Old Norse is the language of the Vikings, sagas, runes, eddic and skaldic poetry. The Norse language is still spoken by Icelanders today in a modern style. (For further information on Norse mythology as well as other resources on how to learn Old Norse, click here.)
The Old Norse language of the Viking Age is the source of many English words and the parent of the modern Scandinavian languages Icelandic, Faroese, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.
Vikings sailed over one-third the globe and were the first northern Europeans to harness the technology of long-distance seafaring. Wherever they went, Vikings brought their myths, legends, and sagas. These Old Norse tales are the basis of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and a host of contemporary fantasy writing and gaming. Even The Long Winter from the Game of Thrones is based on the Old Norse Prose Edda.
Proto-Norse developed into Old Norse by the 8th century, and Old Norse began to develop into the modern North Germanic languages in the mid- to late 14th century, ending the language phase known as Old Norse. These dates, however, are not absolute, since written Old Norse is found well into the 15th century. Old Norse was divided into three dialects: Old East Norse, Old West Norse, and Old Gutnish. Old West and East Norse formed a dialect continuum, with no clear geographical boundary between them. For example, Old East Norse traits were found in eastern Norway, although Old Norwegian is classified as Old West Norse, and Old West Norse traits were found in western Sweden. Most speakers spoke Old East Norse in what is present dayDenmark and Sweden. Old Gutnish, the more obscure dialectal branch, is sometimes included in the Old East Norse dialect due to geographical associations. It developed its own unique features and shared in changes to both other branches.
The 12th century Icelandic Gray Goose Laws state that Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Danes spoke the same language, dǫnsk tunga ("Danish tongue"; speakers of Old East Norse would have said dansk tunga). Another term used, used especially commonly with reference to West Norse, was norrœnt mál ("Nordic speech"). Today Old Norse has developed into the modern North Germanic languages (Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish), and although distinct languages there is still considerable mutual intelligibility.
In some instances the term Old Norse refers specifically to Old West Norse.
Vikings of Bjornstad: For a site offering many aspects of Old Norse living history and education concentrating on the Viking Age, from 793 to 1066, as well as a handy English to Old Norse and Old Norse to English dictionary, go to the Vikings of Bjornstad site.
Is Icelandic the oldest language in Europe?
Icelandic is a West Nordic language. In Viking times (from about 800 to 1050 AD) the Norse language was recognised, that is to say, a language spoken by the Germanic nations in Scandinavia in both West Norse and East Norse. West Norse was spoken in Norway and east Norse in Sweden and Denmark. Iceland was colonised mostly from Norway, with most settlers coming from the southwest part of the country, from Hordaland, Sogn and the Fjords. But some also came from the British Isles, both of Celtic and Nordic origin. But the Celts did not have a significant effect on the development of the Icelandic language. Evidence of Celtic (Gaelic) culture is limited to loan words and to people and place names.
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