Old Norse & Modern Nordic Languages



Note: This is not a direct “translation”, in fact this is a translated summary of about the first 75 pages of this paper. If you want to read more, see Wikipedia (which is more detailed/may be more correct than this paper), or the actual paper. From “Norðurlandamálin með rótum og fótum” which you can download for free here in Scandinavian, Faroese, and Icelandic.

These notes are for Old Norse, and the modern differences between the Germanic-Nordic languages, including some historical notes on changes. PLEASE NOTE that in the previously-translated sections, the paper itself got facts wrong (such as dialect breakdowns for Sami and grammatical breakdowns for Greenlandic) so most likely this one also has factual mistakes. If you can fix them, please do, and I’ll update this with them when I see them.

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Politically the Nordic countries are all one area, but linguistically they are split into drastically different parts. That is to say, they aren’t from the same language family – the languages do not all have the same roots. Here are the first five cardinal numbers from the Indo-European family, English, Norwegian, German, and French, and after that are the same words in Sami, Finnish, and Hungarian which are from the Uralic language family:

(Indo-European) English, Norwegian, German, French
One, en/ein, eins, un,
Two, to, zwei, deux,
Three, tre, drei, trois,
Four, fire, vier, quatre,
Five, fem, fünf, cinq

(Uralic) Sami, Finnish, Hungarian
Okta, yksi, egy
Guokte, kaksi, kettö
Golbma, kolme, három
Njeallje, neljä, négy
Vihtta, viisi, öt

(Greenlandic is in yet another completely-unrelated language family, but the modern counting system is simply Danish numbers so that’s probably why it’s not listed here.)


Sami is not just one language, it’s actually made up of different languages and they can be as alike and unalike as ex. Scandinavian and German, and the people who speak a Sami language cannot understand all the other Sami languages. Because of this, when Sami people get together they often talk in the lingua franca instead of Sami (Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, or Russian).

The Germanic-Nordic languages branched off from each other more and more over time. One example is “tak”, which has two different meanings in Norwegian. We talk about a tak (þak in Icelandic) roof on a house, and we can “ta et tak” (tekið taki in Icelandic) – take hold of something. In older Norse these were two different words:

To hold fast onto something was called tak but the roof of a house was called þak, with the same sound in the front of the word as in the English word thing (þ makes the th in thing sound). All the Scandinavian languages have long-lost the th-sound and this happened in the middle-ages. It hasn’t been lost in Icelandic – and it’s not that Icelandic hasn’t changed from Old Norse, only that it’s changed little in comparison to Scandinavian.

One example is the sound y, which is i in Icelandic pronunciation (in English, the i in “it”), and Icelanders will recognize “biter og flyter” from older Norse; then it changed to “bítur og flítur” (it’s now written “bítur og flýtur”).

The modern Norwegian words far (Faðir in Icelandic – father) and fe (fé in Icelandic – sheep), in Old Norse or Old Germanic are faðer and fehu. In Latin these are pater and pecu. There are some changes between certain sounds (like f and p) that occurred in all of the Germanic languages, and that is also why sometimes in Icelandic you have things like f being pronounced like p (such as in Keflavík).

The term Old Norse (fornnorræna) is generally used to mean the language in Norway and Iceland around the years 900 to 1350. Old Norse is the oldest variation of the Germanic languages that we have found in written form. The alphabet wasn’t written in Latin characters, but in runes.

The most famous text in runes is from 1734, by the town Gallehus in Southern-Jutland in Denmark.
In translation the text reads:
I, Hlégestr (a man’s name) from Holt (actually meaning “Holt’s son”) made the horn.

The same text in Old-Germanic (about 200 b.c.): Ek Hlewagastiz hultijaz hurnan tawidön
Old Norse (5th century, as originally written?): Ek HlewagastiR holtijaR horna tawido
Gothic: Ik Hliugasts hulteis haúrn tawida
Norse (from around year 1000): Ek Hlégæstr hyltir horn táða
(Modern Icelandic): Ég Hlégestur frá Holti gerði hornið.
(Modern Swedish): Jag Lägäst från Holt gjorde hornet.

Words that have “changed sounds” such as in the far and fe example have been in the languages since old times and they are called “inherited words” (erfðaorð). All words that start with a p have changed to start with something else in the Nordic-Germanic languages. Modern words starting with p are “loanwords”.

Some dialects have kept older pronunciation/vocabulary/etc. like Elfdalian (Älvdalska) and Jutlandic (Ice. Jóska / Dan. Jysk), which you can hear soundclips of here:
swedia.ling.umu.se

www.statsbiblioteket.dk/dlh

The names AnulaibaR and HarjawaldaR changed in around the year 1000 to be Óláfr and Haraldr.
Modern Icelandic: Ólafur, Haraldur
Faroese: Ólavur, Haraldur
Swedish: Olov, Harald
Norwegian and Danish: Olav and Harald

The changes in Old Norse between the years 500 and 100 were much bigger than the ones between 1500 and 2000.

