What Language Did Vikings Speak

What language did Vikings speak? A guide to Viking language

“What language did Vikings speak?” is a surprisingly common question among those interested in learning about the Viking culture. Since the Vikings were often distributed in various locations around the world, from Canada to the Baltic Sea, it’s easy to assume they learned different tongues.

However, the reality is most Vikings still spoke Old Norse, regardless of where they were in the world. While some settlers in different landscapes also learned how to use local languages, they were often taught Old Norse from an early age, and carried it wherever they went.

In fact, the Old Norse language was so significant amount the Vikings, it influenced the evolution of many of the tongues we speak today. There are aspects of Old Norse in everything from Icelandic to the Anglo-Saxon language which eventually became “English”.

Let’s take a closer look at the language of the Vikings.

What language did Vikings speak?

An introduction to Old Norse

The most common answer to “What language did Vikings speak” is simply “Old Norse”. This was the language spoken across Scandinavia, and the Nordic settlements from which Vikings originated. The language of the Vikings wasn’t created specifically by the community, however.

The tongue was adapted from an ancestral language known as “Proto-Norse”, a form of North Germanic language. According to some historians, this was the first language to appear in runic inscriptions.

At the beginning of the 8th century, Scandinavians, including many Vikings, began to reduce their alphabet, cutting out letters to leave them with the simple 16-letter runic alphabet we can still recognize today.

Researchers and archeologists have found thousands of runic inscriptions from the Viking age. However, they’re not always easy to interpret.

The oldest writing ever found in the “Runic language” was found on a small comb carved out of bone, which was discovered in Denmark, and hails from around A.D. 150. This language evolved over time to become the Old Norse, or “Elder Futhark” which created the first Scandinavian alphabet.

What Language Did Vikings Speak

Did Vikings speak different languages?

If you’re wondering “what language did Vikings speak?” you’re probably also wondering whether they might have taken on other tongues over the years.

Vikings were highly adaptable people. Their adventurous nature took them to foreign shores all over the world, where they picked up new languages, like Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, and even Gaelic.

However, even when adopting these new tongues, the Vikings remained true to their homeland, and taught their children their version of Old Norse.

Interestingly, within Old Norse, there were also various “dialects”, such as:

Old West Norse

Formed out of a combination of the Old Icelandic as well as Old Norwegian. This dialect was most commonly used by Viking settlers across the British Isles, Normandy, and Norway.

Old East Norse 

The language most commonly spoken across Denmark, Sweden, and further east, into the regions of Russia.

Old Gutnish 

This is the old “Swedish” version of Norse, which was common in the isle of Gotland. The tongue has routes in the “Gothic language”, which is an extinct form of the East Germanic language.

Though the dialects were slightly different among Vikings in different regions, most could still understand each other, which helped significantly with planning sieges and battles around the world.

Unfortunately, many historians haven’t found understanding Viking languages to be as simple.

Many new words and sounds were introduced over the years by the Viking people, and a lot of the longer words from ancient Norse were shortened to be more compact.

What Language Did Vikings Speak

What language is closest to the Viking language?

As mentioned above, the language spoken by Vikings has had a direct impact on the evolution of other languages throughout the years.

Various languages have words taken from Old Norse roots. However, if you’re wondering “what language is closest to the Viking language” the answer is Icelandic.

The written system introduced for Icelandic today is close enough to Old Norse that some locals can even read Old Norse texts. Some researchers believe the similarity is similar to the connection between Shakespearean English and modern English.

According to experts, Icelandic was originally started by the Viking settlers in Iceland during the 9th century. This is also the language in which many Viking texts like the Poetic and Prose Eddas are written.

Old Icelandic was the tongue spoken by many important Viking skalds, like Snorri Snurlson.

Icelandic is closest in structure to the Old West Norse dialect, making it an ideal option for learners who want to explore learning the Viking language themselves.

Modern equivalents to the Viking Language

Though the closest modern alternative to the Viking language is Icelandic, various other Scandinavian and modern tongues have emerged with influence from Old Norse. For instance, Danish, primarily spoken in Denmark, but also in the US, and South America, has connections to Old East Norse.

Norwegian, on the other hand, which is part of the Germanic language family, has close connections to Old Norse. However, Norway also has strong connections with the Finno-Urgic language family, thanks to the evolution of the tongue spoken by indigenous Sami people.

Another language still used in modern times with links to Old Norse is Faroese. This is the language of the Faroe Islands, which are very close to Iceland. Faroese is similar in a lot of ways to Icelandic, which takes its inspiration from Old West Norse.

Even Swedish, a language spoken by nearly 10 million people worldwide has some similarities to Old Norse via “Old Gutnish”.

Words of Old Norse origin are also present in the English language, as a result of the contact between Vikings and the English during the 9th to 11th century. Many of these words have formed a common part of our core vocabulary, like “knife” or “egg” or “arm”.

Is it still possible to learn the Viking language?

After answering the question “What language did Vikings speak?” you might be tempted to try the tongue for yourself. Ultimately, speaking Old Norse today might not be very helpful, as there are only a handful of people who can speak and read it fluently.

However, you can take lessons in Old Norse dialect if you choose.

There are online classes covering the basics of Old Norse, as well as video and language guides. Most of these courses focus heavily on the Old West Norse language, which eventually transformed into Icelandic.

If you’re planning on exploring Scandinavia, you might consider expanding on your Old Norse knowledge with a little Icelandic too.

If you’re planning on learning Old Norse, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the Younger Futhark script and the runic language, which is very different to the Latin alphabet we know today.

The level of inflection in Old Norse is also very similar to that found in Scandinavian and German language today, so you might find it easier to learn other Scandinavian tongues once you’ve developed a knowledge of Old Norse, or vice versa.

What Language Did Vikings Speak

The evolution of the Viking language

Although learning Old Norse today might seem like an unusual thing to do in a time when the Vikings have long since died out, there are aspects of this tongue in many parts of the world we live in today.

Aside from being an ancestor to various Scandinavian languages, Old Norse is also heavily connected to the English language, which borrowed phrases from various environments.

Old Norse actually might be quite simple to learn for some English speakers, because there are commonalities between many of our most common words. For instance, “same” in English would be “Sami” in Viking, while “cake” is “kaka”.

Even basic words like “Hi” in English sound very similar in Old Norse (Hei). However, there were various other phrases which might be more complicated to learn if you’re not familiar with Icelandic, as the Viking language used a lot of letters we don’t have in the English alphabet.

For instance, “Thank you” in English would be “þakka”.

Did Vikings speak Norwegian, Swedish or Danish?

Ultimately, answering the question “what language did Vikings speak” can be a little complex, as the Vikings were capable of speaking many languages.

Though these people didn’t speak Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish as we know them today, the Old Norse language did inspire a lot of the Scandinavian languages now in use.

Vikings not only influenced the development of multiple modern languages, but also embraced various different tongues as they explored the world, highlighting their educated background.

The Viking language plays a huge part in the world as we know it today. If you speak English, or Icelandic, you may already be able to read a bit of the Viking language.

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