Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson One
- About this course
- On learning languages in general
- On learning arcane languages
- Old Norse? Which Old Norse?
- English grammatical vocabulary
- Declension of pronouns
- Declension of nouns
- Gender of nouns
- Notes on word order
- Sample sentences
- Mark the pronouns' cases (optional)
- Translate the phrases into English
- Translate the phrases into Norse
- Translate the text into English
- Translate the text into Norse
- Looking at real texts
- A few words from Snorra-Edda
- Two lines from the Völuspá
0.1 About this course
This course is designed for speakers of English. No previous knowledge
of Old Norse or any other language is needed or expected.
The aim of the course is to aid beginning students of Old Norse in
building up sufficient basic knowledge for the student to be able to
start studying on his own after the course. The method is to focus on
building up a firm understanding of the grammatical basics of the
language, having the student use the language as much as possible.
We will try throughout the course to spice it up with background
information, as most students of Old Norse have strong interest in Old
Norse culture as well as language. We will also refrain from using
nonsensical sentences, preferring "real" made-up sentences or
simplified versions of actual texts.
Lessons are organised into four chapters. The first one (0) contains
information that is not really the core of the matter but can be
useful and interesting to read. The next one (1) contains the new
grammar for the lesson, then (2) comes the vocabulary, all of which
you should memorise, and then (3) exercises to help you get a hands on
feeling for the subject. In the last chapter (4) we look at real texts
or sentences from the literature. Do not get discouraged if this is
difficult at times, you don't have to memorise everything there, just
read through it.
0.2 On learning languages in general
The process of learning languages is often somewhat misperceived,
especially in cultures with little tradition or need for it. Language
learning is gradual, piece-by-piece, sometimes fast, sometimes slow,
often rewarding, often frustrating. There is no black and white in
language learning, no set stage where one "speaks the language",
before which one understood and spoke nothing, after which one
understands and speaks everything. It's an open-ended process, from
which one can enter and exit at will, always benefitting from every
minute effort. How this relates to our course, is to make you
understand that you will not exit from it completely fluent in Old
Norse, having "finished" that language, because there is no finish
line; but neither will you have wasted your time, because time
invested in language study is never "lost". You are to emerge from the
course having achieved a certain point, a certain skill level, from
which you can benefit, even if it cannot be considered fluency. Most
importantly, the end results should be gratifying and the process fun,
though unavoidably hard at times.
0.3 On learning arcane languages
The study of arcane languages such as Old Norse has certain marked
differences to the study of modern languages; the most important
factor is, naturally, that one can never hear anybody speak the
language. That can be a significant psychological obstacle in
memorizing words and reading text. Coming from an experienced language
learner, the problem with learning arcane languages is that one has no
access to the "sound of the language", its very soul. This makes it
more difficult to get a feel for its structure, to become comfortable
with it, even to develop feelings for it, all factors not to be taken
In studying arcane languages, one must deal with this by "reliving"
and "realizing" the language, by familiarizing oneself with the
culture of the language's former speakers and imagining the life
behind it. One must understand that it was once the native language of
a whole nation of people of all kinds, to whom it was as dear and
natural as your first language is to you. Understand that those people
thought in this language, expressed their needs in it, their love,
their anger and hate, their first and last words; parent to child,
friend to friend, husband to wife, foe to foe, any person to any other
person. It was as living once as any given language of today, complete
with slang, neologisms, swearing and nonsense, just as well as the
more commonly known poetry and literature. Once one genuinely and
truly understands this, one has gained an important psychological
advantage in the learning process of an arcane language.
