The Language Of The Norsemen – Old Norse And Its Dialects

Old Norse (autonym: ‘Dönsk tunga’ – ‘Danish tongue’) was a an Old Germanic language spoken by the ancient Indo-European inhabitants of Scandinavia (i.e. the Norsemen) as well as by their descendants in the North Atlantic colonies of the Viking Age (e.g. the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, England, Ireland, and Vinland) over the course of the early Middle Ages. It was the predominant language in most of these territories between the 9th and 13th centuries, having been used as the principal means of communication with respect to diplomacy, commerce, and religion.

In the particular respect of comparative linguistics, Old Norse was descended from Proto-Norse (alternatively known as Proto-Scandinavian), a Indo-European language spoken in Northern Europe from late Antiquity to the beginning of the Viking period (2nd century AD-8th century AD). The alphabet used by both Proto-Norse and Old Norse was known as ‘futhark‘, a Runic script. However, Proto-Norse used a distinctive Runic set than its successor, Old Norse.

Detailed map of Europe in c. 900, highlighting areas where Old Germanic languages were spoken. Legend: Red – Old West Norse; Orange – Old East Norse; Pink – Old Gutnish; Yellow – Old English; Green – Old West Germanic languages (e.g. Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German); Blue – Crimean Gothic. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In order to make the discrepancy between these writing systems, it must be mentioned that the original one was

Runestone from southern Jutland, Denmark. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

the Elder Futhark (in use from the 2nd century AD to the 8th century AD). From it, the Younger Futhark (in use throughout the renowned Viking Age) was descended. Later on, after the Christianisation of Scandinavia, the Younger Futhark ceased to exist and was replaced with the Latin alphabet.

However, in parallel, the medieval Latinised Scandinavian runes were also used, mainly for decorative purposes, up to the mid 19th century. Closely related writing systems to the Norse Futhark include the Gothic runic alphabet, the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, and the Dalecarnian runes. The latter had been used in the Swedish province of Dalarna until the round of the 20th century as the writing system of Elfdalian.

The Old Norse language encompassed three main dialects as follows:

  • Old East Norse (once spoken in present-day Denmark, southern Sweden, Normandy, and sparsely elsewhere in Eastern Europe);
  • Old West Norse (once spoken along the coastlines of present-day Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, as well as parts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales);
  • Old Gutnish (once spoken in Gotland, the largest island in present-day Sweden).

The Anglo-Saxon alphabet (also known as ‘Futhorc’), closely related to its Norse counterpart, the Futhark. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

After the end of the Viking era, the dialects of Old Norse gradually evolved into the contemporary North Germanic languages, which can be geographically branched into two categories as follows:

  • Continental Scandinavian: Danish, Elfdalian, Norwegian, and Swedish (which together form a dialect continuum);
  • Insular Scandinavian: Icelandic and Faroese.

Norn and Greelandic Norse are two extinct languages that were descended from Old Norse but ceased to be spoken in the meantime (Norn went extinct in the mid 19th century whereas Greenlandic Norse much more earlier, most likely at some point during the 15th century). Nowadays, the most closest North Germanic languages to Old Norse are Icelandic, Faroese, and Elfdalian.

Documentation sources and external links:

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4 Responses to The Language Of The Norsemen – Old Norse And Its Dialects

  1. This is inaccurate guesswork in many regards. How can “Old Greenlandic” be even suggested? Was it different from the language spoken in Iceland? — Old English or Anglo-Saxon as well as Germanic languages in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Normandy were not Old-Norse at all. How is it possible to tell if a Danish or a Norwegian dialect was spoken in Normandy? Maybe both?

    • Joseph Gadberry says:

      I think you need to read it again.

    • becca b. says:

      there are these things called books that people have written over the centuries. they can be very informative n many different ways. also, consider this, Denmark didn’t exist 1500 years ago.

  2. Gigja Fridgeirsdottir says:

    Old Norse or Icelandic was spoken in Greenland by people in the Icelandic colonies. Also note Icelandic skalds (poets) recited their poems for kings in Norway and England and there were no language problems at that time. I have been to Old York in England and could understand what “people” there were saying.

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