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Old Norse

Old Norse is the North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300.

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.

Gradually, Old Norse splintered into the modern North Germanic languages: Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian (nynorsk), Norwegian (bokmål), Danish and Swedish.

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.

Another language similar to Old Norse is Elfdalian, spoken in Älvdalen municipality in Sweden by about 1000-5000 speakers (various sources).

Geographical distribution

Old Icelandic was essentially identical to Old Norwegian and together they formed the Old West Norse dialect of Old Norse and were also spoken in settlements in Ireland and Scotland. 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, Old Norse was the most widely spoken European language ranging from Vinland in the West to the Volga in the East. In Russia it survived the longest in Novgorod, probably lasting into the 13th century there.

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), particularly during the Denmark-Norway union.

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.

Phonology

Vowels

The vowel phonemes mostly come in pairs of long and short. The standardized orthography marks the long vowels with an acute accent. In medieval manuscripts, it is variously marked with an accent, unmarked or less frequently geminated. All phonemes have, more or less, the expected phonetic realization.

Vowels of Old Norse
  Front vowels Back vowels
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i y     u
Mid e ø øː     o
Open   æː     a ɒ (ɒː)

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.

Consonants

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 g
Nasal    m    n    (ŋ)
Fricative f (v) θ (ð) s (x) (ɣ) h
Trill    r
Approx­imant    j    w
Lateral approximant    l

The velar fricative [x] is an allophone of /k/ and /ɣ/ before /s/ and /t/.

Orthography

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.

Consonants
Phoneme 9th-10th c. 11th-13th c. 12th-14th c. Standardized West Norse
/p/ ᛔ, ᛕ p p
/b/ b b
/f/ f f
/v/ f, ff, u, ffu f
/t/ t t
/d/ d d
/θ/ þ, th þ
/ð/ þ, th ð
/s/ s s
/ts/ s, z z
/k/ k, c k
/g/ g g
/ɣ/ g, gh g
/h/ h h
/m/ m m
/n/ n n
/r/ r r
/ɽ/ r r
/l/ l l
/j/ i j
/w/ u, w, ƿ v

Vowels
Phoneme 9th-10th c. 11th-13th c. 12th-14th c. Printed West Norse
/iː/ i, ii, í í
/i/ i i
/i/ (unstressed) ᛁ , ᛅ i, e, æ i
/eː/ e, ee, é, æ, ææ é
/e/ ᛁ, ᛁᚬ e, æ e
/æː/ ᛅ, ᚬ æ, ææ, ę æ
/æ/ ᛅ, ᚬ e, ę e
/aː/ ᛅ, ᚬ a, aa á
/a/ ᛅ, ᚬ a a
/a/ (unstressed) ᛅ, ᚬ a, æ a
/yː/ ᚤ, ᛦ y, yy ý
/y/ ᚤ, ᛦ y y
/øː/ ø, øø, ǿ, ǫ œ
/ø/ ᚢ , ᛅᚢ ø, ǫ ø
/uː/ u, uu, ú ú
/u/ u u
/u/ (unstressed) ᚢ, ᚮ u, o u
/oː/ o, oo, ó ó
/o/ o o
ᛅ, ᛅᚢ a, aa, á, ó á, ǫ́
/ɒ/ ᛅ, ᛅᚢ W ǫ, o / E a, ø ǫ
/juː/ ᛁ ᚢ ᛁ ᚢ iu, iú
/joː/ ᛁ ᚢ ᛁ ᚢ W io, ió / E iu
/jɒ/ ᛁ ᛅ ᛁ ᛆ W io, iǫ / E io, iø
/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

Grammar

Old Norse was a highly inflected language. Most of the grammatical complexity is retained in modern Icelandic, whereas modern Norwegian has a very 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, 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)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative armr armar
Accusative arm arma
Genitive arms arma
Dative armi ǫrmum/armum

The feminine noun hǫll (OWN), hall (OEN) (English hall)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative hǫll/hall hallir/hallar (OEN)
Accusative hǫll/hall hallir/hallar (OEN)
Genitive hallar halla
Dative hǫllu/hallu hǫllum/hallum

The neuter noun troll (English troll):
Case Singular Plural
Nominative troll troll
Accusative troll troll
Genitive trolls trolla
Dative trolli trollum

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).

Verb

Verbs were conjugated in person and number, in present and past tense, in indicative, imperative and subjunctive mood.

