Old Norse language

Missing image
This is the approximate extent of Old Norse and related languages in the early 10th century. The red area is the distribution of the dialect Old West Norse; the orange area is the spread of the dialect Old East Norse. The pink area is Old Gutnish and the green area is the extent of the other Germanic languages with which Old Norse still retained some mutual intelligibility

Old Norse is the Germanic language once spoken by the inhabitants of Scandinavia and their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300. It evolved from the older Proto-Norse, in the 8th century.

Due to the fact that most of the surviving texts are from Medieval Icelandic, the de facto standard version of the language is its dialect Old West Norse, i.e. Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. Sometimes, Old Norse is even defined as Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian.

However, there was also an Old East Norse dialect which was very similar and was spoken in Denmark and Sweden and their settlements. Moreover, there was no clear geographical separation between the two dialects. Old East Norse traits were found in eastern Norway and Old West Norse traits were found in western Sweden. In addition, there was also an Old Gutnish dialect, sometimes included in Old East Norse due to it being the least known dialect.

These three dialects were considered by their speakers to be one and the same language, and they called it dansk tunga (OEN) or dnsk tunga (OWN), until the 13th century.

Old Norse was mutually intelligible with Old English and Old Saxon and other Low German languages spoken in Northern Germany. It gradually evolved into the modern North Germanic Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese, Swedish, and Danish languages.

Modern Icelandic is the descendant which has diverged the least from Old Norse. Faroese also retains some similarities but is influenced from Danish. Although Swedish, Danish and the Norwegian languages have diverged the most, they still retain mutual intelligibility.


Geographical distribution

Old Icelandic was essentially identical to Old Norwegian and they formed together the Old West Norse dialect of Old Norse. The Old East Norse dialect was spoken in Denmark and Sweden and settlements in Russia, England and Normandy. The Old Gutnish dialect was spoken in Gotland and in various settlements in the East. In the 11th century, it was the most widely spoken European language ranging from Vinland in the West to the Volga in the East. In Russia it survived longest in Novgorod and died out in the 13th century.

Modern descendants

Its modern descendants are the West Norse languages of Icelandic, Norwegian (nynorsk), Faroese and the extinct Norn language of the Orkney and the Shetland Islands as well as the East Scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian (bokml/riksml). Norwegian was originally West Norse, but was later heavily influenced by East Norse (East Scandinavian).

Among these, Icelandic and the closely related Faroese have changed the least from Old Norse in the last thousand years, although with Danish rule of the Faroe Islands Faroese has also been influenced by Danish. Old Norse also had an influence on English dialects and particularly Scots which contains many Old Norse loanwords. It also influenced the development of the Norman language.


The standardized Old Norse spelling is for the most part phonemic. The most notable deviation is that the non-phonemic difference between the voiced and the unvoiced dental fricatives is marked.


The vowel phonemes mostly come in pairs of long and short. The orthography marks the long vowels with an acute accent. The short counterpart of // is not a phoneme but an allophone of /e/. The long counterpart of // has merged with // in the classical (13th century) language. All phonemes have, more or less, the expected phonetic realization.

Back vowels

/a/ - /aː/


/o/ - /oː/

/u/ - /uː/

Front unrounded vowels


/e/ - /eː/

/i/ - /iː/

Front rounded vowels

// - /œ/

/y/ - /yː/



Old Norse has six stop phonemes. Of these /p/ is rare word-initially and /d/ and /b/ do not occur between vowels. The /g/ phoneme is realized as a voiced fricative between vowels.

/t/ /d/

/k/ /g/

/p/ /b/



/θ/ (<>) //









Dialects and texts

The earliest inscriptions in Old Norse are runic, from the 8th century (although there are 200 inscriptions in Proto-Norse going as far back as the 2nd century), and runes continued to be used for a thousand years. The main literary texts are in the Latin alphabet, the great sagas and eddas of medieval Iceland.

As Proto-Norse evolved into Old Norse, in the 8th century, the effects of the umlauts varied geographically. The typical umlauts (e.g. fylla from *fullian) were stronger in the West whereas those resulting in diaresis (e.g. hiarta from herto) were more influential in the East. This difference was the main reason behind the dialectalization that took place in the 9th and the 10th century shaping an Old West Norse dialect in Norway and the Atlantic settlements and an Old East Norse dialect in Denmark and Sweden.

A second difference was that the old diphthongs generally became monophthongs in East Norse. For instance in East Norse stain became sten, whereas it became steinn in West Norse. In Old Gutnish, this diphthong remained. Old West Norse and Old Gutnish kept the diphthong au as in auga, whereas it in East Norse became gha. Likewise, West Norse had the ey diphthong, as in heyra, while it in East Norse became , as in hra, and in Old Gutnish was oy as in hoyra.

Old West Norse Old Gutnish Old East Norse

auga (eye)
stein (stone)
heyra (hear)



A third difference was that Old West Norse lost certain combinations of consonnants. The combinations -mp-, -nt-, and -nk- were assimilated into -pp-, -tt- and -kk- in Old West Norse, but this phenomenon was limited in Old East Norse.

