Language of the Vikings

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Old Norse was the language spoken by the Vikings, and the language in which the Eddas, sagas, and most of the other primary sources for our current knowledge of Norse mythology were written.

Here is a verse from Poetic Edda. Völuspá, stanza 19

Ask veit ek standa,
heitir Yggdrasill,
hár baðmr, ausinn
hvíta auri;
þaðan koma döggvar,
þærs í dala falla,
stendr æ yfir grænn
Urðarbrunni.

Language of the Vikings
Runes is the written language of the Vikings

It might be translated into something like:

There stands an ash
called Yggdrasil,
A mighty tree showered
in white hail.
From there come the dews
that fall in the valleys.
It stands evergreen above
Urd’s Well.

Old Norse influence on Modern English language
You probably didn’t know that without the Vikings, English would be missing some awesome words like berserk, ugly, muck, skull, knife, die, and cake! When you think of “Old English,” do you think about struggling through the Canterbury Tales or Beowulf? Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was a language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons, the first two Germanic tribes to settle in the British Isles.

Language of the Vikings
Danes and Swedes spoke Old East Norse while Norwegians spoke Old West Norse during the Viking Afe

Related: Norse Beer – Viking Style

Old Norse is a member of the Germanic family of languages, which also includes English, German, and several other languages that are widely spoken today. During the first several centuries of the Common Era, a distinctly northern dialect of Proto-Germanic (the common ancestor of the Germanic languages) formed in Scandinavia, which gradually morphed into Proto-Norse, which, by 750 CE or so – that is, by the beginning of the Viking Age – had become the language we would today recognize as Old Norse.

Modern English
Modern English is commonly thought of as a West Germanic language with lots of French and, thanks to the church, Latin influence. But this history of English’s development leaves out a very important piece of the linguistic puzzle: Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.

Language of the Vikings
The Runic alphabet

“Viking” really means a seagoing expedition in Old Norse. Vikings, then, were men from Denmark and Norway who spent their summers going to sea and colonizing and/or pillaging along the way. By the 870s, the Danes had largely given up the raiding and many had settled across Northern England.

Related: The Saga of the Volsungs

Language of the Vikings
‘Viking Language’ by Jesse L. Byock is a very readable book on the subject

Over the centuries, Old Norse continued to fragment into more regionally-specific languages, and by the early modern era, it had been transformed into Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Faroese.

Danelaw
The Danes had traded sword for plow and were settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042. However, the more successful and longer-lasting Norman conquest in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era and virtually erased Danish influence in almost all aspects of English culture but one: its effect on the development of the English language.

Wrong
Even though you might hate to admit it, if you thought “wrong” was an entirely English word, you are mistaken. The word comes from the Old Norse “rangr,” which the Danes shifted to “vrang,” and in English eventually became “wrong.”

Language of the Vikings
“Viking” really means a seagoing expedition in Old Norse

At its broadest extent, Old Norse was spoken in Scandinavia, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the British Isles, continental Europe, Russia, Byzantium, Greenland, and even North America. Several common English words are loan words from Old Norse, including egg, guest, gift, score, trust, anger, and want.

The most obvious Viking influence on modern English is the word Thursday (Þorsdagr), which you can probably guess means “Thor’s day.”

Related: Remarkable 1,000 Years-Old Relics

Language of the Vikings
At its broadest extent, Old Norse was spoken in Scandinavia, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the British Isles, continental Europe, Russia, Byzantium, Greenland, and even North America.

Cake
These sweet baked treats get their name from the Old Norse “kaka,” which is what the Vikings used to describe a little cake. Scandinavian languages gave English the gift of hundreds of words.

Ugly
The Danes would describe someone who they thought wasn’t at all attractive as “uggligr,” which came from the word “ugga,” which means “to fear.” “Ugly” literally comes from the idea of being scary looking – a definite advantage in a Viking warrior.

The Vikings didn’t just bring death and destruction to England in the Middle Ages, they brought really cool words for death and destruction. They were certainly a rough bunch. Just look at a Viking the rangr way, and he might þrysta (thrust) a knifr into your skulle.

Not all murder and mayhem
But life in the Danelaw wasn’t all murder and mayhem. Ironically, these savage berserkers also gave us words that are central to our “civilized” culture. Husband, for example arrives from Old Norse húsbóndi, where hús means house and bóndi means occupier and tiller of soil.

Other examples are skill (from skil), steak (from steik), and in Old Norse the news of events were called tíðindi, which in English has become tidings. Then we have the classic words of saga and troll.

Language of the Vikings
Viking woman warrior

Headstrong Scandinavian women
A number of the words we use relating to war and violence also have their roots in the Viking’s language, such as “gun,” which was “gunn” in Old Norse, which comes from the female name Gunnhildr and translates as war or battle. Clearly, the Norse were no strangers to headstrong women. We also get the words “club,” “slaughter,” “ransack,” and “scathe” courtesy of the Vikings.

Although most English animal names retain their Anglo-Saxon roots (cow, bear, hound, swine, chicken, etc) the Vikings did bring certain animal terms into the vernacular. The Old Norse word for an insect within tree trunks was búkr, becoming bug in English. Bull from boli, reindeer from hreindyri, skate from skata and wing from vængr.

Language of the Vikings
“Bersrkr,” was a Viking warrior who would go into battle wearing animal skins instead of armor

Berserk
Probably one of the most well-known words in this area is “berserk,” which comes from “bersrkr,” a Viking warrior who would go into battle wearing animal skins instead of armor, and who was said to go into intense battle rages.

Old Norse is good at describing bleikr landscapes and weather. This was especially useful in the Vikings’ adopted northern England, where flatr or rogg (rugged) terrain can be shrouded in fok, and oppressed by gustr of wind and lagr (low) ský (clouds).

The Viking influence
In many ways, the modern English language is more closely related to those in Scandinavia than many people think, and more closely related to their language than English is to Old English, which suggests that the Viking influence seeped its way into the language of the Anglo-Saxons, as well.

Language of the Vikings, compiled by Tor Kjolberg

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