VERBS
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
INDIC. Pres. Sing. 1. boð-a kall-a dœm-i fylg-i gleð spyr vak-i dug-i
    2. boð-ar kall-ar dœm-ir fylg-ir gleð-r spyr-r vak-ir dug-ir
3. boð-ar kall-ar dœm-ir fylg-ir gleð-r spyr-r vak-ir dug-ir
Plur. 1. boð-um kǫll-um dœm-um fylg-jum gleð-jum spyr-jum vǫk-um dug-um
2. boð-ið (-it) kall-ið dœm-ið fylg-ið gleð-ið spyr-ið vak-ið dug-ið
3. boð-a kall-a dœm-a fylg-ja gleð-ja spyr-ja vak-a dug-a
Pret. Sing. 1. boð-aða kall-aða dœm-da fylg-da glad-da spur-ða vak-ta dug-ða
  2. boð-aðir kall-aðir dœm-dir fylg-dir glad-dir spur-ðir vak-tir dug-ðir
3. boð-aði kall-aði dœm-di fylg-di glad-di spur-ði vak-ti dug-ði
Plur. 1. boð-uðum kǫll-uðum dœm-dum fylg-dum glǫd-dum spur-ðum vǫk-tum dug-ðum
2. boð-uðuð kǫll-uðuð dœm-duð fylg-duð glǫd-duð spur-ðuð vǫk-tuð dug-ðuð
3. boð-uðu kǫll-uðu dœm-du fylg-du glǫd-du spur-ðu vǫk-tu dug-ðu
IMPERAT.       boð-a kall-a dœm fylg gleð spyr vak (vak-i) dug (dug-i)
SUBJ. Pres. Sing. 1. boð-a kall-a dœm-a fylg-ja gleð-ja spyr-ja vak-a dug-a
    2. boð-ir kall-ir dœm-ir fylg-ir gleð-ir spyr-ir vak-ir dug-ir
3. boð-i kall-i dœm-i fylg-i gleð-i spyr-i vak-i dug-i
Plur. 1. boð-im kall-im dœm-im fylg-im gleð-im spyr-im vak-im dug-im
2. boð-ið kall-ið dœm-ið fylg-ið gleð-ið spyr-ið vak-ið dug-ið
3. boð-i kall-i dœm-i fylg-i gleð-i spyr-i vak-i dug-i
Pret. Sing. 1. boð-aða kall-aða dœm-da fylg-da gled-da spyr-ða vek-ta dyg-ða
  2. boð-aðir kall-aðir dœm-dir fylg-dir gled-dir spyr-ðir vek-tir dyg-ðir
3. boð-aði kall-aði dœm-di fylg-di gled-di spyr-ði vek-ti dyg-ði
Plur. 1. boð-aðim kall-aðim dœm-dim fylg-dim gled-dim spyr-ðim vek-tim dyg-ðim
2. boð-aðið kall-aðið dœm-dið fylg-dið gled-dið spyr-ðið vek-tið dyg-ðið
3. boð-aði kall-aði dœm-di fylg-di gled-di spyr-ði vek-ti dyg-ði
INFIN.       boð-a kall-a dœm-a fylg-ja gleð-ja spyr-ja vak-a dug-a
PART. Act.     boð-andi kall-andi dœm-andi fylg-jandi gleð-jandi spyr-jandi vak-andi dug-andi
PART. Pass. Masc.   boð-aðr kall-aðr dœm-dr   glad-dr spur-ðr    
Fem.   boð-uð kǫll-uð dœm-d   glǫd-d spur-ð    
Neut.   boð-at kall-at dœm-t fylg-t glat-t spur-t vak-at dug-at

