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Old Norse language

Old Norse or Danish tongue is the Germanic language once spoken by the inhabitants of the Nordic countries (for instance during the Viking Age).

Formally, it can be divided into two similar dialects:

West Norse:Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian
East Norse:Old Danish and Old Swedish

In the 11th century, it was the most widely spoken European language, ranging from the Icelandic settlements in Vinland and Greenland to the Swedish settlements in Russia in the East, and to the Danish settlements in England and Normandy in the south.

Its modern descendants are the West Scandinavian languages of Icelandic, Norwegian, Faroese and the extinct Norn language of the Orkney and the Shetland Islands as well as the East Scandinavian languages of Swedish and Danish. Norwegian was later heavily influenced by East Scandinavian.

Among these, Icelandic and the closely related Faroese have changed the least from Old Norse in the last thousand years, although with Danish rule of the Faroe Islands Faroese has also been influenced by Danish. Old Norse also had an influence on English dialects and particularly Scots which contains many Old Norse loanwords. It also influenced the development of the Norman language.

The earliest inscriptions are runic, from the 1st century, and runes continued to be used for a thousand years. The main literary texts are in the Latin alphabet, the great sagas and eddas of medieval Iceland.



The standardized Old Norse spelling is for the most part phonemic. The most notable deviation is that the non-phonemic difference between the voiced and the unvoiced dental fricatives is marked.


The vowel phonemes mostly come in pairs of long and short. The orthography marks the long vowels with an acute accent. The short counterpart of /ę/ is not a phoneme but an allophone of /e/. The long counterpart of /ö/ has merged with /į/ in the classical (13th century) language. All phonemes have, more or less, the expected phonetic realization.

Back vowels:

/a/ /į/

/ǫ/ /ǭ/ (pronounced as Sampa [O]; the latter should be o with an ogonek and an acute accent, but Unicode doesn't allow for that.)

/o/ /ó/

/u/ /ś/

Front unrounded vowels:


/e/ /é/

/i/ /ķ/

Front rounded vowels:

/ų/ /œ/ (properly oe-ligature)

/y/ /ż/


Old Norse has six stop phonemes. Of these /p/ is rare word-initially and /d/ and /b/ do not occur between vowels. The /g/ phoneme is realized as a voiced fricative between vowels.

/t/ /d/

/k/ /g/

/p/ /b/



/θ/ (<ž>) /š/




/l/ /r/


/j/ /v/

Text Example

The following text is from Egils saga. The manuscript is the oldest known for that saga, the so called θ-fragment from the 13th century. The text clearly shows, how little Icelandic has changed structurally. The last version is legitimate Modern Icelandic, although nothing has been altered but the spelling. The text also demonstrates, however, that a modern reader might have difficulties with the unaltered manuscript text, to say nothing of the lettering.

The manuscript text, letter for letter The same text in normalized, Old Icelandic spelling The same text in Modern Icelandic

ŽgeiR blundr systor s egils v žar ažingino & hafši gengit hart at ližueizlo viš žst. h baš egil & ža žstein coma ser t stašfesto ut žangat a myrar h bio ašr fyr suNan huit a fyr nežan blundz vatn Egill toc uel ažui. oc fysti žst at žr leti h žangat fa ra. Egill setti žorgeir blund nišr at ana brecko En stein fǫrši bustaš siN ut yf lang į. & settiz nišr at leiro lǫk. En egill reiš hei sušr anes ept žingit m flocc siN. & skilšoz žr fešgar m kęrleic

Žorgeirr blundr, systursonr Egils, var žar į žinginu ok hafši gengit hart at lišveizlu viš Žorstein. Hann baš Egil ok žį Žorstein koma sér til stašfestu śt žangat į Mżrar; hann bjó įšr fyrir sunnan Hvķtį, fyrir nešan Blundsvatn. Egill tók vel į žvķ ok fżsti Žorstein, at žeir léti hann žangat fara. Egill setti Žorgeir blund nišr at Įnabrekku, en Steinarr fœrši bśstaš sinn śt yfir Langį ok settisk nišr at Leirulęk. En Egill reiš heim sušr į Nes eptir žingit meš flokk sinn, ok skildusk žeir fešgar meš kęrleik.

Žorgeir blundur, systursonur Egils, var žar į žinginu og hafši gengiš hart aš lišveislu viš Žorstein. Hann baš Egil og žį Žorstein koma sér til stašfestu śt žangaš į Mżrar; hann bjó įšur fyrir sunnan Hvķtį, fyrir nešan Blundsvatn. Egill tók vel į žvķ og fżsti Žorstein, aš žeir létu hann žangaš fara. Egill setti Žorgeir blund nišur aš Įnabrekku, en Steinar fęrši bśstaš sinn śt yfir Langį og settist nišur aš Leirulęk. En Egill reiš heim sušur į Nes eftir žingiš meš flokk sinn, og skildust žeir fešgar meš kęrleik.

See also


  • Gordon, Eric V. and A. R. Taylor. Introduction to Old Norse. Second. ed. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1981.

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45