Old Norse: The Language Of Ancient Scandinavia

What is Old Norse, where did it come from, and does any of it survive today? One of our linguistics experts tells the story of this Scandinavian language.
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Old Norse: The Language Of Ancient Scandinavia

Picture this: It’s the year 835. You’ve been up all night, tossed about by the wild North Sea, which you and your Danish clansfolk are crossing on longships bound for the English coast. You’re sea-sick, your left sokkr (sock) is soaking wet, and there’s a draft sneaking through a hole in your hosur (pant leg). It’s freezing and you wish you’d stayed home. Frankly, you’re about ready to jump overboard — but wait! Over the screaming wind, you hear someone shout, “Fiiiiiiiiiiiit!” 

Fit? 

What’s your crewmate losing his helmeted head about? Luckily, as a native speaker of Old Norse, you understand that he’s sighted land. Before we get too deep into the marauding habits of the ancient Scandinavians, let’s take a stroll through the furrowed field of their language.

A Brief History Of Old Norse

Predictably, speakers of Old Norse are often called Norsemen (by all accounts, women were in short supply). Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken among the people who inhabited the Scandinavian peninsula and Denmark from roughly the 9th until the 13th century AD (and in some places well into the 15th century). Their expansionist penchant for “settlement” meant that the language spread as far afield as Britain, Ireland, France and the sizable Slavic-Finnic federation of Kievan Rus’. As such, in the 11th century, Old Norse was the most widely-spoken European language.

You see, Proto-Norse, which was written in Elder Futhark runes, had developed into Old Norse (written in Younger Futhark runes and then Latin), which consisted of the three dialects Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish. The distribution of these dialects was rather messy, with Old East Norse popping up in Norway and Old West Norse in Sweden.

Old West Norse was also spoken in settlements in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, northwest England, and in parts of Normandy. Old East Norse was spoken in Denmark, Sweden, eastern England, and in settlements in Kievan Rus’. Gutnish speakers are another story, although a modern form of this dialect is reportedly still spoken in parts of the Swedish islands Gotland and Fårö.

The Evolution Of Old Norse

So what happened? Why isn’t everyone still going around calling their pants brækr (“breeches”)? Well, the Old Nordic trend was nipped in the bud on several fronts: by William the Conqueror in England and France, Brian Boru in Ireland, and the Mongol hordes — in 1066, 1014, and 1240, respectively.

After this point, Norse settlers were generally absorbed into the local population, but in the far north — the Faroe Islands, for example — the influence of Old Norse remained strong. In fact, until relatively recently a form of Norse called Norn was still in use on the islands of Orkney and Shetland! When these islands passed from Norwegian hands back into those of the Scots, the aptly-named Scots (Gaelic) language took over. Norn, which was also known as Noords or rude Danish (really, I’m not making this up), sadly died with its last speaker and inhabitant of the northernmost house in Britain, Mr. Walter Sutherland, in 1850.

Even outside of these dialects, we know that Old Norse had a noticeable impact on English, which is part of the reason that our spelling conventions are a nightmare for non-natives.

Old Norse And Modern Scandinavian Languages

So if everyone spoke Old Norse, does that mean everyone in Scandinavia can still understand each other? Well, to some extent yes: Norwegians, Danes and Swedes do! And that’s because of their shared linguistic heritage. There’s always a good bit of banter and one-upmanship when you get a diverse group of Scandinavians in a room (who conquered who first, who has the stupidest accent, and so on).

Speaking of which, did you ever hear of the Gray Goose? No, not the vodka brand. The Gray Goose Laws is a 12th-century Icelandic text which claimed that all Norse people spoke the dǫnsk tunga (the Danish tongue). And it’s a fact that Icelandic and Faroese have changed the least in the last thousand years. Crazy as it may sound, present-day Icelandic speakers can still read Old Norse, even though spelling and word order have evolved a bit.

Old Nordic Vocabulary 

A quick look at an online Old Norse dictionary reveals rather a lot about Norse culture. At first glance, “brave” has six synonyms: bitr, frœkn, góðr, hraustr, snjallr and vaskr. “Courage” also has six synonyms, “clear” and “desire” both have seven. There are seven verbs for “to go,” five instances of “help” as a noun and another four in verb form. It turns out there were seven Old Norse “seas” (seriously), a lot of “talk,” a myriad of “kings” (but no recorded “queen”), and nine forms of “man” and “battle”!

All of this gives us an interesting insight into what the Norse (men) liked to write about, since these lists are presumably compiled from written sources such as the Codex Regius, the oldest surviving collection of Old Norse poems, which dates back to the 1270s. 

Does this have you hankering after Scandinavia? Well, the next time you make a toast, you might bear in mind that the beer goblet you have in hand was rather charmingly known to the Norsemen and their mates as a björker

So, as they say in Iceland, skál!

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Samuel Dowd
Samuel Dowd whittled away his formative years in the UK and Ireland. He graduated with a BA in Sculpture and an MA in Philosophy and Time-Based Arts, and works as an artist, film-maker, gardener, writer and Babbel editor. His thirst for all things experimental — including architecture, organic farming, polyglot prose-poetry and music — has taken him across the globe. He's lived in Finland, New Zealand, Austria, Croatia and, since 2013, Berlin. He has translated many strange and wonderful literary works into English, and is now striving to extend the time he can hold his breath underwater without thinking anything in any language.
Samuel Dowd whittled away his formative years in the UK and Ireland. He graduated with a BA in Sculpture and an MA in Philosophy and Time-Based Arts, and works as an artist, film-maker, gardener, writer and Babbel editor. His thirst for all things experimental — including architecture, organic farming, polyglot prose-poetry and music — has taken him across the globe. He's lived in Finland, New Zealand, Austria, Croatia and, since 2013, Berlin. He has translated many strange and wonderful literary works into English, and is now striving to extend the time he can hold his breath underwater without thinking anything in any language.
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