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 : au : u. a : ó : a e : a : á : e / o á (a): é (e) : á (a)
au : : au
INDIC. Pres. Sing. 1. brenn rís býð fer gef ber græt hleyp
2. brenn-r rís-s býð-r fer-r gef-r ber-r græt-r hleyp-r
3. brenn-r rís-s býð-r fer-r gef-r ber-r græt-r hleyp-r
Plur. 1. brenn-um rís-um bjóð-um fǫr-um gef-um ber-um grát-um hlaup-um
2. brenn-ið rís-ið bjóð-ið far-ið gef-ið ber-ið grát-ið hlaup-ið
3. brenn-a rís-a bjóð-a far-a gef-a ber-a grát-a hlaup-a
Pret. Sing. 1. brann reis bauð fór gaf bar grét hljóp
2. brann-t reis-t baut-t fór-t gaf-t bar-t grét-st hljóp-t
3. brann reis bauð fór gaf bar grét hljóp
Plur. 1. brunn-um ris-um buð-um fór-um gáf-um bár-um grét-um hljóp-um
2. brunn-uð ris-uð buð-uð fór-uð gáf-uð bár-uð grét-uð hljóp-uð
3. brunn-u ris-u buð-u fór-u gáf-u bár-u grét-u hljóp-u
IMPERAT.   brenn rís bjóð far gef ber grát hlaup
SUBJ. Pres. Sing. 1 brenn-a rís-a bjóð-a far-a gef-a ber-a grát-a hlaup-a
2. brenn-ir rís-ir bjóð-ir far-ir gef-ir ber-ir grát-ir hlaup-ir
3. brenn-i rís-i bjóð-i far-i gef-i ber-i grát-i hlaup-i
Plur. 1. brenn-im rís-im bjóð-im far-im gef-im ber-im grát-im hlaup-im
2. brenn-ið rís-ið bjóð-ið far-ið gef-ið ber-ið grát-ið hlaup-ið
3. brenn-i rís-i bjóð-i far-i gef-i ber-i grát-i hlaup-i
Pret. Sing. 1. brynn-a ris-a byð-a fœr-a gæf-a bær-a grét-a hlyp-a
2. brynn-ir ris-ir byð-ir fœr-ir gæf-ir bær-ir grét-ir hlyp-ir
3. brynn-i ris-i byð-i fœr-i gæf-i bær-i grét-i hlyp-i
Plur. 1. brynn-im ris-im byð-im fœr-im gæf-im bær-im grét-im hlyp-im
2.  brynn-ið ris-ið byð-ið fœr-ið gæf-ið bær-ið grét-ið hlyp-ið
3.  brynn-i ris-i byð-i fœr-i gæf-i bær-i grét-i hlyp-i
INFIN.   brenn-a rís-a bjóð-a far-a gef-a ber-a grát-a hlaup-a
PART. Act.   brenn-andi rís-andi bjóð-andi far-andi gef-andi ber-andi grát-andi hlaup-andi
PART. Pass. Masc.   brunn-inn ris-inn boð-inn far-inn gef-inn bor-inn grát-inn hlaup-inn
Fem.   brunn-in ris-in boð-in far-in gef-in bor-in grát-in hlaup-in
Neut.   brunn-it ris-it boð-it far-it gef-it bor-it grát-it hlaup-it

THE VERB SUBSTANTIVE
INDIC. Pres. Sing. 1. em Pret. var (vas) IMPERAT.   SUBJ. Pres. sjá, Pret. vær-a INFIN. ver-a PAST PART. ver-it
2. er-t var-t ver (ver-tu)   sé-r vær-ir    
3. er (es) var (vas)     vær-i    
Plur. 1. er-um vár-um     sé-m vær-im    
2. er-uð vár-uð verið   sé-ð vær-ið    
3 er-u vár-u     vær-i    
TEN VERBS WITH PRESENT IN PRETERITE FORM.
INDIC. Pres. Sing. 1. á kná skal kann mun (mon) man þarf ann veit
2. á-tt kná-tt má-tt skal-t kann-t mun-t man-t þarf-t ann-t veiz-t
3. á kná skal kann mun man þarf ann veit
Plur. 1. eig-um kneg-um meg-um skul-um kunn-um mun-um mun-um þurf-um unn-um vit-um
2. eig-uð kneg-uð meg-uð skul-uð kunn-uð mun-uð mun-ið þurf-ið unn-ið vit-uð
3. eig-u kneg-u meg-u skul-u kunn-u mun-u mun-a þurf-a unn-a vit-u
Pret. Sing. 1. á-tta kná-tta má-tta   kunn-a mun-da mun-da þurf-a unn-a vis-sa
  as regular weak verbs  
IMPERAT. eig       kunn   mun   unn vit
SUBJ. Pres. Sing. 1. eig-a kneg-a meg-a skyl-a kunn-a myn-a mun-a þurf-a unn-a vit-a
  as regular weak verbs  
  Pret. Sing. 1. ætt-a knætt-a mætt-a skyl-da kynn-a myn-da myn-da þyrf-ta ynn-a vis-sa
  as regular weak verbs  
INFIN. Pres.     eig-a   meg-a skyl-u kunn-a mun-u mun-a þurf-a unn-a vit-a
Pret.       knúttu   skyl-du   mun-du        
PART. Act.     eig-andi   meg-andi   kunn-andi   mun-andi þurf-andi unn-andi vit-andi
PART. Pass. Neut.   ú-tt   má-tt   kunn-at   mun-at þurf-t unn-(a)t vit-at

