Deciphering the Viking Tongue: The Old Norse Language

what language did the vikings speak

The Vikings were known for their seafaring skills, raids, and conquests. But what language did the Vikings speak? The answer is Old Norse, one of the ancient dialects of the Germanic language family. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of the Old Norse language and its role in Viking society.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Vikings spoke Old Norse, an ancient dialect of the Germanic language family.
  • Old Norse played a significant role in Viking society, including literature, law, and religious practices.
  • The distinct characteristics of Old Norse set it apart from other languages of the time.
  • The writing system used to record Old Norse, including the runic script, was significant in preserving the language.
  • The lasting impact of Old Norse on the English language can be seen in words and phrases borrowed from the Viking tongue.

The Origins of Old Norse

The Old Norse language, also known as Norse or Viking language, originated from the Germanic languages spoken by the early Germanic tribes in Northern Europe. The Germanic tribes migrated to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe around the first millennium BCE.

Early Old Norse developed in Scandinavia and was heavily influenced by the languages of the surrounding regions, including Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old English. Early Old Norse was spoken from around 500 CE to 800 CE.

The Viking Age, which lasted from the 8th century to the 11th century, saw the expansion of the Norse people across Europe and the emergence of a standard Old Norse language. The Viking language then evolved into the middle and late Old Norse spoken from the 12th century to the 14th century.

The Old Norse language was primarily spoken in Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. Today, the language is considered extinct and is only used in historical and linguistic contexts.

Characteristics of Old Norse

The Old Norse language is unique in its grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Its distinct features set it apart from other languages spoken during the Viking era. Some of the key characteristics of Old Norse include:

  • Fusional inflection: Old Norse has a complex system of suffixes and endings that convey different meanings related to tense, case, and gender. Verbs have four conjugations and four moods, including the subjunctive and optative.
  • Extensive use of compounds: Old Norse often combines words to create new ones, resulting in lengthy and descriptive words. For example, “hléskóðun” means a “shield-protecting-fortification.”
  • Frequent use of kennings: Kennings are poetic metaphors that describe something using indirect language, often involving a clever comparison. For example, “whale-road” refers to the sea.
  • Pronunciation: Old Norse had unique vowel sounds and distinct consonant pronunciation, including the “th” sound found in the word “Thor.” It is believed that Old Norse was spoken with a specific tonal quality or melody that is difficult to replicate today.

These distinctive linguistic features helped shape the Old Norse language and give it a rich and complex identity that is still studied and admired today.

Old Norse in Viking Society

The Old Norse language played a crucial role in Viking society, serving as a means of communication and expression for the Norse people.

One of the most significant ways in which Old Norse was used was in literature. The sagas, epic tales of Nordic heroes and their deeds, were transmitted orally for generations before being compiled in written form. These sagas were not just entertainment; they were also a means of preserving cultural heritage and identity. By telling and retelling these stories, the Norse people reinforced their understanding of their history and values.

In addition to literature, Old Norse was also employed in law and religious practices. The Icelandic law code, known as the Grágás, was written in Old Norse and served as a legal guide for centuries. Similarly, the runes, symbols used in the runic script, were imbued with religious significance and were used in various religious ceremonies.

The importance of Old Norse in Viking society cannot be overstated. It was a unifying force that allowed the Norse people to communicate with one another and express their cultural identity. Its use in literature, law, and religion ensured its enduring influence long after the end of the Viking Age.

Old Norse Writing System

The Old Norse writing system played a crucial role in preserving the language and transmitting it through generations. The earliest Old Norse texts were written in the runic script, a system of writing using angular marks called runes. However, as the language evolved, the Latin script became more prevalent, and Old Norse texts were written using a modified version of the Latin alphabet.

Old Norse has several distinct letters that are not included in the modern English alphabet, such as Þ (thorn), which represents the “th” sound, and Ð (eth), which represents the voiced “th” sound. These letters were included in the Latin-based writing system used for Old Norse texts.

