Rob's Old Norse Page

updated June 13th, 2011

What is 'Old Norse'?

Old Norse is the language spoken and written by the inhabitants of Scandinavia around 1000 A.D. and earlier. The modern Nordic languages of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese descended from Old Norse. (Not Finnish though, Finnish is related to Hungarian.) Old Norse is no longer spoken by groups of people, so it is considered a 'dead language'. It does have an extensive literature, much was written in Old Norse, in Iceland in the 1200's. As Old Norse is a Germanic language (along with its descended Scandinavian languages mentioned above, and German, Dutch, Gothic and, yes, English), and aside from many runic inscriptions, it represents the earliest written flowering of any Germanic language. Therefore anyone interested in the real roots of their Germanic language, should take an interest in Old Norse.

The relationship of Old Norse to English and other languages

I was always interested in word roots. And in learning word roots, you usually hear that they are Greek or Latin. Now I never gave it much thought, but I always assumed English was derived from Greek and Latin. This is not true. English is derived from a germanic language as German and Old Norse were.

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
Language Group Examples mother is ten
Sanskrit Sanskrit and many Indian dialects matar asti daca
Iranian Avestan, Persian matar asti dasa
Greek er, Greek mitera einai deka
Italic or Romance Latin, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French mater est decem
Germanic Gothic, German, Dutch, English, Old Norse, Swedish, Icelandic mˇ­ir er tÝu
Celtic Gaelic, Breton mathir is diech
Baltic Lithuanian, Old Prussian mote esti deszimtis
Slavic Russian, Polish, Czech mat' jest' desiat'
A few things to note about this chart:

So there are relationships within the Germanic Languages. Take a look at the chart below:

(Proto-Germanic) (North Germanic) Old Norse Icelandic
Swedish
Norwegian
Danish
(West Germanic) Old English English
Old High German German
Old Low German Dutch
(East Germanic) Gothic (extinct)
Now, don't misread this chart, just because English neighbors Danish, doesn't mean it's any more closely related to Danish than the other North Germanic Languages. You should note that English is in the West Germanic Group along with its close relatives German and Dutch, and, at the next level, the West Germanic languages are related to Old Norse and Gothic. You could reorder the languages within the groups. This is a very simplified chart too, it is adapted from Orrin W. Robinson's "Old English and Its Closest Relatives". Take a look at that book for a thorough discussion and elaboration of this table, including many controversial points.

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
mater madre mŔre mother mˇdor Mutter mˇ­ir mo­ir
decem diez dix ten tÝen zehn tÝu tÝu
bonus bueno bon good gˇd gut gˇ­ur gˇ­r
maior mejor meilleur better betera be▀eres betur beztr
pax paz paix peace fri■ Frieden fri­ur fri­r
color color couleur color ---?--- Farbe litur litr
bosque forŕt forest Wald skˇgur skˇgr
amicus amigo ami friend freˇnd Freund vinur vinr

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:


It's unintelligible to the modern English speaker - a foreign language. You may recognize the Š letter (as in EncyclopŠdia Brittanica), but not the ■ and the ­. These letters are also found in Old Norse and modern Icelandic. Had Old English survived until today (and assuming we all spoke it) we'd have a much easier time learning Old Norse.

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).

Why study Old Norse?

First the short answer:
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.

Why study Icelandic?

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.

How do I learn Old Norse?


update May 14th, 2001
As you'll read below, up until now I've always said there is no way to learn Old Norse just from the internet. Well, I may be wrong now. There is now a site which looks like a great way to learn Old Norse through the internet, it is Old Norse for Beginners by Haukur Ůorgeirsson and Ëskar Gu­laugsson. I think finally a good source for learning Old Norse on the internet exists. Excellent job, and a tremendous service to all of us. I still think you should get the books below if you really want to learn Old Norse, but if you just want to see if it is for you or want to get started before your books arrive, this is the site. Now back to your regularly scheduled page...
The best way to learn Old Norse is through books. Like you, I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for resources to help me learn Old Norse, and there are some out there, but not enough to learn Old Norse, to do that, you really need books. Personally, I think this is a better way to go anyway. Books do not consume power when you use them, they are very portable, and you don't need to tie up the phone line to use them! I myself am still just learning Old Norse, and though I've found some of the sagas on-line, I haven't really used them yet, I'm still working through my books. here are some books for your library, really, the first one is all you need though...

Internet Resources for Old Norse

I've said it before so I'll be brief That being said, here are some Old Norse resources I've found that look good.
Update, December 22nd, 2006 Well, I wrote this while I was trying to learn Old Norse and icelandic, I have now put that on hold while I concentrate on German. I was hoping to find some Icelanders to talk with to encourage me, maybe sometime in the future I will pick it up again. TschŘs! ;) --rob
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