Old West Norse Old East Norse

sopp (mushroom)
bratt (precipice)
ekkia (widow)


However, these differences were an exception. The dialects were very similar and considered to be the same language, a language that they called the Danish tongue, e.g. Mir Dyggva var Drtt, dttir Danps konungs, sonar Rgs er fyrstr var konungr kallar danska tungu (Snorri Sturluson, the Ynglinga saga). Translation: Dyggve's mother was Drott, the daughter of king Danp, Rg's son, who was the first one to be called king in the Danish tongue.

Here is a comparison between the two dialects. It is a transcription from one of the Funbo Runestones (U990) meaning : Ver and Thane and Gunnar raised this stone after Haursa, their father. God help his soul:

Ver ok egn ok Gunnarr reistu stein enna at Haursa, fur sinn. Gu hjalpi nd hans. (OWN)
Ver ok egn ok Gunnarr ristu stin enna at Haursa, faur sinn. Gu hialpi and hans (OEN)

Old West Norse

Most of the innovations that appeared in Old Norse spread evenly through the Old Norse area, but some were geographically limited and created a dialectal difference between Old West Norse and Old East Norse. One difference was that Old West Norse did not take part in the monophthongization which changed i/ei into e, y/ey into and au into . An early difference was that Old West Norse had the forms bu (dwelling), ku (cow) and tru (faith) whereas Old East Norse had bo, ko and tro. Old West Norse was also characterized by u-umlaut, which meant that e.g. Proto-Norse *tanu was pronounced tnn and not tand as in Old East Norse. Moreoever, there were nasal assimilations as in bekkr from Proto-Norse *bankiaz.

The earliest body of text appears in runic inscriptions and in poems composed ca 900 by Tjodolf of Hvin. The earliest manuscripts are from the period 1150-1200 and concern both legal, religious and historical matters. During the 12th and 13th century, Trndelag and Vestlandet were the most important areas of the Norwegian kingdom and they shaped Old West Norse as an archaic language with a rich set of declensions. As the body of text has come down to us until ca 1300, Old West Norse was a uniform dialect and it is difficult to see whether a text was written in Old Icelandic or in Old Norwegian. It was called norrœn tunga (the Northern tongue).

Old Norwegian differentiated early from Old Icelandic by the loss of the consonant h in initial position before l, n and r. This meant that whereas Old Icelandic had the form hnefi (fist), Old Norwegian had the forms nve and neve.

About 1300, the court moved to south-eastern Norway, and the old written standard was felt to be old-fashioned. After the union with Sweden ca 1319, Old Swedish began to influence Norwegian, and the plague, about 1350, meant more or less the end of the old literary tradition. The influence from East Norse had only begun and was continued after the union with Denmark in 1380.

Text example

The following text is from Egils saga. The manuscript is the oldest known for that saga, the so called θ-fragment from the 13th century. The text clearly shows, how little Icelandic has changed structurally. The last version is legitimate Modern Icelandic, although nothing has been altered but the spelling. The text also demonstrates, however, that a modern reader might have difficulties with the unaltered manuscript text, to say nothing of the lettering.

The manuscript text, letter for letter The same text in normalized, Old Icelandic spelling The same text in Modern Icelandic


orgeirr blundr, systursonr Egils, var ar inginu ok hafi gengit hart at liveizlu vi orstein. Hann ba Egil ok orstein koma sr til stafestu t angat Mrar; hann bj r fyrir sunnan Hvt, fyrir nean Blundsvatn. Egill tk vel v ok fsti orstein, at eir lti hann angat fara. Egill setti orgeir blund nir at nabrekku, en Steinarr fœri bsta sinn t yfir Lang ok settisk nir at Leirulk. En Egill rei heim sur Nes eptir ingit me flokk sinn, ok skildusk eir fegar me krleik.

orgeir blundur, systursonur Egils, var ar inginu og hafi gengi hart a liveislu vi orstein. Hann ba Egil og orstein koma sr til stafestu t anga Mrar; hann bj ur fyrir sunnan Hvt, fyrir nean Blundsvatn. Egill tk vel v og fsti orstein, a eir ltu hann anga fara. Egill setti orgeir blund niur a nabrekku, en Steinar fri bsta sinn t yfir Lang og settist niur a Leirulk. En Egill rei heim suur Nes eftir ingi me flokk sinn, og skildust eir fegar me krleik.

Old East Norse

Old East Norse, between 800 and 1100, is in Sweden called Runic Swedish and in Denmark Runic Danish, but the use of Swedish and Danish is not for linguistic reasons. They are called runic due to the fact that the body of text appears in the runic alphabet. Unlike Proto-Norse, which was written with the Elder Futhark, Old Norse was written with the Younger Futhark, which only had 16 letters. Due to the limited number of runes, the rune for the vowel u was also used for the vowels o, and y, and the rune for i was used for e.

