The Viking Language


Learn Norwegian Ancient Language History


  1. Indo European
  2. Proto Norse
  3. Old Norse
  4. Nordic languages




The oldest Norwegian language history shows that Norwegian is a Germanic language with roots back to the Indo-European language. The Indo European language is thought to be the mother language of all languages spoken in Europe and India. Around the 20th Century BC the languages became more diversified in different parts of Europe and India. Around 1200 BC people in Denmark as well as southern parts of Sweden and Norway spoke proto Germanic. According to Wikipedia Proto Germanic with minor dialect differences is thought to have existed for about a thousand years. The branch evolved during the following centuries into Proto Norse in the Scandinavian region.


Proto Norse

The Scandinavians spoke a Nordic dialect of Proto Germanic called Proto Norse. The written basis for this language is runic and 226 runic inscriptions of this language are found. The oldest from to the second century AD is from the County “Oppland” in Norway. Proto Norse went through huge changes from 500 – 800 AD first of all the “Umlaut” resulted in changes in the articulation on the vowel moving from back in the mouth to the front. This resulted in that a vowel was influenced by the next vowel and hence resulted in a sort of semi-vowel. An example of this is the Proto Norse word for guest “gastiz” transformed into “gestr” in Old Norse. The introduction of diphthongs was the second large change. A word like heart in English was written “herto” in Proto Norse changed into “hjarta” in Old Norse. Though no written evidence it is believed that most people from the Proto-Germanic era understood each other and that people from todays Germany and Netherlands would have no problems what so ever to understand people from the Scandinavian countries.


Old Norse

The attack of the Monastry on Lindisfarne in the year 793 marks the beginning of the Viking era at the same time the Norse language had changed into a form that would last for about 5 centuries, Old Norse. The language was very much the same from Greenland in West to the Baltic States in East and though there were some different dialects people in this area could understand each other easily. In the 11th Century Old Norse was the most widely spoken language in Europe. The region was huge and consisted of all the Nordic countries, settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England Wales, Isle of Man, Normandy, Vinland (America) and Volga (Russia) and some places in-between.


Nordic languages

Old Norse developed into the different languages that we can find in the Nordic countries today. Old Norse was spoken well into the 14th Century and even in the 15th century it can be found many places co-existing with Latin. In many ways we can say that todays Norse consist of the languages we find in the Nordic countries today. Though having moved in different directions they are still highly intelligible to the peoples living in this region, however not as easily understood as Old Norse was to their ancestors of the Viking era!

Norwegian is a Germanic language and has a common history with the Scandinavian languages as well as the languages spoken on Iceland, Faroe Island, Shetland and the Northern parts of Scotland. It is also closely related to the other Germanic languages as English and German.


Old Norse

Old Norse was the language of the Vikings during the Viking area and was spoken with minor variations across North Western Europe during the Viking age. Old Norse was one of several branches springing out from the Indo-European language tree that is at least 3000 years old. The Vikings had no problems with communication since language was no barrier to communication; basically the same language with some dialect variations was spoken from Greenland in West to the Baltic.


The Norse Alphabet

The Norse Alphabet was called the Futhark and there were an elder Futhark consisting of 24 runes that was used from 200 AD to about 800 AD. Each rune had a corresponding consonant. The newer Futhark was simplified and had only 16 runes and was used from around 800 AD all the way up till around 1200 AD. The medieval Scandinavian Futhark used from around 1150 till the mid 1400 AD once again consisted of 24 runes and corresponded to the phonemes in the language. These runes were in use until the mid 1500s when the Latin alphabet gradually won terrain and became the ruling alphabet of the Western World. Runes were used in combination with the Latin alphabet and for a short period runes were even used to write Latin Words.

The runes were made of straight lines and this was necessary in order to carve them into the Vikings writing materials, which consisted of wood, bone and stone. It is believed that most of the Norse population could read runes and that it was their way of written communication. The Futhark was mainly used for giving short messages and important information. Quite few people wrote longer texts and poetry. It is also believed that the number of people that knew how to read and write fell drastically after the plague “Svarte dauen” 1350 AD, when one third of the Norwegian population perished. In the beginning the Latin alphabet was mainly used by the clergy and quite few people in the Norse area actually learned how to read and write with this new alphabet until 1700 AD.


Union with Denmark

After the plague in 1350 Norway was weakened and quite soon fell into union with Denmark. For almost 400 years Danish was the formal language of Norway and even today written Norwegian “bokmål” is more than 90% similar to written Danish. Denmark was on the same side as Napoleon during the Napoleonic war and when they lost, they had to give Norway to Sweden. Norway got it´s own Constitution in 1814, but it wasn´t until 1905 that Norway became a free and independent nation again.


Once again an independent Nation

As an independent nation the Norwegians wanted their own written language. Most people wrote a form of Danish and some people thought that it would be best to use the current language and adjust it so that it sounded more like the way people spoke. Others like Ivar Aasen thought that it would be best to start all over again and use the Old Norse language and the dialects closest to the old Norse to build a completely new Norwegian language. Today we have two written languages in Norway, New Norwegian or “Nynorsk” and “Bokmål” which is the adjusted form of the written Danish language. About 85 – 90 percent of the population use “Bokmål”, while 10 – 15 percent of the population prefers “New Norwegian”. Approximately 25% of the TV programs are texted in New Norwegian in the state owned channel NRK. All official and government documents are written in both forms since the two languages are considered equal. The same goes for books that´s being used for educational purpose in Norwegian schools.


The Viking Language
Tagged on: