eddacover

My translation of the Poetic Edda is now available for purchase on Amazon or directly from the publisher in both hardcover and paperback editions.

This translation was created during the three years (2011-14) that I taught Old Norse mythology, language, literature, and history at UCLA, and I found that while other translations might very faithfully reproduce the meter or “feel” of the Eddic poems, they fell short in presenting the content in a clear, accessible way so that a reader who was mainly interested in the stories could follow them. My own translation is done in contemporary English free verse. An appendix includes my semi-infamous Cowboy Havamal.

I’ll be interested in feedback from followers of this blog, and I hope you’ll consider taking the time to write an Amazon review if you read the book as well.

I have also created a social media presence for the book on Twitter and Facebook.

The Poetic Edda

The Poetic Edda

My translation of the Poetic Edda is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The book will be released on March 15th.

This is the first translation of the Poetic Edda – our main source for the stories of the Norse gods and heroes – to appear in contemporary, approachable American English, and is meant both for classroom use and for the private reader. The translations are based on those that I used in my own Norse Mythology class I taught at UCLA during my years there. This book also contains my infamous Cowboy Havamal, which first appeared on this blog.

Recently I summarized Njal’s Saga on one page for you. Now here’s the action of the (much more straightforward) Volsunga Saga reduced to one page. Note that many of the same events are portrayed in somewhat different forms in the Poetic Edda (as always, don’t forget that my translation of the Poetic Edda will be published in March).

Happily, the best translation of Volsunga saga, by R. G. Finch) is available free online from the publisher as a .pdf (after the Introduction, the Old Norse is on odd pages, and the English translation is on even pages).

  1. King Rerir is sterile; prays to Odin, who sends a valkyrie to bring him an apple granting fertility.
  2. Conceives Volsung and dies, his wife is pregnant with Volsung six years, he bursts out vowing.
  3. Volsung has 11 children, the oldest Sigmund & Signy. He builds a hall, at center is tree.
  4. Signy is married to local King Siggeir. During wedding feast Odin plunges sword Gram into tree.
  5. Only Sigmund can remove the sword; Siggeir wants it as a wedding gift but Sigmund refuses him.
  6. Siggeir leaves the feast furiously but invites Volsung and sons to a feast in his own lands.
  7. Kills Volsung at this feast & has 9 sons except Sigmund killed by wolf. Sigmund escapes to woods.
  8. Signy sends 2 sons by Siggeir to Sigmund who kills them for her after they fail a courage test.
  9. Signy disguises herself and sleeps with Sigmund; conceives Sinfjotli, later sending him to Sigmund.
  10. Sigmund trains Sinfjotli as a robber; they briefly become wolves after finding enchanted wolf-skins.
  11. As wolves Sigmund attacks Sinfjotli for an insult to his courage; a raven brings a healing leaf.
  12. They go to kill Siggeir, kill his latest two kids, but are captured. They escape being buried alive.
  13. They burn Siggeir’s hall; Signy chooses to die with Siggeir but tells of Sinfjotli’s parentage.
  14. Sigmund now king; Sinfjotli kills Sigurd’s 1st wife’s brother & is poisoned by her, taken by Odin.
  15. Sigmund marries anew; falls in battle, Gram broken by Odin; tells wife she will bear a son.
  16. Sigurd Sigmundsson is born in Alf’s land; he is fostered by Regin, who tells him of brother Fafnir.
  17. (flashback: Fafnir killed his father for the cursed treasure Odin & Loki had given him, became a dragon)
  18. Regin reforges Gram; Odin helps Sigurd pick the horse Grani; Sigurd kills Fafnir.
  19. Regin is angry but tells Sigurd to cook Fafnir’s heart; he gains the ability to understand birds.
  20. He kills Regin on the birds’ advice, takes cursed treasure; birds tell him of Brynhild in ring of fire.
  21. He braves the ring of fire, pledges to marry Brynhild, rides away, serves as warrior to King Gjuki.
  22. Gjuki’s wife Grimhild gives Sigurd potion to forget Brynhild, marries him to daughter Gudrun.
  23. Sigurd disguised as Gudrun’s brother Gunnar wins the hand of Brynhild for Gunnar.
  24. Brynhild finds out about treachery from Gudrun; cannot convince Gunnar to kill brother-in-law.
  25. They get Gunnar’s young brother Guttorm to kill Sigurd in bed; Gudrun screams, Brynhild laughs.
  26. Brynhild kills herself on Sigurd’s funeral pyre along with Sigurd’s young son Sigmund, others.
  27. Gunnar keeps Fafnir’s cursed treasure, considering it his as brother of Gudrun, Sigurd’s wife.
  28. After many years Gudrun is given a potion of forgetfulness & married to Attila, Brynhild’s brother.
  29. Attila thinks Fafnir’s treasure is rightly his, as brother of Brynhild, Sigurd’s rightful wife.
  30. Attila invites Gunnar to a feast; Gudrun tries to warn him away but he comes & is captured.
  31. Gunnar refuses to reveal the location of the treasure till he sees his brother Hogni’s heart on a plate.
  32. A slave’s heart is brought 1st but refused; Hogni’s heart is cut out, he laughs in contempt as he dies.
  33. Gunnar says that now Hogni is dead, only he knows the location of the treasure, & he will not talk.
  34. Gunnar is thrown into a snake pit; Gudrun throws him a harp, he plays it with his toes till he dies.
  35. Attila throws a victory feast; Gudrun cooks their two young sons for him.
  36. Hogni’s son Niflung kills Attila that night, with Gudrun’s assistance.
  37. Gudrun marries Jonakr; they have 3 sons; also Svanhild, daughter by Sigurd.
  38. Old king Jormunrek wins Svanhild’s hand; sends his young son to fetch her; they have an affair.
  39. Jormunrek has Svanhild trampled to death by horses; Gudrun convinces sons to avenge her.
  40. Sons are reluctant but persuaded, she enchants them to be impervious to steel.
  41. Two oldest sons ask youngest how he will help them; he responds cryptically; they kill him.
  42. They reach Jormunrek’s land & fight long; finally an old man tells the crowd to stone them instead.
Volsung Genealogy

