Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson Six

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson Six

by Haukur orgeirsson and skar Gulaugsson
  1. Grammar
    1. Umlauts
    2. Article Usage
    3. Word Order
    4. Reference
  2. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Pronouns
    3. Adjectives
    4. Verbs
    5. Adverbs
    6. Prepositions
    7. Conjunctions
    8. Phrases
  3. Exercises
    1. Translate the text into English

1. Grammar

1.1 Umlauts

"Umlaut" is a feature of Old Norse, and other Germanic languages; it potentially causes the greatest difficulty to foreign learners, of all the features in the language. It may be best, in order to thoroughly tackle this phenomenon, to understand its origin, workings, occurrence, and function. First, perhaps, we need to understand the term; "umlaut" is a "nonsensical" (German) term that probably adds to the difficulty experienced by English speakers. In German, "um" is a preposition meaning "about, around" (just as the corresponding ON word); "laut" is a noun, meaning "sound". "Umlaut" means, roughly, "sound change/shift/mutation" (or, for better memorization, "sound-about"!), and is often called by one of those terms in English literature.
The umlaut was, to begin with, a pattern of changes within the Germanic languages, where their speakers sought to reduce the bulk of the endings, by dropping them and replacing them with vowels of changed quality (the 'quality' of vowels is simply their nature, like 'a' vs 'i' vs 'u', etc, while 'quantity' is their length). Until then, the Germanic vowels systems are thought to have been simple, with (approximately) the 5 basic vowels as in Latin, 'a, i, u, e, o', and various diphthong combinations of those. Through umlaut, a vowel ending might be dropped, but its preceding stem vowel would be affected by it in a certain way, changing to a new type of vowel. This introduced many new vowels to the language, called the "umlaut vowels". The umlaut vowels in ON are 'y, , , , oe, '. In older Norse, the ON 'e' was two different vowels, one of which was an umlaut; but they merged to yield the ON 'e', which is then "only sometimes" a case of umlaut.
There are three basic umlauts: a-, i-, and u-umlaut, according to the vowel of the disappearing ending which caused the sound change. They were not active all at the same time, but rather appeared in the order given above. A-umlaut is not important to us, and only one type of u-umlaut is significant. The details of those will therefore be left out here.
I-umlaut caused vowels to become fronted, and in that way, drawn towards the 'i'. This umlaut is of great functional importance, because in many declensions and conjugations, the stem alternates between having it and not having it. In orthographic terms, these are the i-umlauts:
a > e
o >
> oe
u > y
o > y
j >
j >
au > ey
We have some examples from verbs that we have been using:
hafa > hef
blsa > bls
koma > km
ra > roe
ba > b
bja > b
And also in noun declensions:
ss, ss, sir
mar, manns, menn
The i-umlaut is a prominent feature in verb conjugations, some noun declensions, adjective comparisons, and finally, in word derivations. This will be encountered and further discussed in future lessons.
The u-umlaut, then, has only one form that we need concern ourselves with:
a >
We have seen this in the verb conjugation, especially in the 1p pl, such as "hfum" or "tkum". Also in the dative forms, where the -um ending is common, e.g "rgum mnnum". This is called "preserved" u-umlaut, because the ending that caused it is still present, making it easy to predict.
Other types of u-umlauts, which need to be explained, are to be encountered, but since they occur in declension forms that we have not yet dealt with, they will be discussed later.

