What Language Did the Vikings Speak?
Photo of CNS member Sheila Hellstrom enjoying the Viking Exhibit, by Peter Macnaughton
Canadian Nordic Society members and their friends enjoyed a private viewing of the Viking exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History on the evening of March 10. This was such a popular event that we had to reluctantly turn a few people away. Our quota was 76 people, and we filled it! Before we viewed this wonderful exhibit, we were given an introductory lecture by Dr. Dean Oliver, Director of Research for the Museum, followed by a question and answer period. One of the attendees asked a very interesting question: what language did the Vikings speak?
Dr. Oliver had already explained that the exhibit had been prepared by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden, in partnership with MuseumsPartner in Austria, and that it focused on Viking finds in Sweden. But those of us who were of Norwegian or Danish background knew that some of the Vikings came from those countries as well. Dr. Teve Vidal, a CNS member and Viking scholar, was in attendance and was able to explain that the Vikings spoke Old Norse. He noted that Norway, Sweden, and Denmark did not exist as separate countries at that time. Scandinavia was made up of numerous “petty fiefdoms” loosely ruled by local chieftains or kings. Variations of what we now call Old Norse were spoken throughout the area. They were mutually intelligible, so they are considered dialects of Old Norse and and not separate languages.
“How did they communicate with the people they traded with?” was the next question. The answer is that they would pick up enough phrases from the people they traded with to make themselves understood. Among others, they traded with Celts, Anglo Saxons, Franks, Hispanics, and Arabs. Then as now, some people seem to have a knack for learning languages, and we can imagine that the Vikings would have tried to ensure they had someone on board who had picked up some knowledge of the languages of their trading partners.
Of course, languages evolve and change considerably over time. Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are still somewhat mutually intelligible, depending on the ear of the listener. Several years ago, when I was working at the Toronto Airport, an elderly Swedish couple who spoke no English came to my counter. They were very surprised when I started speaking to them in my English-accented Norwegian, but we were able to communicate with each other quite well. On the other hand, when the annual planeload of Icelanders on their way to Gimli, Manitoba came through the airport, I listened closely but could not understand a single word they said. Icelandic can no longer be understood by Norwegian speakers who have not learned it. (Finnish, of course, did not evolve from Old Norse. It is more closely related to Hungarian and Estonian than to any of the other Nordic languages.)
To realize how much a language can change over time, we have only to think about how different the English we speak today is from the English that was spoken in Shakespeare’s day. This year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To mark this milestone, the University of Ottawa is organizing on April 8 a reading of Hamlet in many different languages, including “Klingon”. Canadian Nordic Society is pitching in by supplying native speakers of Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, and Norwegian. Each speaker will read a passage from the play in their native language.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is really best in any book is translatable - any real insight or human sentiment.” Perhaps if he were alive today he would add “…any real insight, or human or Klingon sentiment” (but I doubt it).