If you have been following this blog for a while, then you've probably read about the different translations we use to cite our sources. So, if there are translations, what was the original language they were written in? Well, it's not that easy.
What Languages Did the Vikings Speak?
The answer is: a lot. Depending on where they were, when they were, and who they were, the Vikings could have spoken just about any language that was popular in that area at the time. The Viking age lasted quite a long time and contained nations all over Northern Europe. So there wasn't just one language of the Vikings; there were quite a few.
Old Norse was spoken in Scandinavia and its Nordic settlements from the 9th to the 13th century. Its ancestor is called Proto-Norse language, which was spoken in the 8th century and earlier. It was considered a North Germanic language. But even within Old Norse, there were dialects-- Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish. These three languages form the basis for several other, modern Scandinavian languages, which we will talk about below.
- Old West Norse was formed out of the Old Icelandic language and Old Norwegian. This particular dialect found its home in the British Isles: Ireland, England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Normandy, as well as Norway.
- Old East Norse was the language of Sweden, Denmark, and even further east, into Russia.
- Old Gutnish was spoken on the Swedish isle of Gotland. This language has its roots in the Gothic language, which is an extinct East Germanic language.
- The Runic Language is the written form of Old Norse, containing all the runes you know and love. While each letter could be combined into words (just like our alphabet), each rune also had its own symbolic and spiritual language.
Icelandic is a modern language that was started by the Viking settlers of Iceland in the 9th century. Most notable about Icelandic is its written form, which is the original language of the Poetic and Prose Eddas. Old Icelandic, modern Iceland's proto-form, is the language of Snorri Snurlson and many 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
- Pre-550 AD: Old West Norse
- 550 AD - 1050: Danish
- 1050 - 1350 AD: Old Norse
- 1350 - 1550 AD: Middle Icelandic
- 1550 - present day: Modern Icelandic
Anglo-Saxon or Old English is the language of Beowulf. It is the precursor to English and was brought to the British Isles by Anglo-Saxon settlers. It also has its roots in Germanic languages but was influenced by British Celtic and Latin.
There are a handful of modern languages that come to us by way of Viking invasions:
- Danish - primarily spoken in Denmark, but also throughout Scandinavia and even in the US and South America. Danish has its roots in Old East Norse.
- Icelandic - we mentioned this earlier, but Old Icelandic is the root of modern Icelandic.
- Norwegian - mainly spoken in Norway and a part of the Germanic language family. Norway is also home to the Sami language, which is spoken by the indigenous Sami people. Unlike Norwegian, Sami comes from the Finno-Ugric language family.
- Faroese - the language of the Faroe Islands, Faroese is very similar to Icelandic.
- Swedish - the language of Sweden, Swedish is spoken by 10 million people all over the world, but predominantly in Sweden (of course) and Finland, where it is recognized as the national language alongside Finnish. While Finnish is a Scandinavian language however, it does not have roots in Old Norse.
Other Languages of Note
These languages weren't expressly spoken by Vikings, but they existed and evolved around the same time, which means that they often have cross-over or loaned words:
- Old Russian
So, you want to read the works of Snorri Snurlson. Or Beowulf. Or any of the other famous poems and tales from the extensive Viking period. Short of learning Old Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, there are a lot of English options to choose from. What are the best English translations to read the Poetic Eddas etc. in? Surely there has to be a best, right?
We tracked down a Goodreads thread discussing this exact thing. Here's what was suggested:
- Poetic Eddas by Lee Hollander. "He was a minor poet in his own right and was basically able to preserve the original form of the Edda, at the cost of some awkward or incongruous language." - William
- Prose Eddas by Anthony Faulkes, available free online here. For those who want a quicker read, try the one by Jesse Byock, which cuts it down to the most interesting parts.
- Beowulf by Seamus Heaney; the quintessential Tolkien translation was also published last year by his son, Christopher Tolkien
- Saga of the Icelanders by Jane Smiley
- Völuspá by Hermann Palsson
The Tolkien Connection
You may already know that J.R.R. Tolkien was a cunning linguist. What you may not know is that Old English, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, and Finnish were his specialties.
In fact, his Elvish languages are heavily influenced by Finnish and Welsh, his Rohirric language by Old English/Anglo-Saxon, and the tongues of Dale and the Dwarves by Old Norse.
Speaking of Tolkien, did you know we have a drinking horn designer completely devoted to the author and his words? Your new drinking horn can host original drawings by Tolkien, from Smaug, to Bag End, to the doors of Moria.
Do you speak any of these languages? Let us know your experience below! We'd really love to chat and maybe even profile you on our blog!