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Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson Five

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson Five

by Haukur orgeirsson and skar Gulaugsson
  1. Grammar
    1. Prepositions and Case Usage
    2. Dative Case: Command
    3. Accusative Case: Qualifying
    4. Assimilative Verb Conjugation
  2. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Conjunctions
    3. Adjectives
    4. Verbs
    5. Adverbs
    6. Prepositions
    7. Pronouns
    8. Phrases
  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

1. Grammar

1.1 Prepositions

So far we have been managing entirely without prepositions. But prepositions are an important part of ON as well as English, and not using them calls for much unnecessary circumlocution and paraphrasing. ON prepositions, however, largely involve use of the dative case, which is why we have not started using them until now.
Why would prepositions involve the dative case? Our first acquaintance with this case introduced it as a case for "giving & receiving". But the dative case has many different functions in ON. The reason is that ON's dative case was (and is, in Icelandic and Faroese) the final result of a fusion of many different cases. In the farthest "known" (projected by comparative linguistics) ancestral language of both ON and English, "Indo-European" (so called because it is the ancestor of most European languages and Persian and North-Indian languages as well), all those different cases served one specific purpose only. Four Indo- European cases served as the basis for the ON dative:
Locative: The case for marking places or objects where the subject of the sentence is positioned; associated with prepositions meaning 'in', 'on', 'at', etc.
Ablative: Marks places or objects whence the subject comes; associated with prepositions meaning 'from', 'out of', etc.
Instrumental: Marks objects that are being used in the verb action; e.g. a sentence meaning 'he weighed the book with a scale', would mark the word 'scale' with the instrumental; English primarily marks the instrumental with the preposition 'with', but sometimes with 'by', e.g. 'he came by ship'.
Dative: Marks the indirect object, usually the receiver of a gift of some kind (whether negative or positive); English usually marks this with 'to', e.g. "he gave it to him" or simply by word order, e.g. "he gave the man a chance", where "the man" would be in dative.
In Indo-European, those cases (supposedly) had separate forms, i.e. separate endings, for each of them. But ON had united all those cases into one form, while retaining all of those different uses for that single case.
It may be evident by now why the dative case is so strongly affiliated with prepositions in ON. Most prepositions have meanings that would be associated with the locative and ablative cases mentioned above.
You might wonder what case category prepositions like 'into' and 'onto' fit. While locative answers 'where?', and ablative answers 'whence?/where from?', the 'into' case would answer 'whither?/'where to?'. This case is called "allative" by grammarians, and is the opposite of the 'ablative'. Even Indo-European did not have a separate form for this case; instead, it was assigned to the accusative case. This is significant, because some ON cases involve accusative, and they are all essentially allative in meaning.
From now on, prepositions are introduced in the Vocabulary section in the following format:
me + dat with, by, using
Or that is, the prepositions are shown with a "+ [case]" following it. It is very important to note the case that a preposition takes, especially because a few ON prepositions may take either accusative or dative, with different meanings according to which case follows. These are cases of prepositions with either locative or allative meanings; compare English "in", locative, which would take dative in ON, to "into", allative, which would take accusative. Both are represented by the ON preposition "", but the meaning differs according to the case that follows.

1.2 Dative Case: Command

Now that you have learnt how to mark the dative case in all words we have yet introduced, it is time to learn more useful ways of using it. One useful construction involves verbs meaning "tell" or "command".
Consider this English sentence,
I told him to stop.
As opposed to,
I gave him a watch.
And then consider
I told it to him.
I gave it to him.
The sentences both exhibit the same pattern, at close inspection. We already understand that the second sentence, involving giving, has an indirect object, and therefore a dative case. By re-arranging the sentence, the abstract "to" preposition pops up, which is a sure sign of the dative in English. "He" is the indirect object, the receiver of the "gift", and is marked with the dative.
What we are interested in now, however, is that the first sentence, not obviously involving any "giving", merely "telling", behaves in the same way. "He" is also an indirect object, and is marked with dative. What does he receive? "To stop". Hardly a noun, but verb infinitives are tricky in that they often behave as nouns. Without dwelling on that, we have at least found that this is a significant "new" way of using the dative, although it is in principle the same as the "giving" usage we already know.
Common English verbs that can function in this way are "tell", "command", "order", and others of similar meanings.
The good news is that ON does the exact same thing. In ON, we know the verb "segja"; it means "say", but it also means "tell", since ON does not distinguish between those two meanings. Let's make ON constructions analogous to the ones above:
Ek gef hnum mat.
Is already familiar. Using the command-type construction,
Ek segi hnum at eta.
However, in examining 13th century Icelandic texts, it seems to us that such constructions with "segja" were not altogether usual, though not wrong. The idiomatic usage of the text writers was to use the verb "bja, b" = 'offer'. Thus, they'd rather say:
Ek b hnum at eta.
But Nordic men of authority often made "offers" that couldn't be refused; 'bja' sometimes means simply 'order'/'command'.
Evidently, verb infinitives can function like nouns in other dative contexts than commanding, both in English and ON. English says,
I give him to eat. (usually elaborated to, say, "I give him something to eat")
ON would say,
Ek gef hnum at eta.

