Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson Three

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson Three

by Haukur orgeirsson and skar Gulaugsson
  1. Miscellany
    1. Spelling
  2. Grammar
    1. Adjectives - indefinite form
    2. Usage - accusative with infinitive
    3. Usage - auxiliary verbs
    4. The masculine article
  3. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Pronouns
    3. Adjectives
    4. Verbs
    5. Adverbs
    6. Conjunctions
  4. 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. Looking at real texts
    1. A strophe from the Vlusp

0. Miscellany

0.1 Spelling

When the Latin alphabet was introduced to write Old Norse the spelling used was not very consistent and not very precise. To improve readability the spelling of the preserved manuscripts is usually "corrected" in modern editions. For example, there are few manuscripts that distinguish between short and long vowels but this distinction is, as a rule, made now when Old Icelandic texts are published.
The spelling used in this course is the standardised spelling used in the "slenzk fornrit" edition of the sagas. That spelling, in turn, is based on suggestions from a 12th century treatise called The First Grammatical Treatise, because it is the first of four in its manuscript.
There are two exceptions to this. What we here write as '' should be an o with a tail and what we here write as 'oe' should be an oe-ligature. This is due to letter code difficulties.

1. Grammar

1.1 Adjectives - indefinite form

In Modern English an adjective, such as 'fresh' will have exactly the same form no matter what its grammatical context is. This was not so in Middle English. Let's look at a part of Chaucer's description of the Squire.
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede
Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede.
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al e day;
He was as fressh as is e mon of May.
We see that two forms of the same adjective occur; 'fressh' and 'fresshe'. The first form goes with 'he' and the second with 'floures'. We could guess, correctly, that the Middle English adjective has a plural ending of 'e'. We have more examples of this above. The flowers are 'whyte' and 'reede' whereas the meadow is 'ful' of them.
After this sidestep it should come as no surprise to you that in Old Norse adjectives have different forms depending on the number and case of the noun they describe. Their form also depends on the gender of the noun and whether it is definite or indefinite (explained below). The masculine indefinite declension is exemplified here.
Sg. Pl.
Nom. reir reiir
Acc. reian reia
The word 'reir' means 'angry'. As always you must memorise the table.
We will immediately give examples of the usage. Note that the adjective can come either in front of the noun or behind it. Both types of usage are natural.
Hr eru reiir menn. Here are (some) angry people.
Hann sr reian mann. He sees an angry person.
lfr er mar reir. Olaf is an angry person.
Note carefully, however, that ON has a separate declension for adjectives that apply to nouns with a definite article. That is called the definite declension, while the one presented here is the indefinite. Be careful thus, not to use the forms above with a definite noun, for that is (under normal circumstances) wrong.
The definite declension of adjectives is not presented here yet, since it is modelled on a noun declension not yet introduced (the weak one); the indefinite forms above, however, are similar to the declensions of strong masculine nouns and various pronouns, all of which are being presented now. We will have to make do with only indefinite adjective forms for a while.

1.2 Usage - accusative with infinitive

Having learnt infinitive forms of verbs and accusative forms of some nouns, we're ready for a very useful sentence construction. First, let's take a look of the English equivalent.
I saw him come.
He sees it fly.
This construction, usually with a main verb meaning to see, watch, hear, feel, sense, etc, indicates that the subject sees/hears/senses the object performing an action, which is put into the infinitive form (without any marker). ON examples:
Ek s lf konung koma.I see King Olaf come.
Vr sjm manninn kalla.We see the man shout.
Hann heyrir drauginn mla.He hears the ghost speak.
Modern English speakers will often say "I see it coming." instead of "come." The ON construction may be translated either way.

1.3 Usage - auxiliary verbs

ON has much in common with English in its use of auxiliaries. To begin with, some examples of English auxiliary constructions with infinitive:
It wants to go.
He has to go.
The man does see.
Birds can fly.
The dogs must leave.
The beast will sleep.
The auxiliary verbs are the ones that conjugate, 'want', 'can', etc, always coming first in an English sentence (but not necessarily in ON). The other verbs are all in infinitive.
Note how some of the infinitives are marked with 'to', but some not. This is a feature of English as well as ON. It is inherent in the auxiliaries themselves, if the following infinitive is marked or not. Among the auxiliaries above only 'want' and 'have' take a marker. ON verbs that have no infinitive marker, are easily recognized because they all belong to a special conjugation group. Below you will learn 'vilja', meaning 'want', which is one of those "special" auxiliaries.
Konungrinn vill vega mennina. The king wants to kill the men.
eir vilja taka hestinn. They want to take the horse.
Ek vil mla. I want to speak.
Eta vil ek eigi. I don't want to eat.

