Old Language: OLD NORSE

Indo-European > Germanic > North Germanic > Old Norse

Few old languages excite the imagination as much as Old Norse. To think of Old Norse is to conjur up images of marauding Vikings braving the waves in longships, performing epic sagas by firelight, carving tales of Gods and Giants into mystical runes. Old Norse represented the northern branch of Germanic, and was divided into two varieties, East Norse and West Norse, the latter often being called Old Icelandic. These forms were the parent dialects of today's modern Scaninavian languages.

Old Norse is credited with some of the earliest inscriptions in any Germanic language, even Gothic, written in the runic script or 'elder futhark', an alphabet common among many Germanic languages (including Old English). Norse poetry and heroic literature is among the most celebrated of the early Middle Ages. Norwegian skaldic poets performed in the halls of kings and lords, and their style was 'more ornate and more melodious' than most other Germanic poetry (Gordon, p.xxxix).

The Viking expansions of the eight to eleventh centuries brought Norse into contact with many other languages. In Normandy it influenced the local variety of French, introducing such words as 'vague' (cf mod. Swedish våg); in Russia, many words and names have Varangian origins (such as 'grad' (cf Old Swedish garðr). No language was more influenced by Norse than English. The Danes settled in England in great numbers, particularly in the north and east (the old 'Danelaw'), as is evident in the many northern place-names that end in '-by', and surnames that end in '-son'. The Lakeland 'Fells' are of Norse origin (cf Old icelandic fjall). Even at this point of contact, however, Old Norse still enjoyed a degree of mutual intelligibility with Old English and other similar Germanic languages.

The East/West division became much greater during the later Middle Ages. Danish and Swedish (as well as the Gotland dialect Old Gutnish) came under the increasing influence of Low German, while the isolated Icelanders retained many of the phonological and grammatical features of Old Norse (such as the dental fricatives þ and ð). The thirteenth century scholar and poet Snorri Sturluson has left some incredible works detailing the lives and mythologies of the Old Norsemen, including the prose Edda, the Heimskringla, and (possibly) Egil's Saga.

examples of old norse

Þat er upphaf þessa máls, at Oku-þórr fór með hafra sína ok reið, ok með honum sá Áss er Loki heitir. Koma þeir at kveldi tile ins bónda ok fá þar náttstað. En um kveldit tók Þórr hafra sína ok skar báða; eptir þat váru þeir flegnir ok bornir til ketils. En er soðit var, þá settisk Þórr til náttverðar ok þeir lagsmenn. Þórr bauð til matar með sér bóndanum ok konu hans ok bornum þeira; sonr bónda hét Þjálfi, en Roskva dóttir. .
From Snorri’s ‘Edda’: ‘Þór & Útgarða-Loki’, c. 13th C (West Norse/Old Icelandic).

Þá mællti Haraldr Ænghla konongr viðr Norðmenn þá er með hanum varó, ‘Kenndo þér þenn hinn myckla meðr þæim blá kyrtli oc hin faghra hialm, er þer skaut sér af hestinum frem?’ Þæir svaraðo, ‘Kennom vér; þet var Norðmanna konongr,’ Þá mællti Ænghla konongr, ‘Mikill maðr oc hofðinghleghr er hann, oc hitt er nú venna at farinn sé at hamingiu.’.
From ‘Fagrskinna: the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066’, c.1250 (West Norse/Old Norwegian).

A t­­īonda āre hans konungx rīke, thæn gamble ōwinin vekte vp ā mōt hānom ēn man som hæt Magnus, konungxins son aff Danmark, som ā sit mødherne ātte konunger at vara ā mōt laghum, som forbiūdha at ūtlænningia sculu rādha.
From The Life of Saint Eric, in the Codex Bildstenianus, Uppsala, c.14th C (East Norse/Old Swedish).

So gingu gutar sielfs wiliandi vndir suia kunung þy at þair mattin frir Oc frelsir sykia suiariki j huerium staþ. vtan tull oc allar utgiftir. So aigu oc suiar sykia gutland firir vtan cornband ellar annur forbuþ. hegnan oc hielp sculdi kunungur gutum at waita.
From ‘Gutasaga', c.13th C (East Norse/Old Gutnish).

a short old norse bibliography
  • E.V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse (Oxford: 1927)
  • Sigfrid Valfells & James E Cathey, Old Icelandic: An Introductory Course (Oxford: 1981)
  • more to follow...

some old norse links


Modern Language: SWEDISH

Indo-European > Germanic > East Norse > Swedish

Like its close neighbour Danish, Swedish (or Svensk) is descended from the eastern branch of Old Norse. With nine million speakers in Sweden and parts of Finland, it represents the largest of the North Germanic tongues, while it is to some extent mutually intelligible with Danish, its consonants tend to be harder, and there are a couple of typographical differences (see Danish). It can nevertheless be difficult for the learner to discern between the two.

Unlike their Danish cousins who tended to venture westwards, the Swedish Vikings (or 'Varangians') turned east, governing Finland for six centuries and founding many great Russian cities (such as Kiev and Novgorod); the Old Swedish garðr (cf mod engl. 'yard') can be found in the Russian grad ('city'). However, while Swedes held much political sway over the Baltic region for many centuries, their language became strongly influenced by the rich merchants of the Hanseatic trading empire, who spoke Low German. High German has also been influential, as have Latin, English and French, which gave Swedes their common word for goodbye (adjö).