1.2 Article Usage

As it happens, a concept in one language seldom corresponds exactly to the same concept in another. In that way, the concept of the definite article in ON is by no means an exact counterpart of the same concept in English. Let's consider some of the special ways in which the ON article is used.
To begin with, the ON article is used considerably less, overall, than the English one. In poetry, it's not used at all. As a rule of thumb, if you are in doubt whether to use the article when writing ON, do not use it. When translating ON to good English, you must thus be ready to add the article into your translation where you see it fit.
Our definite article is a complex concept to define. Generally speaking, it is used to make a reference to something familiar to the reader, either from a previous sentence within the text, or from outside sources (i.e. the author presumes the reader to know it, e.g. "the Santa Claus"). An English sequence of introduction and reference might go like this:
1. There is an earl in Norway. (introduction)
2. The earl is rich. (reference)
If it were:
2. An earl is rich. (another introduction)
The reader would be confused, because this would indicate another, wholly unrelated, earl, leaving the sentences irrelevant to each other. Continuing the text:
3. The earl is called Ragnar.
Now we have another way to refer to the earl, apart from 'he' of course, which would normally have been used in the third sentence; but we'll leave personal pronouns out of this, for convenience. At this point, the language will find it preferable to refer to this earl by his name, instead of "the earl"; compare how we might continue:
4. One day, the earl goes hunting.
5. One day, Ragnar goes hunting.
Having introduced the earl's name, we have reached a "third level" of reference. We might identify three such levels of "familiarity":
1. unknown (indefinite article used)
2. introduced (definite article used)
3. known by name (name used)
This is the English pattern. Applying this system to ON, we find slight differences; consider a similar sequence of introduction in ON:
1. " Noregi br jarl." (introduction)
2. "Jarlinn heitir Eirkr." (reference)
Now we have reached the third level of familiarity with Eric, since we know him by name; from now on, we can refer to him by name:
3. "Gengr n Eirkr  skg." 
However, unlike English, we can also refer to him by his "title", but without an article:
3. "Gengr n jarl  skg."
This is very common in ON texts; it should be translated into English with an article. By "title" in this context, anything relatively specific is meant. "Mar" will rarely be used in this way, but anything more specific, such as "sveinn" (young man) or "karl" (older man) will commonly be used for close reference, instead of names.

1.3 Word Order

We have hitherto stated, loosely, that Old Norse has a "free" word order. This is true, as opposed to English, of the relation between the "noun phrases" (= the noun with all attached to it, such as adjectives and prepositions, or = a pronoun). In English, the order of the noun phrases is a strong indication of their case, i.e. which of them is the subject and which the object (direct or indirect). ON leaves the word order free there, indicating the case by changing the endings of the noun phrase's components.
'Syntax' is the study of word order. There is more to the syntax of a language than the relation between its noun phrases ("noun syntax"); going from noun syntax to verb syntax, we find that ON has a rigid set of word order rules, in the relation between the verb phrase and the rest of the sentence's components. We need to start dealing with this phenomenon's immediate implications.
(Technically, the noun phrase containing the object is subordinate, or contained within, the verb phrase; for our practical purposes, that is irrelevant.)
Consider these sentences:
"The wolf walks out of the forest." 
"Then the wolf walks out of the forest."
The order of the sentences is identical; we merely add "then" in the beginning of the latter. But this won't work in ON:
"lfrinn gengr r skginum."
"N gengr lfrinn r skginum."
Not *"N lfrinn gengr r skginum."
As we add the adverb "n", the verb shifts in its relation to the other words, and "insists" on maintaining its position as the second component of the sentence, following the adverbial phrase ("n").
In that sentence, the verb phrase is composed of only one word, "gengr". Consider a sentence with a more complicated verb phrase:
"N vill lfrinn ganga r skginum."
The verb phrase here is "vill ganga"; "ganga" is a verb infinitive, while "vill" is conjugated, and therefore called the "finite" verb.
But you notice that in this sentence, only "vill" stubbornly maintains its position, while "ganga" maintains its relation to the noun phrases; thus, the verb phrase has been split up.
A practical rule may be deduced, which, if well understood and thoughtfully applied, will result in correct word order in most cases:
The finite verb within an Old Norse sentence must always be the first or the second component, while the rest of the verb phrase retains its relation to the noun phrases even if that involves splitting it away from the finite verb.
This is admittedly complicated; but a student who keeps this in mind while reading ON texts, should get a feel for this.
This phenomenon is called "Verb-Second", or "V/2"; all Germanic languages except for English remain V/2 languages today, more or less. The origin and inner cause of the V/2 phenomenon is not all too well understood by linguists, though their knowledge of its function will suffice for our practical purposes. The V/2 characteristics has different manifestations within the Germanic family, however, so speakers of German or even modern Scandinavian languages should not always trust ON to have the same rules of verb syntax as their native languages do.
An important fact in the V/2 procedure is that conjunctions are not members of the sentences which follow them; consider these examples:
"Menninir vilja flja."
"Sv vilja menninir flja."
"v at menninir vilja flja."
"Sv" is an adverbial phrase, while "v at" is a conjunctive phrase. As can be seen by the finite verb's position in the third sentence, "v at" has no effect on its position; sentence-wise, the third sentence is identical to the first, but with a conjunction tacked in front (which doesn't count into the sentence).
It is therefore important to note whether such "structural words" (like "" and "ok", etc) are conjunctions or adverbs; note that "ok", for instance, may either be an adverb (when it means 'also') or a conjunction (when it means 'and'):
"-ok  ert mar feigr, jarl." (conjunction)		"-and you are a doomed man, earl."
" ert ok mar feigr, jarl." (adverb)			"You're also a doomed man, earl."
Also note that in a string of sentences which "share" some components, i.e. when the latter sentences omit one or more of their noun or adverbial phrases when it is clear that they are the same as in the first sentence, V/2 applies as in the first sentence, which may be confusing. Best displayed in an example:
" ferr hann, ok [] vegr hann marga menn."
"" is being omitted in the second sentence (after the "ok" conjunction), but it still affects the word order as if it were there. In the same way:
"Ef marinn sr lfa, [] flr hann."
Often the "" will be omitted from "if-then" sentences, even while the V/2 effects of it remain.
Direct speech is, for syntactic purposes, an adverbial phrase within the "frame sentence". A whole paragraph of direct speech can be the adverbial phrase of a "he says"-type sentence:
"Mar heitir Haukr. "Eigi em ek norskr mar,"<speech>", segir Haukr.
It cannot be
 * "...", Haukr segir.
since that would violate the V/2 rules just as much as
* "N Haukr segir."