1.4 The masculine article

It may annoy speakers of many languages that the definite article is attached to the end of words rather than being a seperate word in front. It may be some consolation that it is originally a separate word. Its declension (in the cases and gender we have learnt so far) follows:
sg pl
nom inn inir
acc inn ina
When we tack the article on to words it sometimes appears in its full majesty:
mar + inn = marinn
menn + inir = menninir
But if the noun ends with a vowel or 'r' the 'i' of the article is dropped:
ormar + inir = ormarnir
orma + ina = ormana
And now a masculine noun from a declension group (the weak one) which you haven't learnt.
(nom sg)hani + inn = haninn
(acc sg)hana + inn = hanann
Though it is a separate word, 'inn' cannot be freely put in front of a word as an article; it always follows the noun (with some important exceptions to be learnt later).

2. Vocabulary

2.1 Nouns

matrfood (always in singular)

2.2 Pronouns

There is a group of pronouns called 'indefinite' pronouns; here are two useful ones:
allrall, whole
margrmany, multitudinous
As said above, many pronouns decline like the indefinite adjectives that have been presented. Thus, 'allr' is declined (in masculine):
sg pl
nom allr allir
acc allan alla
Exactly like the adjectives above.
But since 'allr' is available both in singular and plural, how would each translate in English? The plural form translates directly to the English cognate 'all', while the singular means 'all of', 'whole'. Examples:
Allir menninir eru norskir. All the men are Norwegian.
Hann sr allan manninn He sees all of the man.
'Margr' declines in the same way. Its singular form means 'one of many', while the plural means 'many'. To explain the singular, consider this example:
Margr mar hest.Many a man has got a horse.
What students should perhaps realize, is that there is little difference between these so-called pronouns on the one hand, and adjectives on the other. For other adjectives can stand independently just as these pronouns can; examples:
Allir eru glair. All are happy.
Hrddir eru ok ragir. Scared [ones] are also cowardly.
Dauir sj daua. Dead [ones] see dead [ones].
Ef blindr leiir blindan falla bir gryfju.
If a blind [one] guides a blind [one], both fall into a pit.
However, traditional grammar defines these so-called pronouns as such, and other adjectives as such; we will adhere to this system in our lessons, in order not to confuse students refer to other sources.
Regarding word order, adjectives usually postcede personal pronouns; thus:
Ek et hann allan. I eat all of it.

2.3 Adjectives

danskr Danish
daur dead
gr good
hrddr afraid
illr evil
slenzkr Icelandic
norskr Norwegian
reir angry
ragr cowardly
strr big (note that the first r is part of the stem)
svangr hungry

2.4 Verbs

Regular verbs:
eta, et eat
veia, veii hunt/fish
flja, fl flee, run away
spyrja, spyr ask
svara, svara answer
kenna, kenni recognize, know (a person, place, or object)
elta, elti follow, chase
heyra, heyri hear
fara, fer go
deyja, dey die
Note that ON has different words for the English concept "know"; "kenna" above indicates familiarity, while "vita", mentioned above, is the "absolute" knowing, i.e. it means awareness of a fact or event.
An irregular verb - vilja:
This irregular verb, meaning "want", is the second in a small group of verbs with an anomalous conjugation (the first being "vera"), but also highly useful meanings. It is a cognate of English "will", and behaves in similar ways as that English verb (e.g. in auxiliary constructions, see 1.3 above). It conjugates thus:
Infinitive: (at) vilja
ek vil vit/vr viljum
vilt it/r vili
hann/hon/at vill eir/r/au vilja

2.5 Adverbs

hv?why? (word-order: hv + verb + subject)
mjkvery, very much, greatly
'Mjk', being an adverb, can also be used with verbs, in which case it means 'very much'. For example,
lfr hatar mjk lfa. Olaf hates wolves very much.
Another example, from a real text, Vlusp:
Geyr n garmr mjk. Now [the] dog howls greatly.