0.4 Old Norse? Which Old Norse?
The term Old Norse refers to the language spoken in Scandinavia and
Scandinavian settlements from about 800 to about 1350. It should be
obvious that it was not exactly the same language over a vast area and
550 years. It is usually split into two groups, which are then split
into two dialects.
|Old Icelandic Old Norwegian
||Old Danish Old Swedish
Of all these, the dialect which preserved the most interesting
literature is Old Icelandic. This course will teach Old Icelandic from
the 13th century; when such works as Heimskringla and the Edda were
composed. The spelling of Old Icelandic words is normalised to the
accepted standard. When texts that are not from the 13th century are
quoted we will still use the same spelling.
The term 'Old Norse' is sometimes used to mean specifically what we
here call 'West Norse' or what we here call 'Old Icelandic'. It is
sometimes applied to Icelandic up to the 16th century.
0.5 English grammatical vocabulary
It is quite possible to teach and learn languages without the use of
grammatical terms. Indeed, a child does not learn to speak by first
learning what a noun is. Yet, it is our opinion that it is practical
to use grammatical vocabulary in describing the Old Norse language.
This course assumes knowledge of the following words for parts of
speech. Very short descriptions follow.
- Noun: A name of a person, place or thing (book, Paris, John).
- Adjective: A word that describes a noun (good, bad, ugly).
- Pronoun: A word used instead of a noun (he, we, which).
- Verb: A word that describes what someone is doing (do, kill, say).
- Adverb: A word that describes a verb (well, highly, badly).
- Conjunction: A connecting word (and, but, or).
- Preposition: A word placed before a noun to indicate place, direction
etc. (to, from, in).
As new terms are introduced make an effort at understanding them; it
is essential for making sense of the text.
1.1 Declension of pronouns
In Norse, nouns and pronouns are declined in cases. What on earth does
that mean? We will use English as a starting point to explain.
Consider the English sentence: "She loves me." If you have learnt
syntax you will know that the "subject" of this sentence is the
pronoun "she" and the "object" is the pronoun "me". If you haven't
learnt syntax I'll let you in on the trick; the subject in a sentence
is the word that is doing stuff, the object is the word stuff is done
to. So, in our sentence "she" is doing stuff and it's being done to
Now let's look at another sentence: "I love her." Okay, now "I" is
doing stuff, so "I" is the subject, and it's being done to "her" which
must then be the object. Now consider; how does the English language
distinguish between subject and object in a sentence? As you will see
from our example there are two methods:
1. Changing the word order. You will note that the word preceding the
verb is the subject whereas the word following the verb is the object.
2. Changing the form of the words. Aha! This is where things get
interesting. Of course the "she" in the first sentence is the same
person as the "her" in the second sentence, similarly the "I" and
"me" refer to the same bloke. We say the word itself hasn't changed,
only the form of it. We'll make a little table:
You will note that sometimes the word changes completely when
switching between the roles of subject and object, like "I" to "me",
sometimes it changes but remains recognisably the same, like "he" to
"him", and sometimes it doesn't change at all, like "you" to "you".
Now we have seen that English uses different forms of pronouns to
represent subject and object but those different forms are also used
for other things. Let's look at the sentence "I am he." Something
strange has happened; preceding the verb there is a pronoun in the
subject form, well and good, but following the verb is a pronoun that
is also in the subject form. The explanation lies in the verb we're
using; the verb "to be" doesn't really describe "stuff being done" (as
we have so eloquently put it in this passage). It's more like an
equals sign: "I = he". In such cases the word following the verb is
called neither object nor subject but "complement".
Now that we've found a new use for our subject form we'll
have to redo our table:
Now we might wonder whether there is another use for the object form
as well. Indeed there is; consider the sentence "I saved it for him".
Here "I" is the subject and "it" is the object, as you will have
realised, but what about "him"? It's not following a verb so it can't
be an object but it's still in the object form. We conclude that
words following a preposition take the object form. Again we have to
redo our table:
Now that we've found more than one use for both of our forms we'll
name those forms for easy reference. We'll call them nominative and
accusative and we'll refer to them collectively as the cases of the
pronouns. We'll call this changing of forms by the pronouns
Remember what we stated at the beginning of this section? "In Norse,
nouns and pronouns are declined in cases". Now we can state: "In
English, pronouns are declined in cases". The beauty of it is that the
Norse cases of nominative and accusative work exactly like the English
cases we have been defining. Thus the nominative in Norse serves as
subject and compliment and the accusative as object and prepositional.