A change that occurrered in Old East Norse was the change of i (Old West Norse ei) to e, as in stin to sten. This is reflected in runic inscriptions where the older read stain and the later stin. There was also a change of au as in daur into as in dr. This change is shown in runic inscriptions as a change from taur into tur. Moreover, the y (Old West Norse ey) diphthong changed into as well, as in the Old Norse word for "island".

Until the early 12th century, Old East Norse was a uniform dialect. It was in Denmark that the first innovations appeared that would differentiate Old Danish from Old Swedish and these innovations spread north unevenly creating a series of isoglosses going from Zealand to Svealand.

The word final vowels -a, -o and -e started to merge into -e. At the same time, the voiceless stop consonants p, t and k became voiced stops and even fricatives. These innovations resulted in that Danish has kage, bide and gabe whereas Swedish has retained older forms, kaka, bita and gapa.

Moreover, Danish lost the tonal word accent present in modern Swedish and Norwegian, replacing the grave accent with a glottal stop.

Text example

This is an extract from the Westrogothic law (Vstgtalagen). It is the oldest text written as a manuscript found in Sweden and from the 13th century. It is contemporaneous with most of the Icelandic literature. The text marks the beginning of Old Swedish.

Drpr maar svnskan man eller smalenskn, innan konongsrikis man, eigh vstgskan, bte firi atta rtogher ok rettan markr ok nga tar bot. [...] Drpar mar danskan man all norn man, bte niv markum. Drpr mar vtlnskan man, eigh ma frid flyia or landi sinu oc j th hans. Drpr mar vtlnskn prest, bte sva mykit firi sum hrlnskan man. Prstr skal i bondalaghum vr. Varr surman drpin llr nskr mar, ta skal bta firi marchum fiurum em sakin skir, ok tvar marchar konongi.


If someone slays a Swede or a Smlander, a man from the kingdom, but not a West Geat, he will pay eight rtugar and thirteen marks, but no wergild. The king owns nine marks from manslaughter and the killing of any man. If someone slays a Dane or a Norwegian, he will pay nine marks. If someone slays a foreigner, he shall not be banished and have to flee to his clan. If someone slays a foreign priest, he will pay as much as for a foreigner. A priest counts as a freeman. If a Southerner is slain or an Englishman, he shall pay four marks to the plaintif and two marks to the king.

Old Gutnish

The Gutasaga is the longest text surviving from Old Gutnish. It was written in the 13th century and dealt with the early history of the Gotlanders. This part relates of the agreement that the Gotlanders had with the Swedish king sometime before the 9th century:

So gingu gutar sielfs wiliandi vndir suia kunung y at air mattin frir Oc frelsir sykia suiariki j huerium sta. vtan tull oc allar utgiftir. So aigu oc suiar sykia gutland firir vtan cornband ellar annur forbu. hegnan oc hielp sculdi kunungur gutum at waita. En air wir orftin. oc kallain. sendimen al oc kunungr oc ierl samulai a gutnal ing senda. Oc latta ar taka scatt sinn. air sendibuar aighu fri lysa gutum alla stei til sykia yfir haf sum upsala kunungi til hoyrir. Oc so air sum an wegin aigu hinget sykia.


So, by their own volition, the Gotlanders became the subjects of the Swedish king, so that they could travel freely and without risk to any location in the Swedish kingdom without toll and other fees. Likewise, the Swedes had the right to go to Gotland without corn restrictions or other prohibitions. The king was to provide protection and aid, when they needed it and asked for it. The king and the jarl shall send emissaries to the Gutnish althing to receive the taxes. These emissaries shall declare free passage for the Gotlanders to all locations in the sea of the king at Uppsala (i.e. the Baltic Sea was under Swedish control), and likewise for everyone who wanted to travel to Gotland.

Some important characteristics of old Gutnish are seen in this text. First, unlike contemporary East Norse all diphtongs are preserved. Second, the diphtong ai in aigu, air and waita (and probably other words) is not umlauted to ei as in West Norse eigu, eir and veita.

See also


  • Gordon, Eric V. and A. R. Taylor. Introduction to Old Norse. Second. ed. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1981.

External links

  • Indo-European Language Resources (http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kurisuto/germanic/language_resources.html) The resources in question are mostly Germanic, including two dictionaries of Old Icelandic (in English), two grammars of Old Icelandic (one in English, one in German) and a grammar of Old Swedish (in German).
  • soundsample (http://www.hi.is/~haukurth/norse/sounds/ragn1_2b.mp3)
  • Old Norse for Beginners (http://www.hi.is/~haukurth/norse/)ca:Antic nrdic

da:Norrnt de:Altnordische Sprache eo:Norena lingvo fr:Vieux Norrois ko:고대 노르드어 nl:Oudnoords ja:古ノルド語 nn:Norrnt sprk pl:Język staronordycki pt:Noruegus Antigo sv:Fornnordiska


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