Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson Two

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson Two

by Haukur orgeirsson and skar Gulaugsson
  1. Grammar
    1. First and second person personal pronouns
    2. Plural of third person pronouns
    3. Plural of nouns
    4. Slightly irregular nouns
    5. Mar - an irregular noun
    6. Verbal conjugation
    7. "Er" - an all purpose relative pronoun
    8. The present tense
    9. Word order
  2. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Pronouns
    3. Verbs
    4. Adverbs
    5. A greeting
    6. Yes or no questions
    7. Sample sentences
  3. Exercises
    1. Translate the phrases into English
    2. Translate the phrases into Old Norse
    3. Translate the text into English
    4. Translate the text into Old Norse
    5. Translate the play into English
    6. Translate the play into English
  4. Looking at real texts
    1. Half a stanza by Snorri Sturluson
    2. Two half-strophes from the Sigdrfuml

1. Grammar

1.1 First and second person personal pronouns

Now you have to learn those singular personal pronouns:
1.person 2.person
Nominative ek
Accusative mik ik
The corresponding English table looks like this:
1.person 2.person
Nominative I you
Accusative me you
The forms '' and 'ik' are the relatives of the English forms 'thou' and 'thee'.
And then there are the plural pronouns, still fairly similar to English:
1.person 2.person
Nominative vr r
Accusative oss yr
1.person 2.person
Nominative we you
Accusative us you
And finally a concept that doesn't exist in Modern English, dual pronouns:
1.person 2.person
1.person 2.person
Nominativewe twoyou two
Accusativeus twoyou two

1.2 Plural of third person pronouns

We will now introduce the plural of the third person pronouns. As before we begin with English.
Singular Plural
Nominative he she it they they they
Accusative him her it them them them
The reason for writing "they" out three times is that the plural of "he" is the same as the plural of "she" or the plural of "it", unlike Old Norse :
Singular Plural
Nominative hann hon at eir r au
Accusative hann hana at r au
Thus, many "hons" make a "r" and many "hanns" make a "eir" (to put it in silly terms). We are still only using the masculine pronoun as all nouns we have introduced are masculine.

1.3 Plural of nouns

Nouns, of course, have a plural form. The plural form declines in cases and can be with or without definitive article. We'll write up a table showing the declension of our strong masculine words. This time we will use a {stem + ending} scheme. The grammatical stem of a word is the word without grammatical ending.
Without article With article
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. stem + r stem + ar stem + r + inn stem + ar + nir
Acc. stem stem + a stem + inn stem + a + na
And then with the good old elf as the example.
Without article With article
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. lfr lfar lfrinn lfarnir
Acc. lf lfa lfinn lfana
Now you know eight different forms of each noun. This might be a bit overwhelming at first but if you immediately begin memorising the table above and work hard at the exercises it will soon be very familiar.

1.4 Some slightly irregular nouns

Some words of the strong masculine declension lack the nominative singular ending 'r'.
In order to make it completely clear what we mean we decline a sample word from this group. The word is 'jarl' and means 'earl'. The reason is probably that pronouncing "jarlr" would not be comfortable.
Without article With article
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. jarl jarlar jarlinn jarlarnir
Acc. jarl jarla jarlinn jarlana
The vocabulary also introduces the word 'geirr'. It is completely regular, so do not get confused by the two r's at the end. The first r is part of the stem whereas the second one is the nominative singular ending.

1.5 Mar - an irregular noun

We will now introduce a masculine noun that in its declension does not follow the patterns already described. The word is 'mar' and means 'human being' or 'person'.
Without article With article
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. mar menn marinn menninir
Acc. mann menn manninn mennina
Notice how the irregularity is similar to that of the corresponding English word, 'man'. Also notice that the endings for the article are very similar to those for the regular words. This is no coincidence, in fact the article declines in the same basic way for every word of the same gender.
The word 'mar' is a very useful one and will help us make more interesting sentences.