The oldest runestones are from around the year 200. The so-called older runes or “fuþark” are as thus:

Around the year 700 the fuþark alphabet changed from 24 letters to 16. The reason for this is unknown, but it’s one of many drastic changes in the language from that era. The runes changed over time to look more like Latin characters and then were replaced entirely, possibly because Latin ones were easier to write.

The Nordic languages split into two groups, Western (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian) and Eastern (Swedish, Danish). Bokmal Norwegian is sometimes more like Danish.

English – I know that he’s coming home (Lit. “I know that he comes home”)
Icelandic – Ég veit að hann kemur heim
Faroese – Eg veit at hann kemur heim
New Norwegian – Eg veit at han kjem heim
Danish – Jeg ved at han kommer hjem
Swedish – Jag vet att han kommer hem
Bokmal – Jeg vet/veit at han kommer hjem/heim

Here you can see some changes that took place between West- and East-Nordic languages:
1. The first-person personal pronoun (I), with or without j: ég (but pronounced as jeg), eg: jeg/jag
2. The present-tense verb komme (come) with or without a sound-change: kemur / kjem : kommer
3. Last but not least, a single-vowel or dipthong (vowel pair) in the two words veit: vet / ved (know) and heim: hem / hjem (home).

– In Danish there is only one vowel in inflection-endings now, “e”. The same can be said about most of Norwegian Bokmal.
– In New Norwegian and Swedish they usually end in a and in some cases o.
– In Icelandic and Faroese it’s a in almost all cases, but it’s i and u instead of the e and o in Swedish and New Norwegian.

See the example below about the various forms of the nouns bakkar (banks/small hills), synir (sons), and vísur (type of song) and the present-tense form of the verbs kastar (throws) and kennir (teaches/is aware of or familiar with):
(Íslenska – Icelandic, Færeyska – Faroese, Nýnorska – New Norwegian, Sænska – Swedish)

Danish especially had changes in so-called “weak” or “soft” sounds, that is to say the changes of p, t, and k into b, d, and g when after vowels. Examples of this are the Danish gabe (Ice. geispa – yawn), bide (bíta – bite), kage (kaka – cake). In Norwegian it’s gape, bite, kake. In Swedish it’s gapa, bita, kaka.

There are many various other sound changes in Danish that did not occur in the other languages. In Danish there are “stops(?) – hljóðrof (sound cut-offs)” but instead, in Swedish and Norwegian, there is the so-called word-melody, or intonation. Icelandic and Faroese have neither word-melody nor stops.

Word-melody is mostly found in African and East-Asian languages, in Europe it’s only in Swedish and Norwegian. The oldest known mentions of stops in Danish are from 1510 when the Swedish bishop Hemming Gadh talked about Danish pronunciation:

Der til med så wärdas de icke heller tala som annat folck, uthan tryckia ordhen fram, lika som the willa hosta.
Modern Swedish: Dessutom gitter de heller inte tala som andra folk, men trycker fram orden, som om de skulle hosta.
“On top of that, they can’t be bothered to speak as other people do, but instead push the words out as though they were coughing.”

Faroe Islanders live both geographically and linguistically in-between the Nordics, on top of that they can understand much of both Icelandic and Scandinavian. There is a lot of stress on teaching them Danish (because they are owned by Denmark) but the pronunciation of Faroese is more like Norwegian and Swedish than Danish. Because of all of this Faroe Islanders have the best understanding of all of the Nordic languages, out of the Nordic people.

Icelanders understand little of Faroese, even though the differences between them are very small. This is because the Faroese Language Council is much smaller than the Icelandic one (so basically they can’t educate Icelanders, they already have their hands/budget full just doing stuff like making new words).

Cases:
In the Middle Ages nouns, adjectives, and personal pronouns all had varying forms (inflections) depending on where they were in sentences – as a subject, object, or after various prepositions, and so on. In Norse and other Germanic languages there were four cases – nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive (“possessive case”).

English example of three cases: I (nominative), me (accusative), my/mine (genitive).
Thou (modern: you – nominative), thee (accusative), thy/thine (modern – yours, genitive)

All of these cases still exist in Icelandic – and German has kept even more old inflection-forms. In Faroese genitive has almost completely disappeared and in Scandinavian all the cases have mostly vanished. (Note: This means the cases have simplified, and in the case of Scandinavian cases just have trace remains, such as in set phrases. Keep reading and it becomes clear.)

In most ways genitive is no longer used, ex. til byen (í bæinn in Icelandic) and not “til bys” (í bæs). But it’s still used in some phrases, such as “til lands” (to land?), “til fots” (on foot?), etc.

Here you can see some of the changes in inflection forms: (this isn’t going to make sense to you unless you understand cases, but basically a preposition governs a case so they always write the case of a word with a “helper word” preposition before it, so a native speaker more easily remembers which case you’re talking about. The words om/fra/til/etc are not actually part of the case changes.)