Volsung Genealogy

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect. You can also read about my soon-to-be-published translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

I have started posting lessons in the Old Norse language here.

More info on the author here.

Here’s another tool to help you follow along with reading Njal’s Saga, the longest and most famous of the Icelandic sagas (previously I brought you a visualization of the main killings as performed by hummingbirds). The main action of the saga is reduced to a list of short sentences that will fit on one page. Here, I use the anglicized forms of the characters’ names used in the best available translation of the saga.

  1. Brothers Hrut & Hoskuld; Hrut says Hoskuld’s daughter Hallgerd has “thief’s eyes.”
  2. Hrut cursed by Norwegian queen; marries Unn but she divorces him because of curse.
  3. Hallgerd marries twice & each time her husband is killed by her foster-father Thjostolf.
  4. Unn’s cousin Gunnar successfully challenges Hrut for Unn’s property from the divorce.
  5. Gunnar marries Hallgerd; his relative Thrain marries Hallgerd’s daughter Thorgerd.
  6. Hallgerd insulted by Bergthora, wife of Gunnar’s wise beardless friend Njal.
  7. Hallgerd & Bergthora each kill 3 slaves or employees of the other in successive years.
  8. Gunnar & Njal pay each other for the slaves or employees they lose to the other’s wife.
  9. The last one killed by Hallgerd is Thord, the Njalssons’ foster-father. He is avenged.
  10. Gunnar asks Otkel to sell him food. Otkel refuses, but sells him a slave, Melkolf.
  11. Hallgerd sends Melkolf to steal cheese from Otkel; Gunnar finds out & slaps her.
  12. Gunnar offers compensation; Otkel refuses; they go to court & Gunnar is absolved.
  13. Otkel’s spur scratches Gunnar. Otkel & many men attack Gunnar; Gunnar kills all.
  14. Gunnar attacked by Starkad & son with many men after a horsefight; he kills many.
  15. Thorgeir Starkadsson & Thorgeir Otkelsson assail Gunnar; he kills Thorgeir Otkelsson.
  16. Gunnar is prosecuted for the killing, & sentenced to 3 years of outlawry.
  17. Gunnar leaves home, but falls off his horse & decides to return. Kolskegg leaves.
  18. A team led by Gizur and Mord assembles to attack Gunnar at home.
  19. Gunnar defends himself a long time but his bow breaks; Hallgerd refuses aid; he dies.
  20. Hogni Gunnarsson & Skarphedin kill many of Gunnar’s killers; make peace with Mord.
  21. Thrain, & Grim & Helgi Njalsson, go to Scotland, are attacked. Rescued by Kari.
  22. They go to Norway. Thrain hides the outlaw Hrapp from Norwegian ruler Hakon Jarl.
  23. Hakon Jarl attacks Thrain’s allies the Njalssons. They are saved by Kari & go to Iceland.
  24. Kari marries Njal’s daughter, has a son. Thrain still shelters Hrapp, insults Njalssons.
  25. Skarphedin kills Thrain. Njal & Thrain’s brother Ketil make a peaceful settlement.
  26. Njal adopts Hoskuld Thrainsson, & gets a wife & the authority of a godi for him.
  27. Thrain’s brother-in-law Lyting kills Hoskuld Njalsson; a peaceful settlement is agreed.
  28. (long digression about the missionary Thangbrand & Iceland’s conversion to Christianity)
