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
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
er val vitu
(the Havamal quote)
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.
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.
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.