1.6 Verbal conjugation

The form of a verb depends upon the subject in the sentence, so in Old Norse as it is in English. Let us give an example
Infinitive: (to) be
I am we are
thou art you are
he/she/it isthey are
We will now give the corresponding Old Norse verb; like its English counterpart, it is completely irregular.
Infinitive: (at) vera
ek em vit/vr erum
ert it/r eru
hann/hon/at er eir/r/au eru
Remember what everything means here. The plural of 'hann' is 'eir' et cetera. Also note that the dual pronouns have the same conjugation as the plural ones.
Now we will look at more regular verbs. We don't have to remember every form of every verb; for now it will be sufficient for us to remember two; the infinitive and the first person singular. The endings are tacked on in the following way.
Infinitive: [form 1]
ek [form 2]vit/vr [form 1] - a + um
[form 2] + rit/r [form 1] - a + i
hann/hon/at [form 2] + reir/r/au [form 1]
This code may be a bit cryptic. When I say " - a + um" I mean "subtract 'a' and add 'um'". This is best illustrated with examples:
vega, veg
ek veg vit/vr vegum
vegr it/r vegi
hann/hon/at vegr eir/r/au vega
heita, heiti
ek heiti vit/vr heitum
heitir it/r heiti
hann/hon/at heitir eir/r/au heita
taka, tek
ek tek vit/vr tkum (explained below)
tekr it/r taki
hann/hon/at tekr eir/r/au taka
segja, segi
ek segi vit/vr segjum
segir it/r segi (explained below)
hann/hon/at segir eir/r/au segja
kalla, kalla (to call)
ek kalla vit/vr kllum
kallar it/r kalli
hann/hon/at kallar eir/r/au kalla
hafa, hefi (to have, wear, carry)
ek hefi vit/vr hfum
hefir it/r hafi
hann/hon/at hefir eir/r/au hafa
And now for one verb that is almost regular, but not quite:
sj, s (to see)
ek s vit/vr sjm (not *sjum)
sr it/r s (not *sji)
hann/hon/at sr eir/r/au sj

1.7 "Er" - an all purpose relative pronoun

Relative pronouns are words like 'who, which, that'. In Norse we have one very useful word that can play the role of all those. The word is 'er' and it should not be confused with the 3rd person singular of the verb "to be". An example will be in order.
The people (that) he sees are Norwegians. Relative pronoun can be dropped.
Menninir, er hann sr, eru Normenn. Relative pronoun cannot be dropped.
We say that the relative pronoun represents a word from the main sentence in the case appropriate for the verb in the relative clause. Since the word 'er' is the same in all cases this is mostly a technical thing and need not be worried overly about. We will, somewhat arbitrarily, separate all relative clauses in Norse with commas.

1.8 The present tense

So far we have only been discussing the present tense of verbs. The ON present tense actually corresponds to two forms in English.
Vkingarnir koma. The vikings come.
Vkingarnir koma. The vikings are coming.
When translating remember to use the most natural English form.

1.9 Word order

While word order in Old Norse is fairly free there are usually some things that are more normal than others. The normal word order in a simple sentence is, as in English: "subject verb object". Another common word order is "verb subject object". The greatest emphasis in a sentence is usually on the first word. Thus, if we want to draw special attention to the object we can use "object verb subject". Other word-order schemes are usually reserved for elaborate poetry.
Where do you put the negating word "eigi"? Those examples will illustrate the variety of normal structures. Do not be overwhelmed by this, there is little need to memorise every possible pattern, you will slowly become familiar with normal word order in reading the translation exercises.
All the legal sentences above have one thing in common: "The verb is always the first or the second word in the sentence." This phenomenon is known as V2 and is treated in more detail later in the course.
Other adverbs are usually placed in the same way.

2. Vocabulary

2.1 Nouns

mar person, man, human being (declension described in 1.5)
Normar Norwegian (declines like mar)
Then two words whose declension we described in 1.4.
hrafn raven
jarl earl
The rest of the words given are regular strong masculine.
btr boat
geirr spear
slendingr Icelander
vargr wolf
vkingr viking
jfr thief
And for good measure we also list the names used in the lesson. You should never forget that names behave as any other nouns. They decline according to their declension group.