EIGHT VERBS WITH THE PRETERITE IN -ra.
INDIC. Pres. Sing. 3. rœ-r grœ-r sæ-r gný-r sný-r frý-r kýs-s slæ-r veld-r
Plur. 3. ró-a gró-a gnú-a snú-a frjós-a kjós-a slá vald-a
Pret. Sing. 3. rø-ri grø-ri sø-ri gnø-ri snø-ri frø-ri kø-ri slø-ri ol-li
(or re-ri gre-ri se-ri gne-ri sne-ri fre-ri ke-ri sle-ri)  
IMPERAT.   gró gnú snú frjó-s kjós slá vald
SUBJ. Pret. Sing. 3. rø-ri grø-ri sø-ri gnø-ri snø-ri frø-ri kø-ri slø-ri yll-i
INFIN.   ró-a gró-a gnú-a snú-a frjós-a kjós-a slá vald-a
PART. Pass.   ró-inn gró-inn sá-inn gnú-inn snú-inn fros-inn kos-inn sleg-inn vald-it
  frør-inn kør-inn  

D. VERBS WITH THE REFLEXIVE OR RECIPROCAL SUFFIX -sk, -z, -st (-mk).
      Present. Preterite. Present. Preterite.
Indic. Subj. Indic. Subj. Indic. Subj. Indic. Subj.
Sing. 1. kalla-st kalli-st kallaði-st kallaði-st læzt láti-st lézt léti-st
2. kalla-st kalli-st kallaði-st kallaði-st læzt láti-st lézt léti-st
3. kalla-st kalli-st kallaði-st kallaði-st læzt láti-st lézt léti-st
Plur. 1. kǫllu-mk kalli-mk kǫlluðu-mk kallaði-mk látu-mk láti-mk létu-mk léti-mk
2. kalli-zt kalli-zt kǫlluðu-zt kallaði-zt láti-zt láti-zt létu-zt léti-zt
3. kalla-st kalli-st kǫlluðu-st kallaði-st láta-st láti-st létu-st léti-st
PART. Pass. Neut.   kalla-zt, láti-zt, (glað-zt, gefi-zt, bori-zt,) etc.  
E. VERBS WITH THE NEGATIVE SUFFIX.
  Pres. Pret. Pres. Pret. Pres. Pret. Pres. Pret.
INDIC. Sing. 1. em-k-at var-k-at(vas-k-at) skal-k-at skyldi-g-a mon-k-a mundi-g-a hyk-k-at átti-g-a
2. ert-at-tu vart-at-tu skalt-at-tu skyldir-a mont-at-tu mundir-a hyggr-at áttir-a
3. er-at (es-at) var-at (vas-at) skal-at skyldi-t mon-at mundi-t hyggr-at átti-t
Plur. 3. eru-t váru-t skulu-t skyldu-t monu-t mundi-t hyggja-t áttu-t
IMPERAT.   ver-at-tu (be not thou!), lát-at-tu (let not thou!), grát-at-tu (weep not thou!), etc.

Texts

The earliest inscriptions in Old Norse are runic, from the 8th century. Runes continued to be commonly used until the 15th century and have been recorded to be in use in some form as late as the 19th century in some parts of Sweden. 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 common, everyday Old Norse words mainly of East Norse origin were adopted into the Old English language during the Viking age, becoming loanwords. A few examples of Old Norse loanwords in modern English are (English/Viking age Old East Norse):

