The mystery of Vinland may be partly solved by understanding the language of the Vikings. Exactly how Vinland was spelt by the Vikings and how it was pronounced, determine its meaning.
The Vikings spoke Old Norse. Old Norse has a complex grammar with case endings which have since been dropped in all modern Scandinavian languages except Icelandic. The Old Norse name Leifr with the ending 'r' is Leif in modern Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. In modern Icelandic it is Leifur. However, depending on the position in the sentence, both Old Norse and Icelandic add other endings such as 'i'. Erik is Eirikr and like Leifr, the name changes according to the situation. The same sort of case endings were used in Latin but modern French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish have similarly dropped them. These modern languages are also grammatically simpler than their Latin ancestor.
Another characteristic of Old Norse is that people had no surnames. Instead they had patronymics, that is their father's first name with the addition of 'son' or 'daughter' Leif was Leif, Erik's son, which also can be written Eriksson. His sister Freydis was Freydis, Erik's daughter, or Eriksdóttir. To this day Icelanders generally do not have surnames and they are listed in the telephone book according to their first names.
To distinguish one Leifr from another, one often added a nickname such as Leifr hin heppni, Leif the Lucky, or Eiríkr rauđi, Erik the Red. The use of patronymics and nicknames was common in rural Europe and several areas of Canada such as Cape Breton throughout the nineteenth century.
Old Norse, modern Icelandic, Faeroese, and the other Scandinavian languages have several letters in addition to the twenty-six used in modern English. In all of them except in modern Swedish, the letter ć stands for a sound not present in English. Consisting of a combination of a and e, the closest English equivalent is e in English education. In Swedish this letter is written ä, the two dots being an abbreviation of e [>umlaut,= a modification of a vowel]. Danish, Norwegian and Faeroese also have an ř, in Swedish and Icelandic ö, pronounced something like i in English fir. The situation in Old Norse is complicated by several alternatives of pronunciation.
Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish ĺ [until the 1940s written aa in Danish] stands for a long vowel pronounced something like o in English long. Although the pronunciation in Old Norse differed from that of modern Icelandic and Faerose [exactly how is unknown], Iceland and the Faeroes have retained much of the medieval distinction in how a vowel could be pronounced in more than one way. Thus a is pronounced differently from á. In this case the accent indicating that it is a diphthong pronounced like English ou in house. The letter i is pronounced as a short i as in English wit. It also stood for j pronounced as y in English yard. The letter í is a long i pronounced as e in English evil.
The vowel o is short and pronounced like o in English cod, but ó is a diphthong pronounced like ou in English no. In addition to u there is also ú and ý in addition to y. While the plain u is pronounced like eu in French feu,ú is a diphthong pronounced like ou in Scottish-English out. The pronunciation of y and ý has varied but was similar to that of i.
Old Norse and Icelandic also have two consonants no longer existing in the other written Scandinavian languages. In addition to the regular d, there are two types of d. One is written Đ [in lower case đ], pronounced somewhat like th in English mother. The sound has been preserved in modern Danish, but the distinction from regular d has disappeared in writing. The other is Ţ [in lower case ţ] pronounced somewhat like th in English thing, some cases, like in some English dialects more like t.
In citing Scandinavian sources it is important to keep the above spellings as in many cases dropping the accents or umlauts [umlaut is a modified vowel], the meaning of a word can change drastically. An example is the word vin or vín in Vinland. While vin means 'meadow', vín means 'wine'. As we will see in the discussion of Vinland, the spelling is of major importance for where we should seek Vinland. Similar situations exist in other languages using umlauts and accents.
Recently Scandinavians themselves have begun dropping their umlauts and accents in e-mail addresses. It will be interesting to see if this in time will lead to radical changes in their languages and alphabetic systems.
Language, Script and Sagas
Languages are rarely static. Their grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and spelling are constantly changing. Generally, the grammar and spelling tend to become simplified over time.
The vocabulary changes and is sometimes increased when the speakers of one language come in intensive contact with speakers of another tongue. This was the case when the Normans conquered England in 1066 which resulted in a heavy addition of Norman French words to Old English.
One can think of language development as a tree where branches begin to grow off the main trunk. With time, other branches begin to grow off the first branches, and then more from them.