  29. Amundi, blind son of Hoskuld Njalsson, briefly regains sight & kills Lyting.
  30. Mord loses power to Hoskuld Thrainsson; he goads the Njalssons into killing Hoskuld.
  31. Mord and Flosi (Hoskuld Thrainsson’s wife’s uncle) prosecute the Njalssons for murder
  32. Njal & Flosi agree to a settlement, but Skarphedin insults Flosi & the deal is called off.
  33. Flosi leads about 100 men to burn the Njalssons & Kari to death in their house.
  34. Women, children, slaves, Njal allowed to leave; Flosi only wants to burn the Njalssons.
  35. Njal, Bergthora, & Kari’s son refuse to leave; they burn. Of the men, only Kari escapes.
  36. The burners are prosecuted. A long court case finally breaks down into open battle.
  37. After much killing at the Thing, Snorri Godi forces a settlement. Kari refuses to settle.
  38. Kari seeks the burners, kills all of them he can find. Helped by Njal’s nephew Thorgeir.
  39. Thorgeir quits; Kari meets goofy sidekick Bjorn; Kari spares only brother-in-law Ketil.
  40. Flosi & the surviving burners flee to Scotland. Kari follows them, busts into their feast.
  41. Kari kills most of burners, goes back to Iceland. Forgives Flosi & marries his daughter.

This will probably be most helpful if accompanied by this guide to the characters and their relationships:

Njal's Saga Characters

Njal’s Saga Characters

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect. You can also read about my soon-to-be-published translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

I have started posting lessons in the Old Norse language here.

More info on the author here.

I often get asked how to say the basic conversational stuff in Old Norse – “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and more often than anything else, “I love you” – so that’s what this post is about today.

Unfortunately, while the sagas are very dialogue-heavy and even wordy, there isn’t too much in the vein of banal “how are you doing” type conversation. So a lot of this will be based on phrases in Modern Icelandic or Norwegian, and this should be understood as for entertainment purposes only (not as a serious academic effort).

For pronunciation, see this post or the video linked below. It is especially important to remember that the letters Ð/ð and Þ/þ stand for the “th”-sound. Nothing sounds goofier than someone reading the Old Norse word þing as “ping” (it’s “thing”) or the name Þórunn as “Porunn” (rather than “Thorunn”). Just to reinforce the point, I’ll rewrite these letters with “th” in parentheses in the the phrases below and also remove marks from the vowels, so as to give unfamiliar readers the closest idea of the word that I can give you with the 26 letters of the English keyboard.

Please also remember that Old Norse and Modern Icelandic are not identical. If you put Old Norse text into Google Translate, yes, Old Norse will be detected as Icelandic because that is the closest match to it. But Google Translate does not know all languages, let alone the nuances of difference that separate closely related languages.

Hello and Goodbye

Good day! Góðan dag! (Gothan dag!)

Good morning! Góðan morgun! (Gothan morgun!)

