How close is Norwegian to Old Norse?

Old Norse was spoken by the Vikings living in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroe Islands between 800-1350 AD.

While the original Old Norse language is dead, meaning that no one speaks it anymore, its closest offspring, Icelandic, still lives on.

Where Norwegian has veered away from its Old Norse roots, modern Icelandic is still close enough that most Icelanders can read texts written during the Viking Age.

It is therefore natural to compare Old Norse to Icelandic when looking at the relationship between Norwegian and Old Norse.

Finally, at the end of this article, we'll see 17 vocabulary words which are very similar between Old Norse and Norwegian.

Old Norse and Norwegian language history

The Old Norse Language

Old Norse and Norwegian are both North Germanic languages (a subfamily of the Indo-European languages).

Old Norse and Norwegian are related languages: Old Norse is the ancestral language from which Norwegian is derived.

Over time, Old Norse evolved into two different languages: East Norse, which turned into Swedish and Danish, and West Norse, which turned into Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese.

Many sagas were written in Old Norse, and the most famous of them is Heimskringla, a collection of stories about Swedish and Norwegian kings.

The Norwegian language

Language influence from Norway’s southern European neighbours has changed Norwegian a lot from its Old Norse roots. Norway was once under Danish rule, and from about 1500 to 1850, the Norwegian written language was replaced by Danish.

Another significant language influence was the Low German-speaking Hanseatic League, a commercial empire based in the North German cities of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, among others. The Hanseatic League had trading stations all across Europe, including the Norwegian city of Bergen.

When Norway got its independence from Denmark, Norwegians wanted their own written language. In 1907 the Norwegian written language got its first name, Riksspråket (The national language), thereafter renamed ‘Bokmål’ (Book language) by the parliament in 1929.

But the story doesn’t end there as Norway has two written languages, the second one called ’Nynorsk’ (New Norwegian). This written language was created and put in use in the 1850s as an attempt to rid the language of its Danish influence and prevent the loss of the many rural dialects in Norway.

Today only about 10% of Norwegians use New Norwegian, and they primarily reside in the western part of Norway.

In Nynorsk, the letter ‘e’ is often replaced by the letter ‘a’, making Nynorsk closer to Old Norse than Bokmål is. An example is the word «gammel» in Bokmål which is «gammal» in Nynorsk and «gammall» in Old Norse.

Vocabulary aside, Nynorsk and Bokmål share both grammar and the 29 Latin letters of the Norwegian alphabet. They are therefore classified as different dialects rather than separate languages.

Why is Modern Icelandic so close to Old Norse?

The people living in Iceland came mostly from mainland Norway during the Viking Era. In contrast to Norwegians travelling to America, no one was living in Iceland at the time, so there were no competing languages.

Not to mention the geographical placement of Iceland as an island far up north and a long journey via boat. This kept foreign language influence to a minimum, and even now, in the Information Age, Iceland still fights this influence.

Linguistic purism in Icelandic is a policy to prevent and discourage words from foreign languages from entering the Icelandic language. Instead, new words are created from Old Icelandic and Old Norse roots.

However, Icelandic is not identical to Old Nose. The grammar stayed pretty much the same, but there are some differences in spelling, sound shifts, and new modern words and meanings.

Old Norse alphabet vs. the Norwegian alphabet

Old Norse and Norwegian are both languages which have additional letters not found in the English alphabet. These additional letters are not shared between Old Norse and Norwegian: each one has its own additional letters.

Old Norse Alphabet

Old Norse was originally written in a runic alphabet called Futhark. Its name derives from the first seven letters of its alphabet, much like ‘qwerty-keyboards’ got its name from the top left letters of the keyboard.

Futhark eventually got replaced with Latin letters when the Nordic countries became Christians. However, two runes remained, namely Ð and Þ, which are still a part of the Icelandic alphabet today.

There are a number of Old Norse letters which are not found in the Norwegian alphabet:

Norwegian Alphabet

The modern Norwegian alphabet consists of 29 Latin letters and has been officially in use since 1917. It is identical to the Danish alphabet and is also called the Dano-Norwegian alphabet.

Compared to the English alphabet, Norwegian has three additional letters.

Like Icelandic, Norway also has letters that are primarily for loanwords, foreign words, and the occasional name. These letters are c, q, w, x, and z.

Old Norse and Norwegian grammar differences

Unlike Norwegian, Old Norse is a highly inflected language: in particular the endings of nouns often change in order to indicate their grammatical case in a sentence. There are 4 grammatical cases in Old Norse: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive

Old Norse is also more complicated when it comes to verb inflections. While there is only one form of the present tense in Norwegian, there are six in Old Norse. In comparison, English has three. Norwegian has, on its part, become a language with more analytical word structures.

Are Old Norse and Norwegian mutually intelligible?

While some of the words are the same, Norwegian and Old Norse are languages which as a whole differ greatly.

One of the best indications that Norwegians would struggle to understand someone speaking Old Norse, and vice versa, is that Norwegian and Icelandic are not mutually intelligible.

While Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes can to some degree understand each other, Icelanders are the odd ones out - linguistically speaking.

However, even though Norwegian and Old Norse are separate languages, many words are still similar, as seen in the following list:

Old Norse Norwegian English
orð ord word
skjǫldr skjold shield
stórr stor big
ráð råd advice
sárr såret wounded
aldri aldri never
bóndi bonde farmer
brott borte away
dagr dag day
hestr hest horse
konungr konge king
kveld kveld evening
með med with
vár vår spring
vinr venn friend
gamall gammel old
ungr ung young

As seen in the list, many of the words in Old Norse end with a consonant followed by an ‘r’. This is not the case in Norwegian, as almost every word ending with an ‘r’ is preceded by either a vowel or another ‘r.’

When it comes to pronunciation, Old Norse does not utilize silent letters whereas Norwegian does. Some words written in almost the same way can sound very different when spoken out loud, complicating the understanding process even more.

Conclusion

Even though Norwegian is a child of Old Norse, the influence of Low German and other European languages has evolved it into a completely different language.

While there are some similarities, the fact that Norwegians and Icelanders struggle to understand each other tells us that Old Norse and Norwegian have become two different languages.