1.4 Reference

Strong masculine nouns:

(without article)
sg pl
nom haukr haukar
acc hauk hauka
dat hauki haukum
(with article)
sg pl
nom haukrinn haukarnir
acc haukinn haukana
dat haukinum haukunum
Stems that end in "consonant + 'n', 'r', 'l', 's'" don't add -r in nom sg:
sg pl
nom jarl jarlar
acc jarl jarla
dat jarli jrlum
Note u-umlaut: 'a' becomes '' before endings with 'u' (such as the -um in dat pl)

mar (man)

(without article)
sg pl
nom mar menn
acc mann menn
dat manni mnnum
(with article)
nom marinn menninir
acc manninn mennina
dat manninum mnnunum
Personal pronouns:

1st person:
sg dual pl
nom ek vit vr
acc mik okkr oss
dat mr okkr oss
2nd person:
sg dual pl
nom it r
acc ik ykkr yr
dat r ykkr yr
3rd person :

sg pl
nom hann eir
acc hann
dat hnum eim
sg pl
nom at au
acc at au
dat v eim
Adjectives, indefinite (strong) masculine:
sg pl
nom ragr ragir
acc ragan raga
dat rgum rgum

hafa, hef (have)

infinitive: haf-a
imperative: haf! (sg) hafi! (pl)
sg pl
1p hef-i hfum
2p hefir hafi
3p hefir hafa
kenna, kenni (know)

inf: kenn-a
imp: kenn! (sg) kenni! (pl)
sg pl
1p kenni kennum
2p kennir kenni
3p kennir kenna
kalla, kalla (call, shout)

inf: kall-a
imp: kall-a! (sg) kall-i! (pl)
sg pl
1p kalla kllum
2p kallar kalli
3p kallar kalla
In some verbs with long vowels (acute, diphthong, '' or 'oe'), whose stems end in 'n' or 's', assimilation of the -r ending occurs:
blsa, bls (blow)

inf: bls-a
imp: bls!
sg pl
1p bls blsum
2p blss blsi
3p blss blsa
skna, skn (shine)

inf: skn-a
imp: skn!
sg pl
1p skn sknum
2p sknn skni
3p sknn skna
Irregular verbs:
vera (be)
inf: ver-a
imp: ver!
sg pl
1p em erum
2p ert eru
3p er eru
vilja (want)

inf: vil-j-a
imp: (vil!) (N/A)
sg pl
1p vil viljum
2p vilt vili
3p vill vilja
sj (see)

inf: sj
imp: sj!
sg pl
1p s sj-m
2p sr s-
3p sr sj

2. Vocabulary

This vocabulary section will introduce very few new words (specially noted), but rather only list all the words introduced so far (in lessons 1-5).