2.2 Pronouns

er that, which, who, whom
Also remember to memorise the masculine pronoun in plural.
Nom. eir (they)
Acc. (them)

2.3 Verbs

The verbs from lesson one are reiterated here for easy reference.
hafa, hefi have, hold, wear
hata, hata hate
heita, heiti be called
deyja, dey die
ba, b wait
koma, km come
mla, mli talk
sj, s see
vega, veg slay
segja, segi says
taka, tek take
sj (irregular) see
vera (irregular) be
owns (only form of this verb yet presented)

2.4 Adverbs

n now
ar there

2.5 A greeting

The following forms can be used as greetings. This is actually an adjective that is declining according to gender and number but we'll talk about that later.
Heill! - to greet one man
Heil! - to greet one woman
Heilir! - to greet a group of men
Heilar! - to greet a group of women
Heil! - to greet a group including both sexes

2.6 Yes or no questions

To change a statement into a question you use the word order
And often you add the word 'hvrt' in front.
Hvrt er hann hr?
Er hann hr?
But it's not good fashion to answer a yes or no question with yes or no! That's almost never done in the Old Icelandic texts. Instead you just repeat the question as a statement.
Question: Hvrt er hann hr?
Answer: Hann er hr.
Oh, alright, we can tell you the words:
j yes
nei no

2.7 Sample sentences

  1. Normenn hata slendinga.
  2. Hatar konungrinn lfa.
  3. eir eru Normenn.
  4. Brandrinn, er hann , heitir Tyrfingr.
  5. Vit hfum hjlma.

3. Exercises

3.1 Translate the phrases into English

3.2 Translate the phrases into Old Norse

3.3 Translate the text into English

Note: As our vocabulary and knowledge of grammar expands we will find better things to do with our exercises than killing lfr.
Normenn hafa konung; hann heitir lfr. Mar heitir Eirkr; hann er jarl ok vkingr. lf hatar Eirkr. lfr bt. Hann heitir Ormr. N sr Eirkr btinn. Segir hann: "Hr er btrinn, er lfr ." Eirkr hatar lf en hann tekr eigi btinn, er lfr . Hann br. lfr kmr. Eirkr segir: "N deyr , lfr konungr! Ek veg ik!" ok vegr lf. lfr segir " vegr mik! Ek dey! ! ! (exclamation of pain)

3.4 Translate the text into Old Norse

A man is called Eirkr. He owns (some) helmets, (some) boats and a spear. He is a viking. He kills people and takes boats. But Eirkr is not a thief. Thieves don't kill. Now Eirkr sees lfr and the Serpent. He kills lfr and takes the Serpent.

3.5 Translate the play into English

[lfr br.]
lfr: Ek s mann!
[mar kmr]
Mar: Heill lfr konungr! Ek heiti Eirkr ok ek em slendingr.
lfr: Heill Eirkr!
Eirkr: Hvrt sr orminn ar, konungr?
lfr: Eigi s ek orm.
Eirkr: En hann er hr!
[n sr lfr orminn]
lfr: Ormr! Ek s orm!
Ormr: lfr! Ek s lf!
Eirkr: Segir ormrinn "lfr"?
Ormr: Nei. Ormar mla eigi.
[lfr ok Eirkr flja]

3.6 Translate the play into English

[Eirkr, jfr ok vkingr, sr Orm, bt er lfr ]
Eirkr: "ar er btr!"
[Haukr, slendingr, mlir]
Haukr: "lfr btinn."
[lfr kmr]
lfr: "Menn s ek!"
Eirkr ok Haukr: "Vit erum hr."
lfr: "Hvrt taki it btinn?"
Eirkr ok Haukr: "Vit tkum hann eigi."
lfr: "Ormr heitir btrinn. Ek Orm"
[Eirkr ok Haukr kalla]
E & H: "lfr! lfr! ar er lfr!"
lfr: "lfr? Ek hata lfa!"
[lfr, Normar ok jfr, kmr]
lfr: "Ek s eigi lf. Hvrt er hr lfr?"
lfr: "Hr em ek, lfr konungr."
[Eirkr, Haukr ok lfr taka btinn ok flja]
lfr: "jfar! Ek hata jfa!"
E, H & : "Vr erum vkingar, vr hfum bt er heitir Ormr!"

