||12th-14th c.||Printed West Norse|
|/iː/||ᛁ||ᛁ||i, ii, í||í|
|/i/ (unstressed)||ᛁ||ᛁ , ᛅ||i, e, æ||i|
|/eː/||ᛁ||ᚽ||e, ee, é, æ, ææ||é|
|/e/||ᛁ, ᛁᚬ||ᛅ||e, æ||e|
|/æː/||ᛅ, ᚬ||ᛅ||æ, ææ, ę||æ|
|/æ/||ᛅ, ᚬ||ᛅ||e, ę||e|
|/aː/||ᛅ, ᚬ||ᛆ||a, aa||á|
|/a/ (unstressed)||ᛅ, ᚬ||ᛆ||a, æ||a|
|/yː/||ᚢ||ᚤ, ᛦ||y, yy||ý|
|/øː/||ᚢ||ᚯ||ø, øø, ǿ, ǫ||œ|
|/ø/||ᚢ , ᛅᚢ||ᚯ||ø, ǫ||ø|
|/uː/||ᚢ||ᚢ||u, uu, ú||ú|
|/u/ (unstressed)||ᚢ||ᚢ, ᚮ||u, o||u|
|/oː/||ᚢ||ᚮ||o, oo, ó||ó|
|ᛅ, ᛅᚢ||ᛆ||a, aa, á, ó||á, ǫ́|
|/ɒ/||ᛅ, ᛅᚢ||ᛆ||W ǫ, o / E a, ø||ǫ|
|/juː/||ᛁ ᚢ||ᛁ ᚢ||iu, iú||jú|
|/joː/||ᛁ ᚢ||ᛁ ᚢ||W io, ió / E iu||jó|
|/jɒ/||ᛁ ᛅ||ᛁ ᛆ||W io, iǫ / E io, iø||jǫ|
|/ja/||ᛁ ᛅ||ᛁ ᛆ||ia||ja|
|/æi/||ᛅᛁ||ᛅᛁ / ᚽ||W ei / E e, ee||e|
|/ɒu/||ᛅᚢ||ᛆᚢ / ᚯ||W au / E ø, øø||au|
|/øy/||ᛅᚢ||ᛆᚢ / ᚯ||W ey / E ø, øø||ey|
Old Norse nouns could have three grammatical genders – masculine, feminine or neuter. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were declined in four grammatical cases – nominative, accusative, genitive and dative, 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).
|A. WEAK VERBS, i.e. Verbs in which the preterite is formed by adding a termination.|
| 1st Conjugation|
characteristic vowel a
| 2nd Conjugation|
characteristic vowel i
| 3rd Conjugation|
characteristic vowel i
| 4th Conjugation|
characteristic vowel i
|IMPERAT.||boð-a||kall-a||dœm||fylg||gleð||spyr||vak (vak-i)||dug (dug-i)|
|B. STRONG VERBS, i.e. Verbs in which the Preterite and Participle Passive are formed by changing the Root Vowel.|
|1st Class||2nd Class||3rd Class||4th Class||5th and 6th Class||7th Class|
|Ablaut patterns||i (e) : a : u||í : ei : i||jó : au : u.||a : ó : a||e : a : á : e / o|| á (a): é (e) : á (a)|
au : jó : au
|THE VERB SUBSTANTIVE|
|INDIC.||Pres.||Sing.||1.||em||Pret.||var (vas)||IMPERAT.||SUBJ.||Pres.||sjá,||sé||Pret.||vær-a||INFIN.||ver-a||PAST PART.||ver-it|
|3.||er (es)||var (vas)||sé||vær-i|
|TEN VERBS WITH PRESENT IN PRETERITE FORM.|
|as regular weak verbs|
|as regular weak verbs|
|as regular weak verbs|
|EIGHT VERBS WITH THE PRETERITE IN -ra.|
|D. VERBS WITH THE REFLEXIVE OR RECIPROCAL SUFFIX -sk, -z, -st (-mk).|
|PART.||Pass.||Neut.||kalla-zt, láti-zt, (glað-zt, gefi-zt, bori-zt,) etc.|
|E. VERBS WITH THE NEGATIVE SUFFIX.|
|3.||er-at (es-at)||var-at (vas-at)||skal-at||skyldi-t||mon-at||mundi-t||hyggr-at||átti-t|
|IMPERAT.||ver-at-tu (be not thou!), lát-at-tu (let not thou!), grát-at-tu (weep not thou!), etc.|
In a simple sentence like "They are both weak" the extent of the Old Norse loanwords becomes quite clear (Old East Norse with archaic pronunciation: "ÞæiR eRu báðiR wæikiR" while Old English "híe syndon bégen (þá) wáce"). The words "they" and "weak" are both borrowed from Old Norse, and the word "both" might also be a borrowing, though this is still disputed by some. While the number of loanwords adopted from the Scandinavians wasn't as numerous as that of Norman French or Latin, their depth and every day nature make them a substantial and very important part of every day English speech as they are part of the very core of the modern English vocabulary.
Words like "bull" and "Thursday" are more difficult when it comes to their origins. "Bull" may be from either Old English "bula" or Old Norse "buli" while "Thursday" may be a borrowing, or it could simply be from the Old English "Þunresdæg" which could've been influenced by the Old Norse cognate. The word "are" is from Old English "earun"/"aron" as well as the Old Norse cognates.
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.
