What Language Did the Vikings Speak?

When the Vikings to start with began to spread out from their northern lands to raid and conquer large swaths of Europe at the stop of the eighth century, they were being aided by remarkable maritime skills and the advancement of sailing engineering.

But how did they conceive their plans and communicate the intelligence over a huge swath of land stretching at a single issue from Newfoundland, Canada, to the jap Baltic Sea? Incredibly, a ton a lot more effortlessly possibly than men and women residing in individuals areas today. Soon after all, they spoke the exact language back then.

“Old Norse emerges from all-around the eighth century and then is made use of during the Viking Age and then the medieval time period,” states Kristel Zilmer, a runologist at the Museum of Cultural Heritage in Oslo. “It was a shared typical language in Scandinavia and in the islands in the north Atlantic settled by the Scandinavians.”

Previous Norse is continue to with us in English. Words like egg, knife, choose and even husband were being imported with Viking immigration and conquest over the decades.

But the place did this language occur from and how was it made use of?

Older Norse

Previous Norse did not occur out of nowhere. It arose about in the early eighth century, numerous a long time prior to the advancement of longships when the Viking Age really commences to kick off. Right before this, Scandinavians spoke an more mature northern Germanic language normally referred to as Historical Nordic or Proto-Norse. This was the to start with language prepared in runic inscriptions, or the historical Scandinavian alphabet made up of about 24 letters and referred to as Elder Futhark.

The oldest such producing still discovered dates to about A.D. a hundred and fifty. The producing is identified on a small comb carved out of bone discovered in Denmark. Zilmer states that linguists commonly believe that that the language arose prior to then, likely sometime in the to start with century Advert.

Elder Futhark ongoing to be made use of till about the 700s. Throughout this time period, runic letters were being inscribed on leather-based, antlers and other bone artifacts, metal — and the well-known runestones. The to start with of the latter confirmed up in about the 4th or 5th century, but they began to grow to be substantially a lot more typical in the preceding centuries.

All over the commencing of the eighth century, Scandinavians chopped down their alphabet, combining appears like K with G, and B with P to depart them with a simplified sixteen-letter runic alphabet. Researchers have identified a lot more than 3,500 runic inscriptions from the Viking Age, Zilmer states. But the simplification did not make things less complicated for scientists — runes in the later time period are really less complicated to misinterpret owing to the letter combinations.

These variations in alphabet were being also accompanied by variations in the sound of the language. New words were being released and new vowel and consonant appears began to look amongst about 500 to seven-hundred. Several of the relatively prolonged words of Historical Nordic were being shortened. “It’s pretty thoroughly restructured,” Zilmer states.


Some of the ideal identified illustrations of runic inscriptions are spread all across Europe from in the vicinity of the Black Sea in Russia to Normandy and all over the British Isles. These elevated stones commonly are covered in runic inscriptions, at times accompanied by artwork. Zilmer states that although their inscriptions can vary, they are normally commemorative, listing the names of dead household users, pals or trading partners. Presented the size of the stones, the inscriptions normally are not that prolonged. They could state who set the stone up and in whose memory, with possibly a limited observe about the farm they held.

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

A few runestones have strains of verse. Norse gods like Thor or Odin are at times described as properly in the before time period. Soon after Scandinavia became Christianized starting off in the 11th century when Vikings began to provide the faith of some of the lands they conquered back to their house, runestones at times contained prayers for the soul of the dead household users or pals.

Runestones and other runic inscriptions are really a single of few sources we have about the Vikings from the Vikings. Most of the lore surrounding Viking raids and other exploits occur to us by means of the accounts of other Europeans on the brunt stop of their assaults.

“Runic inscriptions are the kind of resource that originates from the time,” Zilmer states. “They are in a way the most direct glimpses that we get into their society at the time.”

Lingua Franca

When Previous Norse was the language that related the men and women of Scandinavia throughout the Viking Age, the intercontinental mother nature of the Nordic international locations at that time would have essential polyglots — they did not generally raid to start with and ask concerns later.

“Many men and women and communities at that time would have been multilingual,” Zilmer states.

As some of the Vikings conquered land in Britain and somewhere else, they introduced their language with them. More than generations, Previous Norse was blended with community languages. Previous English has a ton of Norse impact, for case in point, and a lot of position names in Britain today occur from Previous Norse.

“The language contacts experienced been really rigorous,” Zilmer states.

When Previous Norse is regarded a single language, the tongue plainly experienced dialects that differed amongst areas like Denmark and Iceland, she states, however men and women in individuals parts could possible continue to have an understanding of each and every other. Several of these distinctions widened throughout the late Middle Ages, starting to be one thing a lot more very similar to the languages spoken in individuals international locations today.

But other things attribute of Previous Norse and its predecessor began to vanish owing in component to the intercontinental mother nature of the Vikings. The Roman alphabet was released to Scandinavia in about the 11th century as Christianity was adopted. Some Vikings would also possible have figured out the alphabet throughout their raids and trade missions in the rest of Europe. Equally the runic alphabet and the Roman were being made use of side by side for a pair hundred decades prior to the latter took over. The past runestones date to about the 14th or 15th centuries, Zilmer states.

Maria J. Danford

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