What Language Did the Vikings Speak?



When the Vikings first started to unfold out from their northern lands to raid and conquer massive swaths of Europe on the finish of the eighth century, they had been aided by superior maritime abilities and the improvement of crusing expertise.

However how did they conceive their plans and talk the intelligence over an enormous swath of land stretching at one level from Newfoundland, Canada, to the jap Baltic Sea? Surprisingly, much more simply maybe than individuals residing in these locations immediately. In spite of everything, they spoke the identical language again then.

“Previous Norse emerges from across the eighth century after which is used all through the Viking Age after which the medieval interval,” says Kristel Zilmer, a runologist on the Museum of Cultural Historical past in Oslo. “It was a shared frequent language in Scandinavia and within the islands within the north Atlantic settled by the Scandinavians.”

Previous Norse remains to be with us in English. Phrases like egg, knife, take and even husband had been imported with Viking immigration and conquest over time.

However the place did this language come from and the way was it used?

Older Norse

Previous Norse didn’t come out of nowhere. It arose roughly within the early eighth century, a number of many years earlier than the event of longships when the Viking Age actually begins to kick off. Earlier than this, Scandinavians spoke an older northern Germanic language also known as Historic Nordic or Proto-Norse. This was the primary language written in runic inscriptions, or the traditional Scandinavian alphabet containing about 24 letters and known as Elder Futhark.

The oldest such writing but found dates to roughly A.D. 150. The writing is discovered on a small comb carved out of bone found in Denmark. Zilmer says that linguists usually imagine that the language arose earlier than then, in all probability someday within the first century AD.

Elder Futhark continued for use till roughly the 700s. Throughout this era, runic letters had been inscribed on leather-based, antlers and different bone artifacts, steel — and the well-known runestones. The primary of the latter confirmed up in roughly the 4th or fifth century, however they started to grow to be rather more frequent within the previous centuries.

Across the starting of the eighth century, Scandinavians chopped down their alphabet, combining feels like Ok with G, and B with P to go away them with a simplified 16-letter runic alphabet. Researchers have discovered greater than 3,500 runic inscriptions from the Viking Age, Zilmer says. However the simplification didn’t make issues simpler for researchers — runes within the later interval are literally simpler to misread as a result of letter mixtures.

These modifications in alphabet had been additionally accompanied by modifications within the sound of the language. New phrases had been launched and new vowel and consonant sounds began appearing between roughly 500 to 700. Lots of the comparatively lengthy phrases of Historic Nordic had been shortened. “It’s very totally restructured,” Zilmer says.


A number of the finest recognized examples of runic inscriptions are unfold all throughout Europe from close to the Black Sea in Russia to Normandy and everywhere in the British Isles. These raised stones usually are coated in runic inscriptions, typically accompanied by paintings. Zilmer says that whereas their inscriptions can differ, they’re typically commemorative, itemizing the names of lifeless relations, pals or buying and selling companions. Given the dimensions of the stones, the inscriptions often aren’t that lengthy. They could state who put the stone up and in whose reminiscence, with maybe a brief notice concerning the farm they held.


A runestone in Sweden carved a thousand years in the past by Vikings. (Credit score: Mats O Andersson/Shutterstock)

A number of runestones have traces of verse. Norse gods like Thor or Odin are typically talked about as effectively within the ancient times. After Scandinavia turned Christianized beginning within the 11th century when Vikings started to convey the faith of a few of the lands they conquered again to their house, runestones typically contained prayers for the soul of the lifeless relations or pals.

Runestones and different runic inscriptions are actually one in every of few sources we now have concerning the Vikings from the Vikings. A lot of the lore surrounding Viking raids and different exploits come to us by way of the accounts of different Europeans on the brunt finish of their assaults.

“Runic inscriptions are the kind of supply that originates from the time,” Zilmer says. “They’re in a means probably the most direct glimpses that we get into their society on the time.”

Lingua Franca

Whereas Previous Norse was the language that related the individuals of Scandinavia through the Viking Age, the worldwide nature of the Nordic nations at the moment would have required polyglots — they didn’t at all times raid first and ask questions later.

“Many individuals and communities at the moment would have been multilingual,” Zilmer says.

As a few of the Vikings conquered land in Britain and elsewhere, they introduced their language with them. Over generations, Previous Norse was blended with native languages. Previous English has numerous Norse affect, for instance, and plenty of place names in Britain immediately come from Previous Norse.

“The language contacts had been fairly intense,” Zilmer says.

Whereas Previous Norse is taken into account one language, the tongue clearly had dialects that differed between locations like Denmark and Iceland, she says, although individuals in these areas might possible nonetheless perceive one another. Many of those variations widened through the late Center Ages, turning into one thing extra much like the languages spoken in these nations immediately.

However different issues attribute of Previous Norse and its predecessor started to vanish due partially to the worldwide nature of the Vikings. The Roman alphabet was launched to Scandinavia in roughly the 11th century as Christianity was adopted. Some Vikings would additionally possible have realized the alphabet throughout their raids and commerce missions in the remainder of Europe. Each the runic alphabet and the Roman had been used aspect by aspect for a pair hundred years earlier than the latter took over. The final runestones date to roughly the 14th or 15th centuries, Zilmer says.


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