Here is a comparison between the two dialects as well as Old Gutnish. It is a transcription from one of the Funbo Runestones (U990) meaning : Veðr and Thane and Gunnar raised this stone after Haursi, their father. God help his spirit:
The OEN original text above is transliterated according to traditional scholar methods meaning u-umlaut is not regarded in runic Old East Norse even though more recent studies have shown that the positions where it applies are the same as for runic Old West Norse. An alternative and probably more accurate transliteration would therefore render the text in OEN as such:
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 changes in Norway. From the late 14th century, the language used in Norway is generally referred to as Middle Norwegian.
|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, 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 as the differences between them are minute at best during the more ancient stages of this dialect group (though changes had a tendency to occur earlier in the Danish region and until this day many Old Danish changes have still not taken place in modern Swedish rendering Swedish as the more archaic out of the two concerning both the ancient as well as modern languages, sometimes by a profound margin but in all differences are still minute). 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.
Runic Old East Norse is characteristic of being archaic in form, especially Swedish (which is still true for modern Swedish compared to Danish). In essence it corresponds to or surpasses the archaic structure of post runic Old West Norse which in its turn is generally more archaic than post runic Old East Norse. While typically "Eastern" in structure many later post runic changes and trademarks of EON had yet to happen. At the end of the 10th and early 11th century initial -h before -l, -n and -r was still preserved in the middle and northern parts of Sweden, and is sporadically still preserved in some northern dialects as g-, e.g. gly (lukewarm), from hlýR. The phoneme -R (evolved during the Proto-Norse period from -z) was still clearly separated from -r in most positions, even when being geminated (while in OWN it had already merged with -r) and the monophthongization of æi and øy/au into ē and ø̄ respectively had yet to take place: (runic OEN) fæigR (PN *faigiaz; bound to die; dead), gæiRR (PN *gaizaz; spear), haugR (PN *haugaz; mound, pile), møydōmR (PN *mawi- + dōmaz; virginity), diūR (PN *diuza; (wild) animal) while OWN feigr, geirr, haugr, meydómr, dýr (post runic OEN fēgher, gēr, hø̄gher, mø̄dōmber, diūr). The combinations -mp-, -nt-, and -nk- were often preserved while merging into -pp-, -tt- and -kk- in Old West Norse: (runic OEN) *krimpa, (Proto-Norse *krimpan) *sprinta, (PN *sprintan) *sænkva (PN *sankwian) while OWN kreppa, spretta and søkkva (modern Swedish krympa, sprinta (dialect), sänka, modern Danish krympe, sprinte, sænke; to shrink, to sprint, to sink (transitive; compare intransitive "*sionkva" while OWN "søkkva" for both variations)). Feminine o-stems often preserve the plural ending -aR while in OWN they more often merge with the feminine i-stems: (runic OEN) *sōlaR, *hafnaR/*hamnaR, *vāgaR while OWN sólir, hafnir and vágir (modern Swedish solar, hamnar, vågar; suns, havens, scales; Danish has mainly lost the distinction between the two stems with both endings now being rendered as -er or -e alternatively for the o-stems). OEN often preserves the original value of the vowel directly preceding runic R while OWN receives R-umlaut (resulting in the same change as with i-umlaut): (runic OEN) *glaR, *haRi and hrauR while OWN gler, heri (later héri) and hrøyrr/hreyrr (modern Swedish glar (older form), hare, rör; glass, hare, pile of rocks). u-umlaut is still preserved in both phonemic and allophonic positions like in post runic Old West Norse (while sparsely preserved in post runic OEN): fǫður (accusative), vǫrðr and ǫrn (post runic Swedish faþur, varþer, ''örn (u-umlaut preserved); father, guardian/care taking, eagle). The plural ending of ja-stems were mostly preserved while those of OWN often acquired that of the i-stems: *bæðiaR, *bækkiaR, *væfiaR while OWN beðir, bekkir, vefir (modern Swedish bäddar, bäckar, vävar; beds, rivers, webs). Vice versa masculine i-stems with the root ending in either g or k tended to shift the plural ending to that of the ja-stems while OWN kept the original: drængiaR, *ælgiaR and *bænkiaR while OWN drengir, elgir and bekkir (modern Swedish drängar (new meaning), älgar, bänkar; lads (farmhands), elks, benches).
Until the early 12th century, Old East Norse was very much a uniform dialect. It was in Denmark that the first innovations appeared that would differentiate Old Danish from Old Swedish as these innovations spread north unevenly (unlike the earlier changes that spread more evenly over the East Norse area) creating a series of isoglosses going from Zealand to Svealand.
The word final vowels -a, -o and -e (Old Norse -a, -u and -i) started to merge into -ə, represented with the letter 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 (cake), tunger (tongues) and gæster (guests) whereas (Standard) Swedish has retained older forms, kaka, tungor and gäster (OEN kaka, tungur, gæstir).
Moreover, in Danish a tonal word accent distinction shared with Norwegian and Swedish changed into stød around this time. In modern Swedish and Norwegian there are two tone contours (acute accent and grave accent in Swedish terminology, Tone1 and Tone2 in Norwegian), in words having tone1 in Norwegian and accute accent in Swedish is found stød in Danish. Stød is a glottal gesture considered a kind of creaky voice, and it seems to have been documented by Swedish sources as early as the 14th century. The origin of Scandinavian word tones is unclear, they may have developed from a non-distinctive tonal feature thought to have existed in Proto-Norse which then became distinctive when the endings of words were reduced in continental Old Norse. There are tonal phenomena in neither Icelandic nor Faroese.
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.