1.3 Accusative Case: Qualifying

There still remain some useful ways of employing accusative in ON. One common construction is what we off-hand dub "qualifying". Again, being closely related to ON, English has an analogous construction:
I call him cowardly.
In ON, both "him" and "cowardly" come in accusative:
Ek kalla hann ragan.
ON often uses the verb "segja" in this way:
Ek segi hann ragan.
Another use is with the verb "vilja", as English uses "want":
Ek vil hann dauan.    I want him dead.

1.4 Assimilative Verb Conjugation

Verbs that do not conjugate with a vowel ending, and whose stems have a long vowel (acutes, diphthongs, ae and oe) and end in 's' or 'n' never have an -r ending; instead, the -r assimilates to the 's' or 'n' and becomes an -s/-n ending:
blsa, blaes to blow
skna, skn to shine
ek skn
hann sknn
But verbs that end in vowels are of course not affected:
reisa, reisi to construct, to raise something/someone (to vertical position)
ek reisi
hann reisir

2. Vocabulary

2.1 Nouns

vgrsmall bay, cove
hlmrisle, small island
garrpalisade/stone wall, city, city-state, garden, yard
haugrmound, dung, pile, grave (see below)
vangrfield (not farming), meadow, clear patch of ground
heimrhome, homeland, world
oddrpoint, spike
Noregr Norway
Geirshlmr "Geir's Isle"
Geirshaugr "Geir's Grave"
Heivangr "Clear Field"
Skgarfors "Forest's Falls"
lfarsheimr "lfar's Home"
Hlmgarr "Island City", a Nordic (Swedish) colony in Russia, now called Novgorod ("gorod" = "garr")
Austrvegr "Eastway" (Russia)

2.2 Conjunctions

ef if
ar er where (relative)

2.3 Adjectives

djpr deep
ungr young
rkr rich
heir clear
bjartr bright, fair (of light complexion and/or blonde hair)
sterkr strong
vr wide, extensive
breir broad
feigr doomed to die, "dead already", fey
spakr wise

2.4 Verbs

sigla, sigli sail
ganga, geng walk
bja, b offer (sometimes 'command', see 1.2)
sna, sni show
ba, b live in, inhabit
brenna, brennr be burning
blsa, bls blow
falla, fell fall
skna, skn shine
standa, stend stand
lifa, lifi live

2.5 Adverbs

mean while
sv so, such, then (immediately following)
heim homewards
vel well
sem as, like

2.6 Prepositions

+ acc into
+ dat in(side)
+ acc onto
+ dat on (top of)
r + dat out of
me + dat with, by, using; with, accompanying

2.7 Pronouns

fir (pl) few (note: "fm" in pl dat, not "fum")
sumir (pl) some
bir (pl) both
hvat? what?

2.8 Phrases

"gefa gri"grant/give mercy, spare, pardon (from death)
Example: "illr mar gefr mr eigi gri." (an evil man gives me no mercy)
Dictionaries will reveal that "gri" is a plural neuter, but do not let that disconcert you. It will not need to be declined to any form not known to you. Just use the phrase.

3. Exercises

3.1 Translate the phrases into English

  1. lfrinn gengr skginn.
  2. lfrinn gengr skginum.
  3. Eldr mjk bjartr brennr garinum.
  4. Ragnarr ferr me vkingum vginn.
  5. ar vegr hann lfana me geirinum.
  6. Ragnarr kmr Eirksheim me btinum.
  7. Me hnum eru fir menn.
  8. "Hv eru sumir eigi glair?" spyrr Oddr.
  9. "Fm mnnum, er mik feigan vilja, gef ek gri," segir lfarr jarl.