2.6 Conjunctions

v at because (word-order: v at + subject + verb)
er when

3. Exercises

3.1 Translate the sentences into English

Ragir menn sj reian lf koma.
"Ek s svangan mann taka ost."
"Hvrt sr slenzka menn koma?"
Marinn er oft hrddr.
Illir menn vilja vega ga menn.
Allir vilja btinn taka v at lfr hann.
slendingar eru eigi menn ragir. eir eru ok gir en eigi illir.
Marinn veiir fisk ok etr hann brtt allan.

3.2 Translate the phrases into Old Norse

"Do you two eat the whole cheese?"
"We see hungry wolves chase the man."
"The ravens want to eat all of him, for they are very hungry."
King Olaf sees the thieves take the boat.
"I see many thieves! I want to kill them all!"
Olaf wants to kill the thieves, but they see him coming.
As the thieves hear Olaf speak, they all flee. The king chases them.
"Many a thief wants to take the boat."

3.3 Translate the texts into English

Illr draugr vill vega lf konung. Hann eltir konunginn ok er hann sr hann, kallar draugrinn, "lfr, ert mar illr mjk ok ragr. Ek hata ik, v at vegr ga menn." lfr er hrddr ok flr.
Svartr heitir danskr mar. Hann veiir oft fiska ok etr v at fiskar eru matr gr. Svartr ferr ok veiir marga stra fiska er hann vill eta. Er Svartr veiir fiskana, kmr mar. Er marinn sr Svart veia fiskana, segir hann, "Heill, ek heiti Kormkr." Svartr heyrir Kormk mla ok svarar, "Heill. Svartr heiti ek ok em danskr mar." Kormkr spyrr Svart, "Hvrt veiir fiska, Svartr?" "Marga stra fiska veii ek, v at eir eru gr matr." Kormkr segir, "Ostr er ok gr matr, Svartr. Ek hefi hr ost gan. Hvrt vilt ost eta?" "- Ek vil fisk ok ost eta, v at ostr er ok gr matr. Hvrt vilt fisk eta, Kormkr?" "- Fiskr er gr," svarar Kormkr ok tekr fisk. Svartr tekr ok ost ok etr. Menninir eru mjk svangir. eir eta n alla fiskana ok allan ostinn, ok eru brtt glair menn en eigi svangir.

3.4 Translate the text into Old Norse

A worm sees a wolf coming. When it sees the wolf, it says, "Sss - wolf, why do you come? I own the fish here, which you want to take." The wolf is not scared and replies, "hail worm, I'm a hungry wolf now and I want to eat fish. You have much fish (many fishes) there, which you aren't eating (don't eat)." The worm is angry and says, "I own all the fish there, wolf. Wolves who eat the fish all die (deyja allir)!" Now the wolf is scared, because an evil worm wants to kill it. "- You are an evil worm! You fish (hunt) much fish but do not eat it (them) all. We wolves are very hungry and don't have fish. We also want to eat fish, worm!" The worm sees the wolf flee. The wolf is very angry and shouts, "I hate evil worms!" But the worm does not chase the wolf, for it is happy but not angry.

4. Looking at real texts

4.1 A strophe from Vlusp

In this course we use standardised Old Icelandic spelling, geared to the 13th century. In this format we would give one of the last strophes of Vlusp like this.
"Sr hon upp koma
ru sinni
jr r gi
falla forsar,
flgr rn yfir,
s er fjalli
fiska veiir."
This, however, is not what how the main manuscript of Vlusp, Codex Regius, reads. The same strophe is spelled in the following way in the manuscript (I change e with tail to and o with tail to ).
Ser hon upp koma avro siNi iord or gi iia grna. falla
forsar flygr avrn yfir sa er afialli fisca ueiir.
Lots of interesting points.
In all those respects Codex Regius is quite normal. Indeed, the standardised spelling is by no means an average of the spelling systems in the various manuscripts. Rather, it is intended to write Old Norse in a way that distinguishes its different sounds.
We can now look at the same strophe respelled into modern Icelandic.
"Sr hn upp koma
ru sinni
jr r gi
falla fossar,
flgur rn yfir,
s er fjalli
fiska veiir."
Not many changes because the spelling of Old Icelandic and the spelling of Modern Icelandic are based on the same basic system. You should note that the ending 'r' has changed to 'ur'.
We have now shown you the same strophe in three different spellings. All of them are quite plausible and many more. The morale? When you encounter a text 'in the original Old Norse' be sure to notice which spelling is used.