Rob's Old Norse page

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 and Icelandic descended from Old Norse. Old Norse has a rich literary history, and the most extensive body of literature of any Germanic language. Runes were written in Old Norse, as were the Icelandic Sagas. The Icelandic language of today is not very diifferent from Old Norse, making Old Norse more accessable to language learners. Anyone interested in the roots of Germanic languages such as English, German, Dutch and Swedish 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 belongs to the Germanic language family, along with German and Old Norse.

All the languages of the world can be divided up into families. Languages within these families are closely related, and originated from the same early language. The Sino-Tibetan language family is one of the largest, containing the modern Chinese languages, Burmese and Tibetan. The Quechuan language family has few speakers now, being the language of the Incas in South America. Some languages are so unique they have no close relatives and are in their own family, such as Basque, only spoken in parts of Spain and France. Germanic langauges and Romance languages belong to the Indo-European language family.

Indo-European languages 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.

This Proto-Indo-European language spread out of India through Persia into Europe. It spread either by speakers migrating, or the language being adopted through trade or perhaps conquest. As time passed groups of people became isolated and their language changed from the Proto-Indo-European ancestor, evolving into a separate language. Thus this ancestral language was breaking up into other languages, which would further give rise to even more languages.

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 móðir er tíu
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:
  • The words on the left are cognates, they look and sound similar because they all came from the same Indo-European word, so the English word 'mother' did not come from the Latin 'mater', rather both these words came from the same Proto-Indo-European word. (To be fair, there is no linguist or dictionary that would claim 'mother' arose from 'mater', only the unwary Latin student might jump to this conclusion.)
  • None of these languages arose directly from another in a different group, so neither Greek or Latin are ancestral to English (this doesn't mean English didn't borrow a lot of words, which is the case)
  • If you were to line up Chinese, Egyptian and Basque words for mother, you'd find they were very different.

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
(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 mère mother módor Mutter móðir moðir
decem diez dix ten tíen zehn tíu tíu
bonus bueno bon good gód gut góður góðr
maior mejor meilleur better betera beßeres betur beztr
pax paz paix peace friþ Frieden friður friðr
color color couleur color bleo Farbe litur litr
silva selva forêt forest weald Wald skógur skógr
amicus amigo ami friend freónd 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 æ letter (as in Encyclopædia Brittanica), but not the þ and the ð. 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. French (a Italic language like Italian and Spanish) became the official language and English was forced underground. Interestingly, 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 (modern English has few kennings, an example would be 'the ship of the desert', for 'camel'.) 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 'útvarp' ( literally 'out net' - relating to 'broadcasting'). They have retained the many noun cases, retained the letters ð and þ. 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, 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 my page Learning Icelandic - Tips and Links for a lot more detail.

How do I learn Old Norse?

This website has been online for over 15 years and a lot has changed on the internet since then. Remember altavista? lycos? We used to be the top result for them for "Old Norse" and a lot of people came here.

Nothing has changed in Old Norse.

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! (Haha, I wrote that back in the modem days. Remeber those? I don't either.) 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...

  • An Introduction to Old Norse by E.V. Gordon (1990, Oxford University Press)
    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 freysgoða.

    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. It took me years to get to 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...

  • A New Introduction to Old Norse by Michael Barnes (1999, Viking Society for Northern Research)
    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. It comes in three parts and I haven't worked through all of it, but I think it will supplant the above book.

Internet Resources for Old Norse

I've said it before so I'll be brief
  • get the books - use them
  • learning Icelandic or even German will help
That being said, here are some Old Norse resources I've found that look good.
  • Old Norse for Beginners - Old Norse lessons on the internet, finally. An excellent site you must see, especially the Old Norse cartoons...
  • Saga Database - here are the sagas online. A wonderful resource, with texts in both English and Icelandic and other languages. Also the English translation is very literal (at least for Eyrbyggja saga) and, although hard to read, I think this helps a lot in understanding Icelandic.

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