The Norse table corresponding to the English table above looks like
You notice a slight resemblance between the two tables. You also note
that, as with English, when the pronouns go from nominative to
accusative they sometimes change much (ek - mik), sometimes little
(hon - hana) and sometimes not at all (hann - hann). Now you can do
1.2 Declension of nouns
In the Norse language, nouns, like pronouns, are declined in cases.
Again we start by discussing English. Consider the sentence "Peter
calls Maggie." Here the subject is "Peter" and the object is "Maggie".
Now another sentence: "Maggie calls Peter." The roles of subject and
object have been switched, but how? Not by changing the forms of the
words, as with the pronouns, but solely by changing the word order. In
contrast, Norse solves the problem of distinguishing between subject
and object with case endings and not word order.
Now to the good stuff. Norse nouns are declined in cases. That is,
the form of the nouns change depending on whether they play the role
of nominative or accusative. The wonderful science of grammar puts
nouns into different groups depending on their declension pattern. The
first group we will look at is called "strong masculine"; accept those
terms as arbitrary for now.
The pattern of the strong masculine word is that they have the ending
-r in the nominative. We'll look at some examples from our vocabulary
Singular of the strong masculine declension:
Note that proper names (like Haukr here) are declined in cases like
any other nouns.
In English there are two kinds of articles; the indefinite article "a
and an" and the definite article "the". The Norse language has no
indefinite article, thus "draugr" by itself means "a ghost". Norse,
however, does have a definite article though it doesn't work quite
like the English one. Rather than being a small unchanging word
preceding nouns the Norse article is a suffix depending on case,
gender and number. For the masculine words we've introduced the
article in both nominative singular and accusative singular is "-inn"
tacked on to the words. Thus:
or in so many words:
|álfr = an elf (nominative)
||álfrinn = the elf (nominative)
|álf = an elf (accusative)
||álfinn = the elf (accusative)
1.4 Gender of nouns
We said before that the group of nouns we're looking at is called
strong masculine. The "strong" classification is arbitrary but we're
going to let you in on the masculine thing. Every word in Norse has an
arbitrary "gender", masculine, feminine or neuter. When we
refer to a word with a certain gender we have to use the pronoun with
the same gender. Thus masculine nouns take the masculine pronoun
(hann=he), feminine nouns take the feminine pronoun (hon=she) and
neuter nouns take the neuter pronoun (þat=it). Since all the nouns
used in this chapter are masculine you'll be concerned with "hann" for
1.5 Notes on word order
Word order in English is quite rigid. For a simple sentence it's
always "subject-verb-object". In Norse this is not so, the word order
is quite free, mainly because the information about which word plays
which role is given by grammatical endings (cases and more) whereas
English relies on word order to convey this information. Remember to
check the grammatical ending of Norse words to find their place in the
This is not to say that there aren't certain conventions on word order
in Norse. Most often there is one thing that is most natural but be
prepared to meet anything.
In Norse, titles usually follow the name they refer to; thus 'king
Óláfr' is 'Óláfr konungr'.
All nouns here are of the strong masculine declension.
|baugr || ring
|brandr || sword
|dvergr || dwarf
|draugr || ghost
|hestr || horse
|haukr || hawk
|hjálmr || helmet
|knífr || knife
|ormr || worm, serpent
|úlfr || wolf
We gloss the word as both "he" and "it" as it can refer both to men
and to things with masculine gender. Remember that all the nouns given
in this lesson are of masculine gender.
