Old Norse and its influence on Modern Languages

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The language used by the Norse people was ‘Old Norse.

It was the primary language used in settlements up onto the 14th century when the language eventually developed into the modern North Germanic languages.

The transition period of this language transformation is approximate, because Old Norse was still found in written form well into the 15th Century. This was eventually phased out by the church, whom preferred Latin text when writing.

Primitive Norse, or Ancient Norse (also called Proto-Norse) was the language of the Scandinavian people prior to the first centuries AD. Ancient Norse developed into the characteristic northern Proto-Germanic dialect that attests to the Elder-Futhark inscriptions from the 3rd and 4th centuries. During the Iron Age Ancient Norse eventually evolved into the Old Norse language used at the beginning of the Viking Age during the 8th Century.

There were three distinct dialects of Old Norse: Old East Norse, Old West Norse, and Old Gutnish.

The Old Icelandic language was essentially identical to Old Norwegian used. Together, the Old Icelandic and Norwegian formed into the Old West Norse dialect. This dialect was spoken in the Norse settlements of: Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and in the Norwegian settlements of Normandy.

The Old East dialect of the Norse language was spoken in Denmark, Sweden, and spread as far as to settlements located in Russia. Many Norse followed the Volga river and reached the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to open up trade with Easterners.

This Old Norse dialect used by the Danes was also used in England and in the Danish settlements that were located in Normandy. Gotland and various other settlements in the East spoke the Old Gutnish dialect of Norse.

Due to Norse expansion and trade, Old Norse was the most widely spoken language in Europe in the 11th century. The Norse language influence ranged all the way to Vinland and Greenland in the West to the Volga River in Russia to the East (which lasted well into the 13th century there).

This map shows the range of Old Norse dialects used in Viking settlements. The language spread the most near coastlines and rivers where Norse built trade settlements and ports. Many reaching further into the country mainland as settlements grew and expanded.

The approximate extent of Old Norse and related languages in the early 10th century:

LangMap copy
Old Norse and related languages in the early 10th century.

The modern descendants of the Old West Norse dialects spoken today are: Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian. There are also the now extinct Norn language that was used in the Orkney and the Shetland Islands.

The Danish and Swedish languages are the modern descendants of the Old East Norse dialect. Even though Norwegian is descended from Old West Norse, it has been heavily influenced by Old East Norse Dialect used by the Danes and Swedes during the Kalmar Union from 1397 to 1523 AD. Then by the Danes during the Denmark–Norway union in 1524 AD. From 1536 to 1814 AD, the Norwegian kingdom was formally dissolved and integrated into Denmark. This period heavily influenced the Norwegian Language.

2-old-norse

Among these Norse languages, Icelandic and Faroese (spoken mostly on the Faroe Islands) have changed the least from Old Norse in the last thousand years.

Much like the Norwegian language, Danish rule in the Faroe Islands had influenced the Old West Norse Faroese dialect with the Old East Norse Danish dialect.

Old Norse also had an influence on the English language and that of the Lowland Scots, both of which contain many Old Norse loanwords. Old English and Old Norse are closely related, which is why it shouldn’t be of any surprise to an English speaker that Old Norse words look and often sound familiar.

Here are a few examples Old Norse words carried over in English:

they (þæiʀ), their (þæiʀa), them (þæim), flat (flatr), happy (happ), ill (illr), likely (líklígʀ), anger (angr), bag (baggi), bait (bæit), band (band), egg (ægg), gap (gap), husband (húsbóndi), cake (kaka), kid (kið), knife (knífʀ), leg (læggʀ), sale (sala), scrap (skrap), seat (sæti), sister (systir), skin (skinn), skirt (skyrta), sky (ský), slaughter (slátr), snare (snara), steak (stæik), are (er), blend (blanda), call (kalla), cast (kasta), get (geta), give (gifa/gefa), hit (hitta), lift (lyfta), raise (ræisa), take (taka), want (vanta).

Note the Norse use of the letter “thorn” or “þorn” (Þ, þ). This sound carried over into use in the Old English, Gothic, and Icelandic alphabets, as well as some dialects of Middle English. It is still used today by Icelandic speakers.

Thorn( þ) is sometimes still used in writing to give it a “Medieval” or “Olde English” feel to it. Most often, this example is used in business signs and logos.

Th eventually replaced the written Thorn( þ) sound, especially in writing. Thorn( þ) is replaced by th in several words, such as: the (þe), they (þæiʀ), their (þæiʀa), that (þetta) and them (þæim).

Thorn (Þ) is often mistaken as being a Y by modern English speakers. For example, the Þ in Þe Olde English is commonly mistaken as being: Ye Olde English.

The letter thorn þ is most easily mistaken when written in Middle English as Winn Ƿ. The Middle English Winn Ƿ has a greater chance of being mistaken as being a Y.

It’s easy to see how“Ƿe Olde Tavern (The Olde Tavern)” can be mistaken as “Ye Olde Tavern.”

The picture below displays comparison examples of the letter thorn being hand written and how easily it is mistaken as a Y.

YeOlde
Examples of Thorn þ where it is mistaken as a “Y.”

Old Norse also influenced the development of the Norman language. Many of the Norse settlements that eventually founded Normandy were mostly either Dane or Norwegian and heavily influenced the language used.

There are also a number of other languages, while not closely related, that have also been heavily influenced by Old Norse: the Norman dialects, Scottish Gaelic, Waterford Irish, Russian, Belarrusian, Lithuanian, Finnish, German, all the Scandinavian languages, and Estonian as a few examples.

The language influence stretches over an area that covers the northern half of Europe in general. Most of these languages have a number of Old Norse loanwords just as the English language does.

The Icelandic language is the closest to original Old Norse that was spoken by the Vikings. In fact, because modern written Icelandic comes from the Old Norse phonemic writing system; Icelandic-speakers can read Old Norse, only varying slightly in spelling, semantics, and word order. However, this is only written Icelandic, as in verbal Icelandic pronunciation the vowel phonemes have changed as much as in the other Northern Germanic languages used today influenced by Old Norse.


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