The Old Norse writing system was used to record a wide range of texts, including literature, legal documents, and inscriptions on objects and buildings. The language was also used extensively in religious practices, and many of the surviving Old Norse texts are associated with Norse mythology.

Today, the Old Norse writing system is still used in some contexts, such as on runestones and in tattoos. Learning to read and write Old Norse can provide insights into the language and culture of the Viking Age.

Old Norse Influences on Modern English

The influence of the Old Norse language can be seen throughout the English language, with many words and phrases borrowed from this ancient language. The Vikings weren’t just warriors, they were also traders, and as they traveled the world, they brought their language with them, leaving an indelible mark on the languages of the places they visited.

Some of the most common Old Norse words in English include “cake,” “egg,” and “leg,” among others. Other words that are less commonly used today but have their roots in the Old Norse language include “berserk,” “fjord,” and “thorpe.”

In addition to vocabulary, Old Norse has also had an impact on the grammar and syntax of the English language. For example, the use of the third-person plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” can be traced back to Old Norse, which did not distinguish between genders in the plural form of the pronoun “they.”

Overall, the influence of Old Norse on the English language is undeniable, with many of the words we use today having their roots in this ancient language. By studying Old Norse, we can gain a better understanding of the evolution of the English language and the impact that historical events and cultures have had on our modern language.

Old Norse in Modern Culture

The influence of Old Norse can be seen in various forms of popular media, including movies, television shows, and literature. Its enduring legacy has captivated audiences from around the world, providing a glimpse into the fascinating world of the Vikings.

The blockbuster hit series, Vikings, has captured the hearts of viewers with its compelling storyline, complex characters, and authentic portrayal of Viking culture. The show’s creators, Michael Hirst and Morgan O’Sullivan, have gone to great lengths to ensure historical accuracy, including the use of Old Norse language in the dialogue.

“The language is important because it is the only direct way we have of hearing the Vikings speak,” says Hirst. “It’s like being able to talk to them across a thousand years.”

Old Norse has also influenced literature, particularly in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. The world-renowned author J.R.R. Tolkien drew upon Old Norse mythology when crafting the world of Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similarly, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods features Old Norse gods as central characters.

The influence of Old Norse is not limited to entertainment media. It has also made its mark in the world of fashion, with designers drawing inspiration from Viking culture and incorporating elements of Old Norse art and mythology into their designs. The brand, Norse Projects, takes its name from the language and features Norse symbols in its clothing and accessories.

Learning Old Norse Today

For those interested in delving into the fascinating world of the Old Norse language, there are several resources available to help you learn. Whether you prefer traditional classroom settings or online learning platforms, there are options to suit your needs.

Viking Language Courses

One option for learning Old Norse is to take a language course specifically focused on Viking language. These courses are typically offered by universities or language schools and provide a structured approach to learning the language.

For example, the University of Iceland offers a course on Old Norse for beginners that covers basic grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The course includes readings from Old Norse sagas and other texts. For those looking for a more in-depth study, the Viking Language Series by Jesse L. Byock provides a comprehensive guide to Old Norse grammar and vocabulary.

Resources for Old Norse

There are also many resources available for self-study of Old Norse. Some of the most popular resources include textbooks, dictionaries, and online forums.

One widely recommended textbook is “Old Norse for Beginners” by John Lindow. This book provides a comprehensive introduction to the Old Norse language and is suitable for self-study or as a supplement to a language course.

Dictionaries are also a valuable resource for learning Old Norse. One popular option is the “Old Norse-Icelandic Dictionary” by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, which provides a comprehensive listing of Old Norse words and their meanings.

Online forums and study groups can also be a great way to connect with others who are learning Old Norse. The Old Norse subreddit is a popular community for discussing all things related to Viking language and culture.

Old Norse and Historical Linguistics

The study of Old Norse has played a significant role in the field of historical linguistics. It has contributed to the understanding of language change, language contact, and the reconstruction of ancient languages. By examining the Old Norse language, linguists can gain insights into the development of Germanic languages and their historical relationships with other language families.