Regional dialect within Sweden is still very strong, particularly in the south where the form of speech is considered by many to be more like Danish than Swedish. The standard language, or rikssvenska, is often said to have its origins in the translation of the Bible in the 1540s, the 'King Gustav Vasa' text. This bore the strong German influence of the 1521 Martin Luther Bible, as well as the Central Swedish variety of its translators. While the Swedish Language Council, or svenska språknämnden, exists to help regulate the standard, it is far less prescriptive than the Académie française in France, and 'regional standards' (such as that of Gotheburg) are considered acceptable.

Modern Swedish literature is rich, but Sweden's most famous literary export was probably the dramatist August Strindberg. The international successes of Swedish popular culture have not necessarily spread the language - the pop group Abba sang primarily in English. Nowadays, most English speakers come into contact with Swedish when they visit the furniture store IKEA, who give their products Swedish names

examples of swedish

A solis ortus:
"Wij loffuim Christ en koning bold
aff solsens vpgong är hans wold
alt vth så wijdt som iorden är
han föddes aff een iungfru skäär."
from Swenske songer eller wisor nw på nytt prentade (Swedish Hymns, 1536)

DEN OKÄNDE: "Nej, men det irriterar mig, ty det är som vore det förgjort ... - Icke döden, men ensamheten fruktar jag, ty i ensamheten träffar man någon. Jag vet icke om det är någon annan eller mig själv jag förnimmer, men i ensamheten är man icke ensam. Luften blir tätare, luften gror, och det börjar växa väsenden, som äro osynliga men förnimmas och äga liv."
August Strindberg, Till Damaskus ('The Road to Damascus'), 1898. (Translation: STRANGER: "They annoy me. The place might be bewitched. No, it's not death I fear, but solitude; for then one's not alone. I don't know who's there, I or another, but in solitude one's not alone. The air grows heavy and seems to engender invisible beings, who have life and whose presence can be felt." - G.Rawson)

a short swedish bibliography
  • to follow...

some swedish links


Modern Language: DANISH

Indo-European > Germanic > East Norse > Danish

A North Germanic language used by about five and a half million people in Denmark and Greenland, Danish (Dansk) is still intelligible to some degree with its Scandinavian neighbours in Norway and Sweden. Having descended from the eastern branch of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, Danish had a large influence over the development of late Old and early Middle English, due to substantial Danish settlement in tenth and eleventh century England.

Dialectal variation within Denmark is still quite broad. The main dialect groups are Jysk or Jutish (spoken on the Jylland peninsula), Ødansk or Island Danish, and Østdansk or 'East Danish', sometimes called 'South Swedish'. The national standard or rigsmål is based upon the dialect of Copenhagen. Most Danes have fully embraced English as their second language.

Early East Norse texts were written in the Runic script, though the Roman alphabet was quickly adopted. Both Old Danish and Old Swedish were heavily influenced by Low German, as a result of the Hanseatic trading empire, though Swedish and Danish had already begun to move apart by the eleventh century. Danish consonants tend to be softer than their Swedish counterparts, particularly when inter- or post-vocalic [ie, Swe. p > Dan. b, t > d, k > g]. For example, Swedish rike > Danish rige, and so forth. Orthographically they are most easily distinguishable by two vowels: Swe. ö = Dan. ø, Swe. ä = Dan. æ. There is also extensive use in Danish of the glottal stop, a common feature of Cockney English.

Historically, Danish culture was spread by the sword as much as by the word. The most well-known Danish writer was Hans Christian Andersen, whose Fairy Tales (Eventyr) have been read worldwide for a century and a half. Many of his tales have become cultural classics, such as the Emperor's New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling, and there is a famous statue of one of his best-loved characters, The Little Mermaid, in Copenhagen harbour.

examples of danish
Der var en lille Pige, saa fiin og saa nydelig, men om Sommeren maatte hun altid gaae med bare Fødder, for hun var fattig, og om Vinteren med store Træskoe, saa at den lille Vrist blev ganske rød og det saa grueligt.
Midt i Bondebyen boede den gamle Moer Skomagers, hun sad og syede, saa godt hun kunde det, af røde, gamle Klæde-Strimler et Par smaa Skoe, ganske kluntede, men godt meente vare de, og dem skulde den lille Pige have. Den lille Pige hedte Karen. .
Hans Christian Andersen, 'De røde sko' ('Red Shoes'), 1845. (Translation: "Once upon a time there was little girl, pretty and dainty. But in summer time she was obliged to go barefooted because she was poor, and in winter she had to wear large wooden shoes, so that her little instep grew quite red. In the middle of the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife; she sat down and made, as well as she could, a pair of little shoes out of some old pieces of red cloth. They were clumsy, but she meant well, for they were intended for the little girl, whose name was Karen.")

Vi har vel alle et selvbillede. Jeg har altid tænkt på mig selv som Mutter Skrap med den store kæft. Nu véd jeg ikke, hvad jeg skal sige. Jeg føler, han har forrådt mig. Ikke lyttet som han skulle. Han generer mig ikke. Han står foran de dampende gryder, og bare ser på mig.
Jeg finder ikke på noget at svare. Jeg står bare, og aner ikke, hvad jeg skal gøre af mig selv, og øjeblikket er der, og så er det heldigvis borte.
Peter Høeg, 'Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne' ('Smilla's Sense of Snow'), 1992. (Translation: "We probably all have an image of ourselves. I’ve always thought of myself as Ms Fierce with the big mouth. Now I don’t know what to say. I feel as if he has betrayed me. Not listened the way he should have. That he has deceived me. On the other hand, he’s not doing anything. He’s not bothering me. He’s standing in front of the steaming pots and looking at me. I can’t think of anything to say. I just stand there, not knowing what to do with myself, and then, fortunately, the moment has passed.")

a short danish bibliography
  • to follow...

some danish links