Rob's Old Norse Page
updated June 13th, 2011
All the languages of the world can be divided up into big groups called families. Languages within these families are closely related, and probably originated from the same early language. Semitic languages make up one family, this family contains Hebrew, among others. There is a Chinese language family, which contains many different languages, (I've read that 'Chinese' is really six different languages, and they are mutually unintelligible, but they all share the same writing, so they can't talk between languages, but they can all write to each other!) There are other language groups, like Egyptian, Basque, and the native languages of Africa and the Americas make up several language families.
English belongs to the Indo-European language family. All the languages in this group are believed to be descended from one language, called Proto-Indo-European. Sadly, this language and its speakers are long gone, but we can know a little about it by looking at similarities among the Indo-European languages that arose from it. But thats another story.
Now the speakers of Proto-Indo-European did a lot of wandering around what's now India, Iran , Persia, and Europe, and groups settled down in a particular area, and became isolated from their neighbors, and as they became isolated, their language changed a little from that of their neighbors. Eventually, they changed so much that their neighbors couldn't really understand them. The Proto-Indo-European language was breaking up, into Proto-Italic, Proto-Germanic, and many others. Here is a table of the major divisions among the Indo-European languages.
|Indo-European Language Groups|
|Sanskrit||Sanskrit and many Indian dialects||matar||asti||daca|
|Italic or Romance||Latin, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French||mater||est||decem|
|Germanic||Gothic, German, Dutch, English, Old Norse, Swedish, Icelandic||mˇir||er||tÝu|
|Baltic||Lithuanian, Old Prussian||mote||esti||deszimtis|
|Slavic||Russian, Polish, Czech||mat'||jest'||desiat'|
So there are relationships within the Germanic Languages. Take a look at the chart below:
|(Proto-Germanic)||(North Germanic)||Old Norse||Icelandic|
|(West Germanic)||Old English||English|
|Old High German||German|
|Old Low German||Dutch|
So English is a Germanic language and it is related most closely related to German, Dutch and Scandinavian languages, and Old Norse. Here is a chart of words from Italic languages compared to Germanic languages.
|Italic Languages||Germanic Languages|
|Latin||Spanish||French||English||Old English||German||Icelandic||Old Norse|
Old English : Shakespeare and Chaucer, right? Wrong, too 'new'.
Old English is Beowulf
and perhaps even what you know as Beowulf is a translation into modern
English. Here's a bit of the real Beowulf:
So what happened to Old English to make it Modern English? Well, Christianity happened, and the Normans brought French. The study of languages, linguistics, goes hand in hand with history. Here is a brief history of what happened.
Around 400 AD, present day England was ruled by the Roman Empire, but the fall of the Roman empire left Britain poorly protected from Celtic and Pictish tribes elsewhere in Great Britain. To protect themselves, the Britons hired Germanic mercenaries from tribes such as the Angles and the Saxons. This proved to be a good idea as the Germanic warriors did a good job defending Briton's borders. On the other hand, it proved to be a bad idea as the Germanic people decided Briton would be a nice place to live and, after a bit of a struggle, they made it their own.
Many Germanic colonists made the trip from continental Northern Europe (present day Germany and Holland) to their new land in Great Britain bringing their Germanic culture and language with them. Back then, the Germanic language was one language, someone from a Germanic tribe in what is now Sweden would've been able to understand someone from what is now Germany or France. They brought with them their culture consisting of elaborate historical and entertaining stories and poems, and a panoply of gods nearly identical to those we know of as the Norse Gods. This was the culture that grew into England, this was Anglo-Saxon Great Britain.
With isolation, the language spoken by these Germanic peoples began to differ from that of the other Germanic tribes, and it developed into Old English. Old English was primarily a spoken language although it did have a written component; runic inscriptions, or runes. Many samples of this early Germanic written language survive today, we can only wonder how much has been lost.
Anglo-Saxon culture and the English language suffered two serious blows. The conversion to Christianity and the eventual Norman Conquest.
Saint Augustine arrived around 600 AD and by around 650 the Anglo-Saxons had succumbed to Christianity. With this conversion came the death of the Germanic pantheon of gods for the Anglo-Saxons and the rich oral traditions that surrounded them and their history, now the main focus of their religious life would be the dealings of the Middle East as told in the Bible. As a small consolation, Christians had a tradition transmitting their stories in written form, thus we do have written samples of Old English and examples of heroic, Germanic legends like Beowulf.
The death blow for Old English came when England itself fell to the Normans, after English forces, weakened from battling the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge, fell to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Then French, a romance language, like Italian and Spanish, became the official language and English was forced underground. Sadly, those who brought French to Great Britain were of Germanic origin, having abandoned their Germanic tongue years before. So Germanic Old English was beaten by Germanic peoples who had switched to an Italic language.
Well, it took awhile, but eventually English reasserted itself as the language spoken in England, but in recovering, it had to borrow a huge number of words from French, changing it so much that it is now known as Middle English, to distinguish it from Old English. So now a lot of its words now had 'Latin' roots. Even after its recovery, 'Latin' classics were now studied in England, and Latin gained even a stronger foothold. So now you can see why Latin is studied so much among English-speakers (compared to Old Norse).
You should study Old Norse because it is your best source of information in understanding how early Germanic people thought, what their world was like, and what was important to them, and it is your best source for understanding the early history of all Germanic languages, including German, English, and the Scandinavian languages.