One area of research that has been impacted by Old Norse is language contact. The Viking Age saw the spread of Old Norse across large parts of Europe, leading to contact with other languages. The study of Old Norse and its influence on other languages can provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of language contact and the ways in which languages borrow and adapt words and grammar structures from each other.

Another area of historical linguistics in which Old Norse has been influential is the reconstruction of proto-languages. Old Norse is a descendant of proto-Germanic, and by studying its features and comparing it to other Germanic languages, linguists can reconstruct the features of proto-Germanic and trace its evolution over time.

Furthermore, the study of Old Norse has contributed to the understanding of language change and the factors that drive it. The changes that occurred in Old Norse over time can be studied to understand how languages evolve and the factors that contribute to their development.

Overall, the study of Old Norse and its role in historical linguistics highlights the importance of language in shaping human history and culture. It underscores the value of preserving and studying endangered languages and the insights they can provide into the evolution of human language and culture over time.


In conclusion, the Old Norse language was a fascinating and important aspect of Viking society. Its origins can be traced back to the Germanic languages and the migration of the Norse people. Old Norse evolved over time and gained unique characteristics that set it apart from other ancient dialects.

The language played a crucial role in Viking culture, used in literature, law, and religious practices, among others. Old Norse also had a significant influence on the English language, with many words and phrases borrowed from it still in use today.

Although the Old Norse language is no longer spoken today, it remains an important subject of study in linguistics and historical research. Resources and opportunities are available for those interested in learning Old Norse, providing a window into this ancient language and Viking culture.

In summary, the Old Norse language is an essential part of Viking history and culture, leaving a lasting impact on the world today. The study of Old Norse provides insights into language change and language contacts, contributing to the ongoing understanding of linguistics and ancient languages.


What is the Old Norse language?

The Old Norse language is the language spoken by the Vikings and other Norsemen during the Viking Age. It is an ancient Germanic language that was used in the Scandinavian region from approximately the 9th to the 13th century.

How did the Old Norse language originate?

The Old Norse language evolved from the Proto-Germanic language spoken by various Germanic tribes. It developed alongside other Germanic languages and was influenced by the migration and contact of Norse people with different cultures.

What are the unique characteristics of the Old Norse language?

The Old Norse language is known for its complex grammar and rich vocabulary. It features distinctive inflectional and syntactical patterns, including four noun cases and verb conjugation based on person and number. It also has a unique phonological system with specific vowel and consonant sounds.

How was Old Norse used in Viking society?

Old Norse had a significant role in Viking society. It was used in various contexts such as religious practices, legal documents, literature, and everyday communication. It was crucial for preserving cultural identity and played a vital role in the transmission of historical and mythological narratives.

What was the Old Norse writing system?

The Old Norse writing system primarily used the runic script, known as the Elder Futhark. Runic inscriptions were carved on various objects, from memorial stones to personal belongings. Over time, the Latin alphabet also became more prevalent in written Old Norse.

How did Old Norse influence modern English?

Old Norse has had a lasting impact on the English language. It contributed numerous words to the English vocabulary, especially related to maritime, trade, and everyday life. Examples include “berserk,” “skirt,” and “window,” which have Old Norse origins.

How is Old Norse represented in modern culture?

Old Norse continues to have a presence in modern culture. It is often depicted in popular media, such as movies and literature, particularly those centered around Norse mythology or Vikings. Old Norse has also inspired various artistic works and influenced fantasy literature.

Where can I learn Old Norse today?

There are resources available for those interested in learning Old Norse. Online platforms, books, and courses specifically focused on teaching the language are accessible. These resources offer opportunities to study the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation of Old Norse.

What contributions has Old Norse made to historical linguistics?

The study of Old Norse has significantly contributed to the field of historical linguistics. It has provided valuable insights into language change, language contact, and the reconstruction of ancient languages. Old Norse texts have played a crucial role in understanding the development and evolution of Germanic languages.