Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson One

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson One

by Haukur Þorgeirsson and Óskar Guðlaugsson
  1. Miscellany
    1. About this course
    2. On learning languages in general
    3. On learning arcane languages
    4. Old Norse? Which Old Norse?
    5. English grammatical vocabulary
  2. Grammar
    1. Declension of pronouns
    2. Declension of nouns
    3. Article
    4. Gender of nouns
    5. Notes on word order
  3. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Pronoun
    3. Verbs
    4. Adverbs
    5. Conjunctions
    6. Sample sentences
  4. Exercises
    1. Mark the pronouns' cases (optional)
    2. Translate the phrases into English
    3. Translate the phrases into Norse
    4. Translate the text into English
    5. Translate the text into Norse
  5. Looking at real texts
    1. A few words from Snorra-Edda
    2. Two lines from the Völuspá

0. Miscellany

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 lightly.
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.
West Norse East Norse
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.
As new terms are introduced make an effort at understanding them; it is essential for making sense of the text.

1. Grammar

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 "me". Simple.
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:
Subject: I you he she it
Object: me you him her it
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:
Subject, complement: I you he she it
Object: me you him her it
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:
Subject, complement: I you he she it
Object, prepositional: me you him her it
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 declension.
Nominative case: I you he she it
Accusative case: me you him her it
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 this:
Nominative case: ek þú hann hon þat
Accusative case: mik þik hann hana þat
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 exercise 3.1.

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 in 2.1.
Singular of the strong masculine declension:
Nominative: álfr baugr Haukr konungr
Accusative: álf baug Hauk konung
Note that proper names (like Haukr here) are declined in cases like any other nouns.

1.3 Article

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:
Indefinite Definite
Nominative álfr álfrinn
Accusative álf álfinn
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 now.

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 sentence.
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'.

2. Vocabulary

2.1. Nouns

All nouns here are of the strong masculine declension.
álfr elf
baugr ring
brandr sword
dvergr dwarf
draugr ghost
hestr horse
haukr hawk
hjálmr helmet
konungr king
knífr knife
ormr worm, serpent
úlfr wolf

2.2 Pronoun

hann he, it
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.

2.3 Verbs

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.
á owns
er is (takes a complement!)
heitir is called (takes a complement!)
sér sees
segir says
tekr takes
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'.

2.4 Adverbs

hér here
eigi not
ok also

2.5 Conjunctions

These conjunctions are used much as in English. Note that 'ok' can be either an adverb or a conjunction, depending on context.
ok and
en but

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 the exercises.
  1. Vegr orminn Óláfr.
  2. Baug á dvergr
  3. Draugrinn sér konunginn.
  4. Heitir konungrinn Óláfr.
After you finish studying the vocabulary you should take on the remaining exercises.

3. Exercises

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.

3.2 Translate the phrases into English.

3.3 Translate the phrases into Old Norse

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...
er when
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.
Heitir Yggdrasill.
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."