Culture and language are intimately linked. Therefore, one of the best ways to better understand a people is to better understand their language. So, Vikings fans – what language did the Vikings speak?
The answer to that question is complicated as the Vikings were not homogeneous over space and time, and neither was their language. However, the short answer is Old Norse , which is a component of the Germanic language family. But let’s take a more detailed look.
What language a private Viking spoke would have trusted where and once they lived. If they lived up until the 8th century AD, they would have spoken a form or Proto Norse, an Indo-European language that probably developed from a northern dialect of Proto-Germanic.
A form of this language can be traced back as early as the 2nd century AD in inscriptions on stone and personal objects. But the language would have evolved significantly over those centuries.
During the most Viking period, from the 9th to the 13th century, they might have spoken a version of Old Norse . Which dialect they would have spoken largely on where they lived.
Icelandic may be a modern language that was started by the Viking settlers of Iceland within the 9th century. Most notable about Icelandic is its written form, which is that the original language of the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Old Icelandic, modern Iceland’s proto-form, is that the language of Snorri Snurlson and lots of other important Viking skalds. Like Old Norse, Icelandic has older versions, but its modern version was influenced by both Danish and Gaelic. Here is a short timeline of Icelandic.
*Old West Norse – spoken in Iceland, Norway, Ireland, England, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
*Old East Norse – spoken in Sweden, Denmark, and further east into Russia.
*Old Gutnish – spoken on the Swedish island of Gotland.
*Norn – spoken on Shetland, Orkney and on northern parts of Scotland.
There would also have been more local variations. The best comparison might be the Netherlands today, where dozens of regional dialects are spoken. But the languages would have been largely mutually intelligible.
The mutual understanding between the different dialects of Old Norse is highlighted by the Grey Goose Laws of the 12th century.
This document states that the Swedes Norwegians, Icelanders, and Danes all spoke an equivalent language, though those that spoke Old East Norse would have called the tongue donsk tunga, while those of the Old East Norse persuasion would have called it dansk tunga.
These languages began to develop into the modern languages that we are familiar with today from about the 14th century, ending the period of history that we associate with Old Norse.
As anyone who knows their Viking history will know, the Vikings wrote their language using runes. Proto Norse was written in a runic script known as Elder Futhark, but by the time of theViking period and the Old Norse language, this was replaced by Younger Futhark.
Elder Futhark, which seems to have been adapted from earlier Italic alphabets, had 24 runic symbols, which have been preserved on the Kylver stone in Sweden.
Younger Futhark, on the other hand, has only 16 runes, though slightly different versions of them were used in different areas. There are three general versions of the Younger Futhark alphabet: Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.
The runes represented both phonetic sounds, but also had symbolic meanings. In this way, they can be compared to the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, except that more than 1,000 distinct symbols are known for that alphabet.
For example, the sol rune represented both an “s” sound and the sun, the madr rune represented both an “m” sound and man, and the logr rune represented both an “l” sound and the sea.
Younger Futhark was almost completely displaced by Latin by around 1200, due to the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity. Despite the very early use of the Latin alphabet, standardized spelling for Old Norse using the Latin alphabet was only created in the 19th century.
When modern academics ask Old Norse , they nearly always mean Old Icelandic . This is because this is the dialect that the majority of Old Norse written sources survive in.
It was the language of the author Snurri Snurlson, who is liable for preserving much of the knowledge we’ve about Viking myth and legend. It is also the language in which most of the surviving Eddas, Scaldic Poetry and Sagas survive.
Modern Icelandic is additionally the surviving modern language most closely associated with Old Norse . It is probably about as closely related to Old Norse as Modern English is to Shakespearean English. Learning Icelandic are often an excellent thanks to feel closer to our Viking ancestors.