Goodbye!/ Farewell! Far vel!

Good night! Góða nótt! (Gotha nott!)

Politeness

How is it going? Hvé gengr þér? (Hve gengr ther?)

It is going… Þat gengr (That gengr…)

Well. Vel.

Badly. Illa.

Thank you! Þǫkk! (Thokk!)

Please… Gerðu svá vel ok… (Gerthu sva vel ok…)

Have a nice day! Njóttu dagsins! (Njottu dagsins!)

Introductions

My name is… Ek heiti…

What is your name? Hvat heitir þú? (Hvat heitir thu?)

Pleased to meet you. Gaman at hitta þik. (Gaman at hitta thik.)

Where are you from? Hvaðan kemr þú? (Hvathan kemr thu?)

I come from… Ek kem frá… (Ek kem fra…)

…Norway. Nóregi. (Noregi)

…Iceland. Íslandi. (Islandi)

…the Faroes. Færeyjum. (Faereyjum)

…Denmark. Danmǫrk. (Danmork)

…Sweden. Svíþjóðu. (Svithjothu)

…Shetland. Hjaltlandi.

…the Orkneys. Orkneyjum.

…the Hebrides. Suðreyjum. (Suthreyjum)

And the one everybody wants:

I love you. Ek ann þér. (Ek ann ther.)

Do not try to make your own Old Norse sentences if you have not studied the language – words change shape based on how they are used in the sentence.

If you use any of these phrases in a book or TV show or something, please credit me and consider a donation to help me stave off the hounds of poverty (Paypal button below).

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect. You can also read about my soon-to-be-published translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

More info on the author here.

Recently I made the questionable decision to teach the Internet a little Old Norse, so here is another chapter in that endeavor. In English (and the modern Scandinavian languages), nouns don’t change much. A bird gives the bird to another bird, but we say “bird” for each of those. In Old Norse, the first bird would be nominative (fugl), the second would be accusative (also fugl, but this would not be the same for all nouns), and the third would be dative (fugli). The different roles these words are playing in the sentence are called their “case,” and the change in their shape to reflect those roles is called “inflection.”

If this is familiar to speakers of Modern English in any respect, it is in our personal pronouns, which still change to reflect their case. “I go to the store,” but “you pity me.” It would not be normal for an English speaker to say “Me go to the store” or “You pity I,” because “I” is only used when the speaker is the subject of the verb (i.e. the one doing the action), and “me” is only used when the speaker is the object (the one being acted on).

In Old Norse, all substantives (nouns, adjectives, articles, and pronouns – words that describe things, not actions) work this way, and change shape to fit into one of four cases (again, one of four roles in the sentence). In the following, I will use the word “nouns” in explaining these cases, but what I say applies equally to adjectives, pronouns, etc.

Norse has four cases – nominative (nom.), accusative (acc.), genitive (gen.), and dative (dat.) – and any given noun can be placed into any case in order to communicate its role in the sentence. Note that if a noun is in the dative, all adjectives or articles describing it must be in the dative also: so in the sentence I gave my word to the strange tall man, the words the strange tall man must all be dative. Compare Modern English, where only pronouns have case (I/he/she/they are nominative, while me/him/her/them are accusative or dative, and my/his/her/their are genitive).

Nominative case (Nom.):

  • The case used for the subject of a verb – the person, place, or thing that is doing the action represented by the verb.
  • The case words are listed in when they appear in the dictionary.
  • Used on either end of verbs that mean “to be” (vera) or “to become” (verða), because those verbs don’t communicate action, but function as equal signs that simply rename the subject and don’t call for a different case.
  • Used when addressing someone (“Hey, Einarr!”). Some nominatives:

Examples:

Ek renn. (I run.)➢ Ek/I is nominative (rather than accusative mik/me) because “I” am the one doing the running.

Þú ert víkingr. (You are a viking.)➢ Þú/you is nominative because you are the one being. “To be” doesn’t change the case of a noun on the other side of it, so viking/víkingr is nominative also.

Accusative case (Acc.):

  • The case used for the direct object of a verb – the person, place, or thing to which the action represented by the verb is being done. The answer to questions like “What is being cut?” or “What is he eating?” will usually be in the accusative case (but sometimes in the dative or genitive, depending on the verb).
  • Numerous prepositions are followed by an object in the accusative case as well.

