As peoples from Viking societies raided, traded, and colonized much of the North Atlantic world, Eurasia, and beyond, Old Norse became one of the most important languages in this region during the early medieval period. To understand the history of the Viking expansion, one only has to look at the expansion of the Old Norse language.

The lingua franca of the Viking Age?

The so-called Viking Age is an epoch of North European history that lasts roughly from the raid at Lindisfarne in 793 CE to the defeat of Anglo-Saxon King Harald Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE. During this era, peoples from Viking societies spread across the Atlantic and Mediterranean world to colonize, trade, rule, and conquer much territory. They soon became the bane of every empire they encountered, from the Frankish realms to the Abbasid Caliphate.

Despite the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Latin was still an important language throughout Europe due to the Christianization of large swathes of Europe. However, there was never a Roman presence in Scandinavia. Following Rome's collapse, huge swathes of people migrated eastward across the European continent. Proto-Norse was spoken throughout the Scandinavian peninsula during this period, having evolved as a northern dialect of the Germanic language sometime in the first few centuries CE.

By about the 8th century CE, just before the dawning of the so-called "Viking Age," this Proto-Norse was developing into what academics have now called "Old Norse." This language would be spoken not only by the inhabitants of what are now the modern-day Nordic countries but by a huge region encompassing the Russian steppes, the British Isles, Newfoundland, and along the various river systems of Eastern Europe.

The geographical distribution of Old Norse

Following the evolution of Proto-Norse into Old Norse, and the rise and expansion of peoples from Viking societies, the language split into two groups: Old West Norse and Old East Norse. Old West Norse consisted of Old Norwegian, Old Icelandic, and the Norse settlements of Greenland, the British Isles, and northwest Normandy. Old East Norse, however, was the language of choice for many in Denmark, Sweden, the Russian Steppes, the Kievan Rus, and Danish settlements in Normandy. This made Old Norse, by the early 11th century, one of the most spoken languages in Europe.

Runes were mostly carved in stone or wood, by axes, knives, and similar tools. Photo: Petr Sidorov / Unsplash

This geographical distribution and grouping explain some of the linguistic similarities between the modern descendants of Old Norse. Old West Norse would become the Western Nordic languages of Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian. The modern-day descendants of Old East Norse are Danish and Swedish. However, Norwegian has been heavily influenced by Old East Norse (Danish) due to the personal union of Denmark and Norway that replaced the Kalmar Union in 1397 and lasted into the Age of Revolutions in the late 18th century CE.

Old Norse as a written language

The earliest recording of the Old Norse language is runic and may have been used, in parts of Scandinavia, up until the 15th century. With the Christianization of Scandinavia, from the 8th century onwards, the Latin alphabet arrived, and runic inscriptions became less and less used. It should be noted, however, that this process of Christianization, and the widespread adoption of the Latin alphabet in this region, took over three centuries, more or less completed by the late 11th / early 12th century CE.

The best source we have today of the Old Norse language are the epic sagas written during this time. The Norse sagas – especially the Icelandic sagas (such as the Heimskringla written by Snorri Sturluson) – represent, perhaps, the finest and most enthralling written examples of the Old Norse language. They have been heavily translated into a multitude of modern-day languages, partly explaining the recent resurgence in interest in the Viking Era.

For those wanting to experience Old Norse, a trip to Iceland is a must. The modern Icelandic written language slightly differs from Old Norse, but those lucky enough to speak Icelandic can read Old Norse. However, the pronunciation of words has considerably changed since the Age of the Vikings.

To read an article on the Old Norse language's impact on modern British surnames, head to The New European webpage here

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