Ok, let me elaborate on this. And here I am going to get a bit personal. I am largely of German and English descent, with a bit of Norwegian in there too, and I'm interested in my 'deep roots'. My ancestors, like those of all people of Germanic descent, spoke a Proto-germanic language. and those who are bilingual (unlike me) will know that to learn a language you really have to learn to think in that language, and the language has a big effect on how you think of things. Therefore, to really know what it was like to be in those early Germanic times, I should really learn their language, how they organized thoughts and related tales.
Reading translations really won't do, so much alliteration, puns, and emphasis through word order is lost when you read a translation. To really understand something you must read it in its original language.
Early Germanic people had a rich oral tradition, filled with all kinds of Gods, villains, monsters and heroes, we know this from some surviving 'catalogs of heroes'. The stories themselves have for the most part been lost, all the German ones, all the Gothic ones (and they were supposed to be the richest), all the Anglo-Saxon ones, except for Beowulf. Now I did say, 'for the most part', brace yourselves, there really is a big vein of early German culture that survived, thanks to Icelanders.
Iceland, that fair sized island in the North Atlantic, was settled by Norwegians around the 900's. And one thing these new settlers did that no other Germanic people had done, is they wrote. Boy, did they ever write. they wrote down many of the stories, and historical accounts (Sagas), they wrote of the marvelous type of strict poetry that had arisen in Germanic culture, they wrote of the Gods and Goddesses and monsters that had so shaped their culture and view of the world. (Mind you, by this time they were Christians, so they didn't believe in these Gods.) They wrote in a certain blunt, yet powerful style that is tremendous and something really to be experienced and unlike any other type of writing, and they used many kennings, or metaphorical phrases for things (of which the most common English example is calling a camel 'the ship of the desert', there aren't a lot of kennings in English. They wrote all this marvelous stuff in Old Norse, and it survives until today, and you can read it for yourself.)
So why study Old Norse? To give yourself a thrilling window into a world long gone, the heritage of a people who have undergone so many changes. To Germanic peoples, Old Norse literature is a treasure, a gift from ancestors long gone, and learning Old Norse is a chance to see the world through the eyes of early Germanic people.
Imagine a country where they still spoke Old English. That would be an amazing place, but, unfortunately, there is no such place. Now imagine a place where they spoke Old Norse. Well, we are all very lucky, there almost is such a place: Iceland, and it has to be one of the great linguistic treasures of the world.
I had this crazy idea of reviving Old Norse, but as I learned more and more, I realized I would (at best) be trying to remake Modern Icelandic. Except for a few minor modifications, Icelandic is identical to Old Norse. Icelanders have kept their language virtually unchanged for over a thousand years, while all other Germanic languages underwent extensive modification. Icelandic has survived Danish rule (and Danish influence had a big effect on Norwegian and Swedish, not on Icelandic though). Icelandic even today stubbornly resists modern homogenization (perhaps, English-ification?), using Norse roots to make new words. For example, 'radio' in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish is 'radio'; in Icelandic, it's '˙tvarp' (I believe this is literally 'out net' - relating to 'broadcasting'). They have retained the many noun cases, retained the letters and ■. And the Old Norse sagas are readable by an Icelandic speaker. I cannot begin to tell you what a treasure this is and how impressed I am with the fortitude of the people of Iceland.
And the advantage to you and me is that we can hear Icelandic spoken (through the internet, visit www.ruv.is), use Icelandic books, and correspond with Icelanders, and this is a great aid in studying Old Norse. If you're interested in learning Icelandic alongside Old Norse, see Learning Icelandic - Tips and Links for a lot more detail.
This is THE book for learning Old Norse, but heed the warnings below. This is the second edition, edited by A.R. Taylor, and not much different from the first, aside from having all of Hrafnkels saga freysgoa. This book, as of January 2001 was in stock on some online bookstores, but not others, some popular ones didn't even list it. I found my copy at my local Borders bookstore.
This is THE book for English speakers who want to learn Old Norse, but be warned, it is very difficult to read. You must be extremely patient and use other books like English grammar books to help you know what a participle is, what the passive voice is, etcetera. This book assumes you are a student of linguistics - this means more reading for you. You must be very patient. I have been reading this book for years and am on page 27!
It starts out with a inspiring essay on Old Norse and Heroic literature that will inspire you to press on, then the bulk of the book is selections from Old Norse texts. The vital grammar is in a very terse section at the end of the book before the glossary, a good, large glossary.
Many will tell you this book is incomprehensible to the modern reader. Ha! They are of weak mind, pay no attention to them. Do however scare up and English grammar book, so you can recognize nouns, verbs adjectives, direct, indirect objects, appositives and all that good stuff. This is your main book, but the following will also be very helpful...
The previous book assumes you know a lot about linguistics - this book doesn't. This will be a wonderful addition to you library and will greatly ease your learning of Old Norse. Right now, only the first part of this three part set is available. The first part is the grammar and the next two parts (I believe will be selections of Old Norse texts and a big glossary). They are under review now and should be out soon. I can't wait! This book is exactly what is needed to bring Old Norse into the grasp of modern readers.
I had to get this book from www.amazon.com.uk. It wasn't available from the American version, it may be now, I don't know, but I doubt it. You can get it directly from the Viking Society for Northern Research, along with drafts of the next two sections. It's certainly a site worth checking out, lots of great Old Norse publications and all very reasonably priced, which is not always the case with these.
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