3.2 Translate the phrases into Old Norse

  1. A young man sails in the cove.
  2. He walks out of the boat and into the isle.
  3. The vikings wait with the earl in a big forest, in the isle.
  4. The man finds the vikings and the earl in the forest.
  5. The earl says: "Some men want me dead. Do you want so?"
  6. "That I do (so I want), earl. Here I stand and fall."
  7. "Few men do I spare. If you do not leave (go), I kill you."
  8. The vikings say: "Go home, or be doomed."

3.3 Translate the text into English

Oddr ok Ragnarr heita menn. Oddr er mar ungr ok bjartr, ok sterkr mjk. Ragnarr er mar mjk rkr. Ragnarr bt gan ok langan mjk. eir eru bir Normenn ok ba Noregi.
Ragnarr br Oddi ok mrgum vkingum at fara btinn. eir fara n allir ok sigla. eir sigla strum vgi. r btinum sj eir hlm. ar er sandr ok skgr. "Hlmrinn heitir Geirshlmr," segir Ragnarr Oddi. " skginum ar er ok Geirshaugr, en ar br Geirr, illr draugr." eir sj ok vang mjk van ok heian. Oddr spyrr, "Hvat heitir vangrinn, sv heir?" "Hann heitir Heivangr. ar blsa vindar sterkir," svarar Ragnarr hnum. "ar ek marga hesta, ok eta eir vel vanginum. Heivangi er ok brunnr mjk djpr," segir hann. Oddr sr fors breian ok spyrr, "Hvat heitir forsinn, er ar fellr?" Ragnarr svarar hnum, "Forsinn heitir Skgarfors, ok er breir mjk." Ragnarr snir Oddi vga, hlma, skga, sanda, forsa, ok vanga, mean eir sigla. Oddr segir, " ert mar mjk spakr ok mlir vel, Ragnarr, ok kenni ek n marga vga ok vanga hr Noregi."
Brtt koma eir lfarsheim, ar er lfarr jarl br. lfar hatar mjk Ragnarr ok vill hann feigan. Er eir ganga r btinum ok sandinn, segir hann, "Hr lfarsheimi br lfarr, jarl illr ok rkr. Hann gefr eigi gum mnnum gri."
eir ganga n lfarsheim ok sj stran gar. Ragnar maelir, "Garrinn er mjk strr. Hann er sv strr sem Hlmgarr." svarar Oddr, "Eigi kenni ek Hlmgar." Ragnarr segir hnum, " ert ungr mar, Oddr, ok eigi spakr. Hlmgarr er strr garr Austrvegi. ar eru margir vargar vum skgum."

3.4 Translate the text into Old Norse

When lfar sees Ragnar coming with a young man and many vikings, he says, "Many fires burn in me, while Ragnar lives. I grant him no mercy if he does not leave (go) [out of] lfarsheim soon." The men are afraid, who are with him, as they hear him speak so. lfar takes a sword and a horse, and leaves.
As they walk, Oddr asks Ragnar much (= many questions, use "mjk"). But Ragnar does not answer him. He says: "lfar comes soon. Do not speak, he wants all of us ("oss alla") dead." But Oddr and the vikings do not speak. They stand and are afraid. Now Ragnar also sees what they see.
He sees lfar on a horse. The wind blows as he speaks: "You are all dead ("feigir") men. I don't spare men like you." As he is coming, they see the fire [that is] burning in him.
Oddr and the vikings flee. They do not want to die in lfarsheim. Ragnar sees them flee and shouts: "You are all cowardly! But now I flee too, for lfar grants no mercy." Then he flees with the men. lfar does not pursue them. He says: "Some men I do grant mercy - cowardly men."

4. Looking at real texts

4.1 A few words from the Heimskringla

var lfr konungr reir mjk ok mlti brliga: "Hv mun ek vilja eiga ik hundheina?"
var became
brliga angrily
mun will (conjugated in lesson 8)
eiga own, marry
hund-heina dog-heathen, heathen like a dog
Then king Olaf became very angry and spoke angrily:
"Why will I want to marry you {when you are} heathen like a dog?"

4.2 A question and an answer from Brennu-Njls saga

Hann spyrr hvat eim vri ar gefit.
"Ostr," segja r.
vri gefit = was given
He asks what was given there to them.
"Cheese," they say.

4.3 Half a strophe from Helgakvia Hundingsbana:

Hvrt eru at svik ein
er ek sj ykkjumk?
Ea Ragnark?
Ra menn dauir!
svik (plural noun) = betrayal, illusion
ein = one, only
ykkjumk = seem to
ra = ride
Ragnark = "the fate of the gods", the end of the world
Are that only illusions
which I seem to see?
Or the end of the world?
There are dead men riding!