Examples:

Ek høgg hann. (I chop him).➢ “Who/what is being cut?” Him/hann, therefore that word is in accusative, rather than nominative (even English distinguishes nom. from acc. here: “I cut he” doesn’t work because both pronouns are nominative).

Hon etr fisk. (She eats fish).➢ “Who/what is being eaten?” Fish/fisk, therefore it is is accusative. If a fish were eating her, then fish would be in nominative (fiskr) and she/her would be in accusative (hana).

Genitive case (Gen.).

  • The case used for an owner, the equivalent of the -’s in English (to which the common Old Norse genitive ending, -s, is related). Note that Possessive pronominal adjectives (like “my,” “your,” “their”) are not genitive; they are treated as adjectives and inflect to agree with the noun they are modifying.
  • The genitive case also replaces many English constructions with the preposition of (“there are two of us,” “this is a house of cards”).
  • A few prepositions also are followed by an object in the genitive case; by far the most important is til (“to”).

Examples:

Víkings skip liggr í hǫfninni. (A viking’s ship lies in the harbor.)➢ It is the ship of a viking. 

Vér fǫrum til lands. (We go to land.)➢ Not possessive, but follows til. 

Dative case (Dat.).

  • The case used for the indirect object of a verb – the person, place, or thing the action is being done for.
  • Numerous prepositions are followed by an object in the dative case as well.
  • Sometimes the dative can be used on its own – without a preposition meaning “by the means of,” “through,” or “with” – and be understood as if it had such a preposition.
  • There are also some verbs that take a direct object in the dative case (one of the commonest is halda, “hold”).

Examples:

Konungr gaf manni skjǫld. (A king gave a man a shield.)➢ Manni/man is dative because he is the one the giving is for (while konungr/king is nominative because he is the giver, and shield/skjǫld is acc. because “What’s being given?” – The shield is.)

Ek hjó hann með sverði. (I cut him with a sword.)➢ Sverði/sword is dative because it is what the action is being done with. In poetry, the preposition með (“with,” “by means of”) might not be included, but the fact that the word “sword” was in dative would still give you a pretty clear clue about what was meant.

Ek held sverði. (I hold a sword.)➢ Sverði/sword is dative because it is the direct object of halda.

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect.

You can also read about my translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here. More info on the author here.

After touching on the pronunciation of Old Norse yesterday, I’ll say a few words about Old Norse alphabetical order, and the dictionaries out there.

Every dictionary is different, but most use a variation on this alphabetical order: A Á B D Ð E É F G H I Í J K L M N O Ó P R S T U Ú V X Y Z Þ Æ Ø Ǿ Ǫ.

Long vowels count as different vowels than their short equivalents in most dictionaries of Old Norse (so all words beginning with Á come after all words beginning with A). Ð comes after D, and then at the end of the dictionary, after Z you will find, in this order: Þ, Æ, Ø, Ǫ. The letters C, Q, and W are not used.

But regrettably every single person who has ever published about Old Norse has some idiosyncratic differences from everybody else. The problem is that we’re all working with medieval manuscripts, which aren’t necessarily consistent about spelling, and no one has ever agreed on a perfectly consistent way of representing Old Norse in modern type. So keep these things in mind when using Old Norse dictionaries and glossaries:

1. Editors sometimes clump Ø (short) together with Ǫ (short) at the end of the dictionary under one letter, Ö. This reflects a vowel merger that happened early on in Iceland (but not on the continent).
2. They may clump Ǿ (long) together with Æ as one letter, Æ. This also reflects a vowel merger that happened in Iceland (but not on the continent).
3. Most Icelandic and English-speaking editors spell Ǿ (long) as Œ (but still write the short letter as Ø or Ö), even if they do keep it separate from Æ. This can be confusing in small Italics, where the two letters end up looking basically the same: œ, æ. For that reason, and because it obscures the relationship of short Ø to long Ǿ, I and most Norwegian scholars avoid the use of Œ, despite its appearance in many popular texts.
4. Some editors spell ft instead of pt in words like eptir (after), opt (often), which makes them look more like their modern English and Icelandic cognates.
5. Some editors put the long versions of the vowels together with the short versions, so that AF is followed by ÁF, then AL, then ÁL, etc.