  • Nounsanger (angr), bag (baggi), bait (bæit, bæita, bæiti), band (band), bark (bǫrkR, stem bark-), birth (byrðr), dirt (drit), dregs (dræggiaR), egg (ægg, related to OE. cognate "æg" which became Middle English "eye"/"eai"), fellow (félagi), gap (gap), husband (húsbóndi), cake (kaka), keel (kiǫlR, stem also kial-, kil-), kid (kið), knife (knífR), law (lǫg, stem lag-), leg (læggR), link (hlænkR), loan (lán), race (rǫs, stem rás-), root (rót), sale (sala), scrap (skrap), seat (sæti), sister (systir, related to OE. cognate "sweostor"), skill (skial/skil), skin (skinn), skirt (skyrta vs. the native English shirt of the same root), sky (ský), slaughter (slátr), snare (snara), steak (stæik), thrift (þrift), tidings (tíðindi), trust (traust), window (vindauga), wing (væ(i)ngR)
  • Verbsblend (blanda), call (kalla), cast (kasta), clip (klippa), crawl (krafla), cut (possibly from ON kuta), die (døyia), gasp (gæispa), get (geta), give (gifa/gefa, related to OE. cognate "giefan"), glitter (glitra), hit (hitta), lift (lyfta), raise (ræisa), ransack (rannsaka), rid (ryðia), run (rinna, stem rinn-/rann-/runn-, related to OE. cognate "rinnan"), scare (skirra), scrape (skrapa), seem (søma), sprint (sprinta), take (taka), thrive (þrífa(s)), thrust (þrysta), want (vanta)
  • Adjectivesflat (flatr), happy (happ), ill (illr), likely (líklígR), loose (lauss), low (lágR), meek (miúkR), odd (odda), rotten (rotinn/rutinn), scant (skamt), sly (sløgR), weak (væikR), wrong (vrangR)
  • Adverbsthwart/athwart (þvert)
  • Prepositionstill (til), fro (frá)
  • Conjunction – though/tho (þó)
  • Interjectionhail (hæill), wassail (ves hæill)
  • Personal pronounthey (þæiR), their (þæiRa), them (þæim) (for which the Anglo-Saxons said híe, hiera, him)
  • Prenominal adjectivessame (sami)

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.

Dialects

As Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse, in the 8th century, the effects of the umlauts seem to have been very much the same over the whole Old Norse area. But in later dialects of the language a split occurred mainly between west and east as the use of umlauts began to vary. The typical umlauts (for example fylla from *fullian) were better preserved in the West due to later generalizations in the east where many instances of umlaut were removed (many archaic Eastern texts as well as eastern runic inscriptions however portray the same extent of umlauts as in later Western Old Norse). All the while the changes resulting in breaking (for example hiarta from *hertō) were more influential in the East probably once again due to generalizations within the inflectional system. This difference was one of the greatest reasons 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
mushroom
steep
widow
s(v)ǫppr
brattr
ekkja
svamper
branter
ænkia

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 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:

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 hialpi and hans (OEN)
Veðr ok Þegn ok Gunnarr raistu stain þenna at Haursa, faður sinn. Guð hialpi and hans (OG)

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:

Veðr ok Þegn ok Gunnarr ræistu stæin þenna at Haursa, fǫður sinn. Guð hialpi ǫnd 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 and Old Gutnish did not take part in the monophthongization which changed æi (ei) into ē, øy (ey) and au into ø̄. An early difference was that Old West Norse had the forms (dwelling), (accusative for cow) and trú (faith) whereas Old East Norse had , and trō. Old West Norse was also characterized by the preservation of u-umlaut, which meant that for example Proto-Norse *tanþu (tooth) was pronounced tǫnn and not tann as in post runic Old East Norse (compare runic OEN (Swedish) gǭs (goose), OWN gǫ́s while post runic OEN gās). Moreoever, there were nasal assimilations as in bekkr (bench) from Proto-Norse *bankiR (OEN bænker).

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.

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 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.

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.

Translation:

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 fellow countryman. A priest counts as a freeman. If a Southerner is slain or an Englishman, he shall pay four marks to the plaintiff 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.

Translation:

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.

Notes

See also

References

  • Gutasagan. Lars Aronsson, ed. Project Runeberg, 1997.
  • Harbert, Wayne. The Germanic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007.
  • Lass, Roger. Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

Literature

Introductions

  • Gordon, Eric V. and A.R. Taylor. An Introduction to Old Norse. Second. ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
  • O'Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (Blackwell Introductions to Literature) Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004.
  • Henry Sweet, An Icelandic Primer, with Grammar, Notes, and Glossary (1895) Dictionaries
  • Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary (1874)
  • G. T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (1910)
  • Jan de Vries, Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1977)

External links

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