Old Norse, new Viking language book
Learn to read, write, and speak like a Viking with Jesse L. Byock’s “Viking Language 1”
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Why would anyone want to learn how to speak and read a language that has been “dead” for almost 1,000 years?
Old Norse is the tongue the Vikings spoke in, cursed in, prayed in, loved in. It is also the language of the sagas, considered one of the world’s great bodies of literature.
But how to access a language that hasn’t been uttered in daily life for centuries?
Enter Jesse Byock, known as “a remarkable font of knowledge” about the people who once spoke it. He is a professor of Old Norse language and archaeology at UCLA.
A prolific author, his newest book, “Viking Language,” teaches Old Norse, runes, and Icelandic sagas. It is based on a new method for learning the language, and contains a historical overview of the Nordic lands.
I reached Byock at the Mosfell Archaeological Project in Iceland, a Viking Age dig that he directs as principal investigator. Mosfell was once the home of chieftains and powerful Viking Age families, Byock noted. Warriors, leaders and more warriors comprised the kind of community that produced the sagas.
Bringing it all around to the 21st century, Byock and his archaeology team have found the sagas very useful, containing many clues leading to the location of buried historical sites.
I asked him about the modern-day level of interest in the “dead” Norse language that convinced him to write his book.
“Old Norse is taught in about 50 colleges and universities in the US and in many schools in Great Britain and Europe,” he said. “The good part is that interest is growing strongly with interest in the sagas and runes.”
The heightened interest in learning about the language used by the Vikings relates to the eventual goal of being able to read the sagas in the original language, essential for anyone using the sagas in their Viking studies.
And why would anyone read the sagas besides archaeologists? Tales of the old gods, the Nordic myths, Viking Age family life and the settlement of Iceland are all recorded in these historical works.
And anyone who speaks Scandinavian languages, or even English for that matter, will find many familiar sounds and words. (There are more than 900 words in English borrowed from Old Norse.)
It is also the parent of the modern Scandinavian languages, including Norwegian, and it is still the language of Iceland, with a modern touch. Of the modern languages, Icelandic is the closest to Old Norse. And the sagas were written in Iceland.
Fortunately for students, there weren’t many words in the sagas, Byock noted, and hence, his method of learning focuses on the 246 most frequently used words.
This allows beginners to advance in their learning quickly. In audition, a student can listen to a native Icelandic speaker giving clear pronunciation of the Old Norse text in an audio program that follows the text.
The book covers runes as well as the written and spoken language of the Viking Age. Runes, of course, are the letters used by real people writing in a real language letters, documents, poetry.
It is livened up with many illustrations, maps, and bits of history to keep everything interesting. Students of Old Norse usually have a strong interest in the culture as well as the language.
This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.