The language of the Vikings was Old Norse. Before the Viking Age, the Scandinavians spoke what is sometimes called Proto-Norse, the dialect of a language they shared with other Germanic people living in what is now Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of England. Proto-Norse was in turn a dialectal change from Old Germanic, which can ultimately be traced back to a common Indo-European ancestor of most European and several Asiatic languages. Old Germanic was in use in Scandinavia at the same time that Old Germanic runes were in vogue.
The change from Proto-Norse to Old Norse was fairly quick so that by the late 8th century Old Norse was spoken by all Scandinavians albeit with regional distinctions. At the same time the language of all Germanic people was diversified into languages which over time became German, Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, Anglo-Saxon, and, in relatively recent times, Afrikaans.
Old Norse contained several regional dialects, but it was easy for a person from the western part of Scandinavia and the Atlantic islands to understand someone in Denmark and Sweden. By the 11th and 12th century the differences were sufficiently noticeable for West Norse, spoken in Norway and the Atlantic region to be distinct from East Norse, spoken in Denmark and Sweden. By 13th century the East Norse spoken in Denmark was so distinct from that spoken in Sweden and Norway that their languages are now classified as Old Danish, Old Norwegian, and Old Swedish.
The differences in language continued to grow, developing into modern Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Danish and Swedish are about as different as Spanish and Italian, and they have difficulty understanding each other. Norwegian is somewhere in between the two, so that Danes and Norwegians and Swedes and Norwegians usually have no difficulty in communicating.
The situation in Iceland and, to some extent, the Faeroes is different. Icelanders still speak a form of Old Norse, and Faeroese is close to it. This is what usually happens when a small group of emigrants settle in a new area. The term for this phenomenon is ‘freezing effect.’ The language development stops. The Icelandic grammar, spelling, and pronunciation is so different from the other Scandinavian languages that it has to be learnt as foreign language by other Scandinavians, and vice versa.
Viking script was a writing system called runes. The origin of runic script is not certain, but some of the symbols have been borrowed from the Latin alphabet. It was probably developed in what is now northern Germany or possibly in Denmark in the 2nd century AD. Runic script continued in use in remote areas of Scandinavia, particularly in rural Sweden until the beginning of the 20th century.
Runic inscriptions have been studied and inventoried since the 16th century. Since then they have been systematically recorded in on-going journals. An Inter-Scandinavian database was created in 1993. By now it contains c. 6000 inscriptions which can be accessed globally on the Internet.
Additional runic inscriptions are discovered yearly. Most are published in the journal Nytt om runer. Meldingsblad om runeforskning [News about Runes. Bulletin for Rune Research], ISSN 0801-3756.
Because the first six letters in the original runic writing system are F U Ţ A R K, we call this system a fuţark, not an alphabet. The rune Ţ [upper case], ţ [lower case] was pronounced more or less like English ‘th’ and is transcribed as such.
As Christianity gained a foothold in Scandinavia during the Viking period, Latin script and its derivatives such as Carolingian script grew in popularity, especially in formal documents. With the church came books. Icelanders began producing their own books, many of which were translations of Latin religious texts into Old Norse. The books were hand-written on parchment, made from calf skins. The skins were cut up into rectangular leaves which were bound together with wooden boards as covers. One of the first books to be written in Iceland was produced around 1100. It contains the laws of the land, which up until that time had been preserved by memorizing. Other books followed. One was Íslendingabók [The Book of the Icelanders] by Ari frođi [Ari the Wise or Ari the Learned], written between 1120 and 1133. Another was a grammatical treatise written some time between 1125 and 1175. This is a remarkable document outlining how to adapt the Latin alphabet to the Old Norse language and pronunciation. Most of the early written works are of a historical nature serving as records of the past. Landnámabók, [The Book of Settlement], composed in the early 13th century, records the land claims of 430 settlers [presumably all belonging to the elite among the immigrants], their families and descendants. It includes 1500 farm names and 3500 personal names.
Later books show a greater literary artistry. Their favourite subjects are events which presumably took place in the Viking Age. In this category are Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, [Egil Skalla-Grimsson’s Saga or simply Egil’s Saga], Brennu-Njals Saga, or Njala [Njal’s Saga], Vatnsdćla saga [The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal], Laxdćlasaga, [The Saga of the People of Laxardal], and many others. There is also a group of sagas that are more obviously fictional.
The Norse were also fond of poetry, and many of their poems have been preserved.
Chapters in Books
Chapters in Books