The forms given here are the third person singular of the verbs. This
corresponds with the English s-form (like "sees" and "hears"). This is
all you need to know for now.
|er|| is (takes a complement!)|
|heitir ||is called (takes a complement!)|
|sér || sees|
|segir || says|
|vegr ||kills (usually in battle), slays|
Sometimes the subject is dropped and the verb alone gives the
meaning. Thus 'vegr' alone might mean 'he kills'.
These conjunctions are used much as in English. Note that 'ok' can be
either an adverb or a conjunction, depending on context.
2.6 Sample sentences
The following sentences represent one approach to tackling Norse
sentences. If you're comfortable with it you can employ it yourself in
- Vegr orminn Óláfr.
- Subject: Óláfr [nominative, proper name]
- Object: orminn [accusative, with article]
- Meaning: Óláfr kills the serpent
- Baug á dvergr
- Subject: dvergr [nominative, without article]
- Object: baug [accusative, without article]
- Meaning: A dwarf has a ring.
- Draugrinn sér konunginn.
- Subject: draugrinn [nominative, with article]
- Object: konunginn [accusative, with article]
- Meaning: The ghost sees the king.
- Heitir konungrinn Óláfr.
- Subject: konungrinn [nominative, with article]
- Complement: Óláfr [nominative, proper name]
- Meaning: The king is called Óláfr.
After you finish studying the vocabulary you should take on the
3.1 Mark the pronouns' cases (optional)
In the following bible quotes there are many pronouns. Locate them
and find out what case they're in. Also note the reason they
are in that case.
- a) I am he that liveth.
- b) Take now thy son whom thou lovest and offer him there for a burnt offering.
- c) And when she had brought them unto him to eat, he took hold of her, and said unto her: "Come lie with me, my sister".
- d) Him that dieth of Baasha in the city shall the dogs eat.
- e) Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.
3.2 Translate the phrases into English.
- a) Dvergrinn á baug.
- b) Hjálm á Haukr.
- c) Álfrinn sér draug.
- d) Hann er konungrinn.
- e) Hann sér dverginn.
3.3 Translate the phrases into Old Norse
- a) The ghost kills the king.
- b) The elf kills a wolf.
- c) The king sees a hawk.
- d) Óláfr is a king.
- e) A king is named Óláfr.
3.4 Translate the text into English
Óláfr heitir konungr. Hann á brand. Heitir brandrinn Tyrfingr. Úlf sér
Óláfr ok segir: "Hér er úlfr!". Óláfr tekr brandinn ok vegr úlfinn. En
hér er ok ormr. Óláfr sér hann eigi. Óláf vegr ormrinn.
3.5 Translate the text into Old Norse
A king is called Sigurðr. He owns a sword but not a horse. Óláfr is
also a king. He owns a horse. Sigurðr kills Óláfr and takes the horse.
4. Looking at real texts
4.1 A few words from the Snorra-Edda
|En er Jörmunrekkr konungr sá haukinn...|
|sá || saw (past tense of 'sér')|
Meaning: "But when king Jörmunrekkr saw the hawk..."
The subject of the sentence 'Jörmunrekkr konungr' is in the nominative
case whereas the object 'haukinn' is in the accusative case.
To find out just what happened when king Jörmunrekkr saw the hawk you
will have to look up chapter 50 of the Skáldskaparmál.
4.2 Two lines from the Völuspá
In Völuspá (The Prophecy of the Seeress) the seeress says:
|Ask veit ek standa.|
|askr|| ash tree|
|veit ek || I know|
|standa || (to) stand|
There are some things you should notice here. The first word of the
sentence, 'ask', is the object. You can see that because it is in the
accusative form. Then comes the verb 'veit' and then the subject 'ek'.
Thus the word order is 'object-verb-subject'.
The second sentence has no subject. Instead of 'Hann heitir
Yggdrasill.' we have only 'Heitir Yggdrasill.' It is quite normal in
poetry that the subject be dropped.
"I know an ash tree to stand.
It is called Yggdrasill."