If you ever questioned the authenticity of TV shows and movies that depict Vikings speaking English with a “Scandinavian accent”, you’re in the right place. So what language did Vikings speak after all? The short answer is Old Norse, but the real answer is much more complicated than that.
The Vikings were a group of seafaring warriors who lived in Scandinavia (and beyond) during the Viking Age. They left a lasting impact on history and the stories about their raids, trade, and exploration continue to fascinate us to this day. Considering that the Viking age spanned over centuries and encompassed multiple territories across Northern Europe, it’s safe to say that Vikings couldn’t have spoken just one language. Let’s see why’s that.
Did Vikings speak Old English?
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Did Vikings speak English? No, Modern English didn’t even exist at the time. As pop culture explores the Viking age more and more, it’s only natural that you’d ask yourself that. After all, Ragnar Lothbrok did speak English fluently in the acclaimed TV show Vikings.
Now, if you’re wondering whether Vikings spoke Old English – that’s an entirely different question. The people living in England did speak a different dialect of Old English at the time. And what we know from both history and History Channel (the television network that produced Vikings) is that England was one of the first countries to be raided by Vikings. In fact, the Viking Age is said to have commenced with the attack of the Lindisfarne Abbey on 8 June 793 CE. The abbey was located on an island off the northeast coast of England in Northumberland.
So did Vikings speak Old English?
To tell you the truth, Vikings did not typically speak Old English. Old English was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who lived in England at the same time as the Vikings. However, it is possible that some Vikings who settled in England may have learned to speak Old English.
What language did Vikings speak?
Old Norse is the obvious answer for most Vikings. However, even in present days, languages spanning over large territories can’t possibly be entirely homogeneous.
Moreover, given the extensive duration of the Viking age and its prevalence across numerous Northern European nations and beyond, it is incorrect to suggest that there was only one “Viking language”. Instead, there were various languages spoken by the Vikings. The languages these seafaring warriors spoke depended largely on their location, timeframe and identity.
Because Vikings were travelers, it is safe to assume they were multilingual. In some instances, Vikings spoke both Old Norse and the language of their relocated territory. Everywhere they went, Vikings brought their language with them. This is how, over generations, Old Norse influenced and blended with local languages. Place names in Britain and numerous other words stand proof of this.
In spite of everything, Old Norse is still considered the primary Viking language. If you watched The Northman, you must have heard it in songs and ritual settings. Apparently, they didn’t have the budget to make the entire movie in Old Norse. It does sound fittingly Viking, doesn’t it?
Old Norse: the Viking language
By the 8th century, Proto-Norse (which was spoken in Scandinavia and its Nordic settlements) developed into Old Norse – also known as Old Nordic or Old Scandinavian. This was the phase in the evolution of North Germanic dialects that occurred prior to their ultimate divergence into the distinct Nordic languages we know today.
Although Old Norse is recognized as a single language, there were discernible dialects that varied between regions such as Denmark and Iceland. Nonetheless, individuals from these regions could presumably still comprehend one another. The three main dialects were:
- Old West Norse — originated from the Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian languages, and was spoken in several places, including the British Isles, Norway, and Normandy.
- Old East Norse — was spoken in Sweden, Denmark, and as far east as Russia.
- Old Gutnish — was a dialect spoken on the Swedish island of Gotland and had its roots in the Gothic language, which is now an extinct East Germanic language.
As previously mentioned, these three dialects of Old Norse formed the foundation for modern Scandinavian languages: Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic.
What language today is closest to Old Norse?
Modern Icelandic is widely regarded as the Nordic language that most closely resembles Old Norse. In fact, the writing system is so similar that Icelandic speakers can read Old Norse texts with relative ease. Some specialists compare the likeness between modern Icelandic and Old Norse to that of Shakespearean English and present-day English. Old West Norse is the direct ancestor of Icelandic, and many surviving Old Norse manuscripts originated from Iceland. Consequently, Old West Norse is the most commonly taught variant of Old Norse at present.
So yeah, you can learn Old Norse if you want to.
Is Old Norse still spoken?
Old Norse is not spoken as a living language today. However, there are people who study Old Norse and speak it fluently.
As noted previously, modern Icelandic is the most similar modern language to Old Norse. For this reason, it is considered that spending time with Icelanders can offer a glimpse into this ancient language’s contemporary iteration.
Furthermore, Old Norse is still with us through the multitude of words that were borrowed into English. Some examples of Old Norse words in English are gift (gift), husband (húsbóndi), cake (kaka), egg (egg), anger (angr), arm (armr). And these are just a few. The list could go on for a while.
What language did Vikings write in?
Scandinavians used the Elder Futhark 24-letter alphabet to write their language until the 8th century. Then, as the Viking age began, they adopted the Young Futhark. This was a simplified runic alphabet consisting of just 16 letters.
Fun fact: it seems that their decision to adopt the new writing system complicated things for researchers as it became harder to interpret runes due to the letter combinations.
In the 11th century, as Christianity was adopted, so was the Roman alphabet. It’s possible that some Vikings learned the alphabet during their voyages to other parts of Europe, either for trading or raiding purposes. The Young Futhark and the Roman alphabet coexisted for a considerable length of time before the latter eventually took over completely.
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