Norwegian (horse): hest, om hest, fra hest, til hest.
(plural – horses): hester, om hester, fra hester, til hester

Faroese: hestur, um hest, frá hesti, til hest.
(plural): hestar, um hestar, frá hestum, til hestar

Icelandic: hestur, um hest, frá hesti, til hests.
(plural): hestar, um hesta, frá hestum, til hesta.

In Scandinavian you may find inflections for personal pronouns, ex. jeg ser deg (ég sé þig in Icelandic – I see you, but more correct “I see thee”) : du ser meg (þú sérð mig – you see me), where the forms of jeg/meg (ég/mig – I/me) and du/deg (þú/þig – you/thee) change according to their position in the sentence.

Note: This is the same in English, basically Scandinavian and English have remnants of the cases leftover and you can see this in personal pronouns (I, me, my/mine – instead of only having “I” and it being correct to say “you see I” instead of “you see me” for example) but the cases aren’t usually in modern use except for these remnants.

In older language Scandinavian also inflected based on three genders (like modern Icelandic). But today:

English: they (talking about multiple males), they (talking about multiple females), they (taking about a neuter or mixed-gender group, ex. two boys and one girl)
Norwegian: de, de, de (same as English, the inflections have been lost)
Faroese: teir, tær, tey (still inflects based on gender)
Icelandic: þeir, þær, þau (still inflects based on gender)

In English you inflect a verb based on person (I am, you are, he/she is) and based on number (the boy comes, the boys come). Icelandic does both of these as well. Faroese no longer inflects by person in the plural, and modern Scandinavian doesn’t inflect by either person or number.

English: I stand, you stand, he/she stands.
We stand, you stand, they stand.

Norwegian: jeg står, du står, han/hun står.
vi står, dere står, de står.

Faroese: eg standi, tú stendur, han/hon stendur.
vit standa, tit standa, teir/tær/tey standa.

Icelandic: ég stend, þú stendur, hann/hún stendur.
Við stöndum, þið standið, þeir/þær/þau standa.

In written Swedish they inflected by number until the middle of the 20th century (pojken kommer – in Icelandic, drengurinn kemur – the boy comes): pojkarna komma (drengirnir koma – the boys come), but it has ceased to exist in written Danish and Norwegian since the 19th century.

Basically: Icelandic is most complicated, Faroese the middle, and Scandinavian is much simpler. If you want more examples of how each language inflects the same words, see it in the charts starting at page 64 of the PDF. Directly underneath that is a little phonetic stuff that I’m not translating.

30 to 40% of the vocabulary in Scandinavian is from Low German. In the following example, italic words are Norse and the remaining are German loanwords.

Swedish: Skräddaren menade att jackan passade förträffligt, men kunden klagade över att plagget var kort och tyget simpelt och grovt.

(Only “that, was, and” are marked as being Norse)
“The tailor thought that the jacket fit fantastically but the customer complained that the garment was short and the fabric was simple and rough.”

Because of geographical location and various other things (ex. Danish merchants got things from German merchants but maybe Swedish merchants got them mostly from Danish ones) the loanwords taken from German differ between Danish and Norwegian, and Swedish.

(Norska – Norwegian, Danska – Danish, Sænska – Swedish, frá – from, norræna – Nordic, lágþýska – Low German, fornsænska – Old Swedish.

The words from top to bottom are: ask, window, lack, position, nå means “reach” but hinna means “have time” (so they might have made a mistake), society, approximately, discover.

Basically, due to vocab similarities, geographical location, cultural stuff, etc: Norwegians are equally good at understanding spoken Danish and Swedish, and are the best in Scandinavia at understanding them. Danes are about twice as good at understanding spoken Norwegian than Swedish. Swedes are about two-thirds better at understanding spoken Norwegian than Danish, and are the worst at understanding the other two in general.

For some it’s because “it’s difficult to understand”, and for some they don’t actually want to understand. Many Swedes may move to Norway or Denmark, so a Dane in Copenhagen might have a flatemate/neighbour who is Swedish and so he learns to understand Swedish from them, but Scandinavians do not generally move to Sweden. In Denmark and Norway you can get Swedish radio broadcasts, but in Sweden you can only get Swedish broadcasts, unless you’re at the country’s border.

When Scandinavians meet they may change how they talk to be better understood, ex. a Dane using more Swedish vocabulary or a Norwegian keeping Norwegian vocabulary but using a more Danish pronunciation. Even though Danes and Swedes say they understand each other it may be that some actually can’t, due to differences in both pronunciation and vocabulary. Norwegian is more like vocabulary from one of them and pronunciation from the other, so it is more easily understood by both. Plus Norwegians have to understand both Bokmal and New Norwegian, so their linguistic flexibility is higher. In some cases (in spoken) they may just use English together.