Is the language used in movies and series depicting the Vikings true? The reality is that it’s not; instead, writers employ current Scandinavian languages to make it easier for the actors. The language the Vikings spoke is somewhat of a lost language, with university professors, enthusiasts, and nearly no one else speaking the language. One is therefore left to wonder, what language did the Vikings speak?
While they did have their language based on the few artifacts found, for the most part, the Vikings adopted the language of those they lived among. Let’s take a deep dive into what the Vikings spoke over the centuries and how it evolved.
Which language did the Vikings speak?
The straight answer as to what language the Vikings spoke is, well, it’s complicated. That’s because it depended on where the Viking lived. The Viking people occupied a vast territory, having originated from what we now know as modern-day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. They spread far and wide, ending up in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Iceland, Greenland, and even as far as Northern America. They also did settle in other areas in the European mainlined.
Having settled in all these places, it was unlikely that the Vikings could maintain a unified language. It’s worth remembering that the Vikings, though a people, were not under a single ruler. That then allowed them to integrate wherever they settled. The Vikings were encouraged to move about in search of new settlements when overpopulation became a concern. When they did, they’d find unoccupied land or conquer territory.
As for the language, the Vikings fall under the Nordic people, and thus, for the most part, spoke Old Norse. It was the common language in Scandinavia between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Viking existed between the 8th and 11th centuries, and thus likely they too spoke Proto-Norse or Proto-Germanic, a North Germanic language. During the centuries, languages did evolve. Old Norse itself broke off to accommodate other dialects, based on what area one lived in. For example, there was the Old West Norse dialect and the Old East Norse dialect.
The Old West Norse has influences from both the Old Norwegian and Icelandic languages. For the most part, this language was spoken in the following western territories: Norway, Ireland, Scotland, English, Normandy, and the Isle of Man. As for the Old East Norse dialect, those living in the east in countries such as Denmark or Sweden spoke it. There is also evidence that language made its way as far as Russia.
In some areas, they didn’t speak Old Norse, but instead Old English or Old Gutnish, which was influenced by the Gothic language. This latter language was spoken primarily by those settled in the area that is now modern-day Sweden, then called the Swedish Isle of Gotland. There was also Crimean Gothic, an East Germanic language that the Crimean Goths of Greuthungi-Gothic tribes spoke. The language lasted until the 18th century.
While these were all the languages the Vikings likely spoke, they too had their language known as Icelandic. It had its beginnings in Iceland from those who first settled there in the 9th century. It is mostly agreed that this was the Viking language since the Vikings sagas were written in the Icelandic language.
How do you say hello in Viking?
In Iceland, the greeting for hello is “heil og sæl.” In English, it loosely translates into wishing someone happiness and health. In the original Norse language, there were adjustments made to accommodate one’s gender. The men’s greeting was “heill ok sæll” while for women, it was “heil ok sæl.” If you wanted to keep the salutations simple, one would say “heill” to mean health, or you could go to say “ver heill ok sæll.” Here, you’d be wishing someone both happiness and health.
Did Vikings have a written language?
The Vikings did write. The written language the Vikings initially used was Old Norse but settled for Old Icelandic after migration. That is the language used in writing the sagas, which are stories and histories in prose form that originate from Iceland around the 9th and 10th centuries. Some of the well-known sagas consist of Viking voyages as they migrated to Iceland and the fights between them. There is also mention of what life was like in Norway before the migration. Overall, the stories indeed capture the time, with acts of bravery, betrayal, and wars being the undercutting themes.
The recording of these stories appear to have taken place between the 11th and 13th centuries. They ahd been passed down through the generations. It is, therefore, unclear who the authors were. All the same, these sagas were a mixture of reality and fiction, along with the passing down of oral and written tradition. There is also evidence that the existing manuscripts made their way to Sweden and Denmark before being returned to Iceland.
Old Norse still prevailed in other areas, with Icelandic being considered the vernacular language. The other written language during the Proto-Norse and Old Norse period used was the Runic language. For the Vikings they used a script called the Elder Futhark, which later got replaced with the Younger Futhark. That is where we get runes that we see on old artifacts. The Vikings also used runes to form words as one would with the Latin alphabet, with their use carrying weight. They would combine the runes to form words and phonetic sounds or use them individually as a symbol that would have a spiritual connotation.
The Vikings were, like any other people, a complex culture. They did travel far and wide, going as far as North America and Russia. It would thus have typically made it hard for everyone single one of them, over the centuries, to have a unified language. However, an understanding of their predominant Icelandic language should let you know that Hollywood and other entities are not entirely honest with their Viking characters.
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