So keep in mind that these sentences both say the same thing, just with different standardized spellings:

Nú eptir þeira dǿmum, alls vér erum einnar tungu, þó at gjǫrsk hafi mjǫk ǫnnur tveggja eða nakkvat báðar…

Nú eftir þeira dœmum, alls vér erum einnar tungu, þó at gjörsk hafi mjök önnur tveggja eða nakkvat báðar…

Available Dictionaries of Old Norse in English

-Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Very comprehensive, but definitions often in old-fashioned English. Available in scanned form online at this page.

-Geir Zoëga’s Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Costs about $30. Basically a condensed version of the above, a little handier and easier to use. Grammar charts in back.

The Dictionary of Old Norse Prose. Online here. Not yet complete, but a very thorough treatment of all words in Old Norse prose (non-poetic writing).

-Beginners may want to try a good glossary like the one Anthony Faulkes wrote for his New Introduction to Old Norse. All volumes of that series, including the glossary, are available as free .pdf files from the publisher at this site. Faulkes’s series is probably the best way to study Old Norse on your own, unless you have some previous experience with linguistics or case-based languages (in which case you might prefer Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse, now being sold in reprint).

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect. You can also read about my soon-to-be-published translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

More info on the author here.


With my translation of the Poetic Edda coming out soon, I thought that it would be a good time to revitalize this blog as a place where questions about Old Norse subjects can be asked and answered. I have a lot of teaching materials left over from when I was working at UCLA (where I was a full-time lecturer in the Scandinavian Section from 2011-2014), and some of those materials can be modified, I think, into blog posts that address some of the most common questions I get asked about Old Norse and related subjects.

One question that comes up all the time is: What did Old Norse sound like? There are two common misconceptions to vanquish here, one being that Old Norse sounded exactly like Modern Icelandic, and the other being that we cannot possibly know what an extinct language sounded like. In fact, 800 years is far too long for a language to be spoken without radically changing, and by “triangulating” from all its descendent languages (including Norwegian and Faroese) and close relatives, plus comparing the way that spellings change in manuscripts over time, and the remarks of some Old Norse writers themselves (like the First Grammarian), we can get a really good idea of what Old Norse sounded like in, say, the period when most of the sagas were being written (the 1200s AD).

In this video, I read a few excerpts from poems in the Poetic Edda (see below video link for texts I’m reading in the video, and for simplified pronunciation guide).

(the Grimnismal quote)

Huginn ok Muninn
fljúga hverjan dag
jǫrmungrund yfir.
Óumk ek of Hugin
at hann aptr né komi-t
þó sjáumk meirr um Munin.

(the Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II quote)

Nú em ek svá fegin
fundi okkrum
sem átfrekir
Óðins haukar
er val vitu
varmar bráðir
eða dǫgglitir
dagsbrún sjá.

(the Havamal quote)

Deyr fé,
deyja frændr,
deyr sjalfr it sama,
ek veit einn
at aldri deyr –
dómr um dauðan hvern.

Below, I also present a simplified introduction to how to pronounce Old Norse (of roughly 1200s-AD vintage) for an American English speaker without a background in linguistics, who wants to sound decently authentic without sweating the small stuff (e.g., for the linguists out there, the numerous allophones of g). Update 09/16/2014: Here is Guide to Pronunciation of Classical Literary Old Norse (ca. 1200-1250) with IPA and a little more detail for those who want it.

SIMPLIFIED INSTRUCTIONS (presuming an American English background)

Stress/accent is always on the first syllable: SKARPheðinn, KÁRi, GUNNarr.

Vowels

a, e, i, o, u | Pronounce as in Spanish, i.e. the vowels in rot, set, seat, wrote, root.

é, í, ó, ú | Slightly longer versions of the above, i.e. the vowels in said, seed, road, rude. See also á, below.

ǫ | Like the o in a New Jersey pronunciation of coffee, i.e. like saying “aaah” with your lips rounded to a circle.

y and ý | Like u, but further forward in the mouth – think of a “surfer” pronunciation of dude (or German ü). As usual, ý is held just a little longer than y.