2.1 Nouns

(No new)
garrpalisade/stone wall, city,
city-state, garden, yard
haugrmound, dung, pile, grave
heimrhome, homeland, world
hlmrisle, small island
marperson, man, human being
matrfood (always in singular)
oddrpoint, spike
ormrworm, serpent
vgrsmall bay, cove, creek
vangrfield (not farming), meadow,
clear patch of ground
Fjalarr (dwarf-name)
Gandlfr (dwarf-name)
Austrvegr"Eastway" (Russia)
Geirshlmr"Geir's Isle" (made up name)
Geirshaugr"Geir's Grave" (made up name)
Heivangr"Clear Field" (made up name)
Hlmgarr"Island City", a Nordic (Swedish) colony in
Russia, now called Novgorod ("gorod" = "garr")
Skgarfors"Forest's Falls"
lfarsheimr"lfar's Home" (made up name)

2.2 Pronouns

(No new)
See the reference in 1.3 for personal pronouns.
allir (pl) all
bir (pl) both
er that, which, who, whom
fir (pl) few
hvat? what?
margir (pl) many
sumir (pl) some

2.3 Adjectives

(No new)
bjartr bright, fair (of light complexion and/or blonde hair)
breir broad
danskr Danish
daur dead
djpr deep
gr good
glar happy, glad
gylltr golden, gilted
feigr doomed to die, "dead already", fey
heir clear
hrddr afraid
illr evil
slenzkr Icelandic
langr long
norskr Norwegian
ragr cowardly
reir angry
rkr rich
strr big (note that the first r is part of the stem)
spakr wise
sterkr strong
svangr hungry
ungr young
vr wide, extensive

2.4 Verbs

elda, eldacook
owns (only form of this verb yet presented)
ba, bwait
bja, boffer; command
blsa, blsblow
brenna, brennrbe burning
ba, blive in, inhabit
deyja, deydie
elta, eltifollow, chase
eta, eteat
falla, fellfall
fara, fergo, leave
finna, finnfind
flja, flflee, run away
foera, foeribring
ganga, gengwalk
gefa, gefgive
hafa, hefihave; hold; wear
hata, hatahate
heita, heitibe called
heyra, heyrihear
hlja, hllaugh
kenna, kennirecognize, know (a person, place, or object)
koma, kmcome
lifa, lifilive
mla, mlitalk
sj, ssee
vega, vegslay
segja, segisays
sigla, siglisail
sj (irregular)see
skna, sknshine
spyrja, spyrask
standa, stendstand
svara, svaraanswer
sna, snishow
taka, tektake
vera (irregular) be
veia, veii hunt, fish
vilja (irregular)want

2.5 Adverbs

mjkvery, very much, greatly
semas, like
svso, such, then (immediately following)

2.6 Prepositions

+ accinto
+ datin(side)
+ acconto
+ daton (top of)
r + datout of
me + datwith, by, using; with, accompanying

2.7 Conjunctions

ar erwhere (relative)
v atbecause, for

2.8 Phrases

"gefa gri" grant/give mercy, spare, pardon (from death)

3. Exercises

3.1 Translate the text into English

Noregi eru margir vgar, sumir djpir, sumir langir. Norskir vkingar sigla vgana, lngum btum. vgunum eru ok oft hlmar. hlmunum vega vkingarnir menn. ar eru ok haugar, ar er illir draugar ba. Draugarnir eru oft reiir, ok hata alla menn.
Noregi eru ok skgar vir, vangar heiir ok forsar breiir. skgunum ba gir lfar, en ok illir vargar. Menn er ganga skga eru oft hrddir, v at vargarnir vilja vega ok eta. Ef vargar finna menn skgunum, eru menninir feigir. vngunum eru hestar, er eta ar ok lifa vel. forsunum er falla eru margir fiskar, er menn veia.
Dvergar eru ar ok, er hafa gyllta bauga. Dvergarnir vilja eigi gefa mnnum baugana.
ar Noregi ba margir menn. Sumir eru jarlar mjk rkir, sumir vkingar sterkir. Fir eru konungar, fir eru illir ok fir ragir. Sumir menn eru spakir mjk, ok mla vel. Spakir kenna marga heima ok marga menn.
Fiskr er norskum mnnum ("for Norwegian men") gr matr. eir fara vgana ok forsana ok veia fisk. Sv elda eir fiskinn eldi, er brennr. Mean eir elda hann, mla eir ok hlja. Ostr er ok gr matr, ok eta menninir ok ost me fiskinum. Gir menn gefa svngum ost ok fisk at eta. Svangir eta allan mat, er gir gefa eim.
Ragnarr er jarl spakr. Hann kennir Austrveg, heim mjk stran. Austrvegi eru margir garar, vir skgar ok vargar mjk illir. Garr Austrvegi heitir Hlmgarr. Fir garar eru sv strir, sem Hlmgarr er. Noregi eru eigi garar sv strir. Hlmgar sigla vkingar er vilja vera rkir. v at Hlmgari eru margir rkir.