4. Looking at real texts

4.1 Half a stanza by Snorri Sturluson

Drfr handar hlekkr
ar er hilmir drekkr.
Mjk er brgnum bekkr
blsklar ekkr.
This half-stanza will not look recognisable to you, indeed it shouldn't, it is a complicated poetic passage. But we will apply the principles set forth earlier [The Norse and English tongues] to help us with individual words.
Some we can guess at without thought; 'handar' looks like it's a cognate of 'hand' and 'drfr' could be a cognate of 'drive'. We are right on both accounts; 'handar' means 'of hand' but while 'drfr' is indeed related to 'drive' in this case it means 'snows'. Compare with the English word '(snow)drift'.
The next word is 'hlekkr'. Doesn't look familiar. But English dropped all h's in front of consonants, maybe if we change it to 'lekkr'. Looks better but we need to do more. The cluster 'nk' was frequently assimilated to 'kk' in Old Norse, maybe we need to reverse such a change. Then we've got 'lenkr'. Of course English doesn't have r as a grammatical ending, out it goes. New result 'lenk'. Still not an English word but let's remember that vowels are more prone to change than consonants. If we change the 'e' to an 'i' then we've finally made it to 'link' which is the right word.
It's a good and correct guess that 'ar' means 'there'. In this context 'ar er' means 'where'.
What might 'hilmir' be? No way to figure that one out, it means 'king'. The word is related to 'hjlmr' and refers to the fact that kings tend to bear helmets.
Then there's 'drekkr'. We apply the same rules as before; Norse 'kk' can be English 'nk' and English doesn't have 'r' as a grammatical ending. Then we've got 'drenk'. Maybe if we change the vowel to 'i' as before. Hocus-pocus we've got 'drink' which is correct. More specifically 'drekkr' means 'drinks'.
Let's look at that first sentence in toto.
"Drfr handar hlekkr ar er hilmir drekkr."
The subject is 'handar hlekkr' which means 'link of the hand'. And what does _that_ mean? It is a poetic paraphrase for 'gold'. The verb is 'drfr' which means 'snows'. Then 'ar er' means 'where', 'hilmir' means 'king' and 'drekkr' means 'drinks'.
"(The) link of the hand [gold] snows where (the) king drinks."
This sentence is quite typical of Norse court poetry; praise of the king's generosity in florid language.
Let's look at the second sentence.
The word 'mjk' means 'very'. The English cognate is 'much'. You already know that 'er' can mean 'is'. Such is the case here. The word 'brgnum' doesn't have an English cognate. It means 'for men' and is a poetic word.
Then there's 'bekkr'. In with the n, out with the r! We've got 'benk'. Hmm... The correct cognate is 'bench' and the meaning is the same.
The word-form 'blsklar' is made out of 'bl' and 'sklar'. The first is an adjective cognate to English 'blithe'. The second is the possessive form of 'skl' which means 'bowl'. Modern Scandinavians can often be heard shouting this word. Skl! Skl! Toast!
Last word: 'ekkr'. Once more we change 'kk' into 'nk' and get 'thenk'. The correct cognate is 'thank' but the word means 'comfortable' rather than 'thankful'.
If we draw together the second sentence.
"Mjk er brgnum bekkr blsklar ekkr."
Meaning: "The bench of the blithe bowl is very comfortable for men."
And who doesn't like sitting and drinking...
In summary we could guess correctly at the meaning of many words: 'handar, drekkr, bl, hlekkr, bekkr' but we also had some whose cognates didn't help us much: 'drfr, ekkr'. This is quite typical.
Do not rely on cognate trickery but use it, where it applies, as an aid to memory.

4.2 Two half-strophes from the Sigdrfuml

- - -
Heill Dagr!
Heilir Dags synir!
Heil Ntt ok nipt!"
- - -
- - -
Heilir sir!
Heilar synjur!
Heil sj in fjlnta fold!"
- - -
Compare the greeting carefully with chapter 2.5; notice how it changes according to gender and number.
"Hail, Day!
Hail, Day's sons!
Hail, Night and [her] sister!"
"Hail, sir (gods)!
Hail, synjur (goddesses)!
Hail, bountiful earth!"