á | Despite its appearance, this is not a long version of a, but a long version of ǫ. Try saying the aw of awful with a New Jersey accent.

æ | Pronounced like the a in bad.

ø | Sounds like the u in a London pronunciation of hurt (i.e. without the r following).

ǿ or œ | Slightly longer version of the above, i.e. like the i in a London pronunciation of bird.

au | Like the ou in house.

ei | Like the ai in rain.

ey | Something like the oy in boy, more accurately like Norwegian øy or German äu.

Consonants

b, d, h, k, l, m, n, t | These are pronounced exactly how you would expect them to be from English.

f | usually pronounced like the v in very, except when it is the first letter in a word (then it is pronounced f like in father)

g | pronounced “hard” like in go, never like in gin

j | pronounced like the y in yes

p | Normally pronounced like English p in park, but probably more like an f (actually a bilabial fricative, [φ]) before a t (like in aptr).

r | This was probably a rolled or trilled r, like in Spanish or Scots.

s | Pronounced like the s in so, not with the z-sound of the s in rose.

v | Pronounced like the v in very, although probably pronounced like a w when it follows another consonant (so think hvat = hwat, svá = swá). This is a pattern also seen in Afrikaans, and suggested by some Scandinavian dialects (like in North Jutland).

z | Pronounced like the ts in rats, not like an English z.

Þ þ | Pronounced like the th in thunder or thorn (the letter’s name is Thorn). Note that Þ is the capital letter, þ is the small letter.

Ð ð | Pronounced like the th in either or weather (the letter’s name is Eth). Note that Ð is the capital letter, ð is the small letter.

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal. This is part of the classic Old Norse wisdom poem translated into dialect. You can also read about my soon-to-be-published translation of the Poetic Edda – the first time the original Norse myths will appear in plain modern English – here.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

More info on the author here.

I’ve been teaching Njal’s saga for several years at UCLA and realized that it’s a lot easier to keep track of who kills who, and who’s related, if you have some kind of visual aid to refer to. Unfortunately, I can’t really draw humans, but luckily I do know how to draw nature’s vikings – hummingbirds.

Njal Hummingbirds

Njal Hummingbirds

I’m pleased to share with readers that Hackett Publishing Company, publisher of the best available translation of Beowulf, has proposed a contract to publish my translation of the Poetic Edda. Update 08/12/2014: My translation, The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes, will be available for sale in March 2015.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems, mostly narratives that relate myths of the Norse gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc.) and legendary heroes (Helgi, Sigurd, Hogni, etc.).

There are many translations of the Poetic Edda into English, but none has yet been done in a truly readable, contemporary style. While there are people who enjoy reading and writing the kind of old-fashioned English where somebody “rides a charger” (or even “rideth a charger”), I find it much less distracting to read about somebody who “rides a horse” and this is how I have written my translations as well. I follow the motto that “It’s not really a translation if you need a dictionary to read it.”

As far as style, my translations are written in unrhyming but rhythmic English verse that I think falls naturally on the ear. I have tried to follow the example of my own favorite poets, writers like Robinson Jeffers, David Mason, and Olav H. Hauge.

I should note that my translation of the Poetic Edda is not done in the style of the Cowboy Hávamál, which is a stand-alone translation of (part of) one of the poems of the Poetic Edda (Update 08/12/2014: Although the Cowboy Havamal will be included as an appendix). That is to say, I have written in standard English rather than in dialect, but the spirit of the Cowboy Hávamál is still there, guiding me toward clear storytelling at the expense of the type of elaborate writing style that has so far obscured what these poems say for the English-reading public.

What else can I read on this blog?

Star Wars, reimagined as an Icelandic Saga. You can read the whole saga in English here, and the introduction here. It was also posted as a .pdf with both the English and Old Norse text here. List of principal characters (and their equivalents in the Star Wars franchise) here.

The Cowboy Havamal, part of a wisdom poem from the Poetic Edda translated into dialect.

I wrote a little about the runes and Old Norse that I wrote for Disney’s Frozen here.

More info on the author here.

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