Old Norse -> Lessons -> Lesson Seven

Old Norse for Beginners - Lesson Seven

by skar Gulaugsson and Haukur orgeirsson
  1. Supplement
    1. Alternative forms
  2. Grammar
    1. Genitive Case: Possession
    2. Genitive Case: Forms
    3. Article Usage with the Genitive
    4. Reflexive Pronouns
    5. 3rd Person Possessives
  3. Vocabulary
    1. Nouns
    2. Pronouns
    3. Adjectives
    4. Verbs
    5. Adverbs
    6. Prepositions
    7. Conjunctions
    8. Phrases
  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

0. Supplement

0.1 Alternative forms

We have stated that the language taught in this course is "standardised" 13th century Icelandic. People using other material to supplement this course (or using this course to supplement other material) often find that their books do not always use the same spelling or form of every word. It is perhaps high time that some of those variants be discussed.
To begin with it is difficult to "pin down" a language as it was at any particular time and location. We say that we're teaching the Icelandic language 13th century but even that is not all too precise - Icelandic underwent many changes in the 13th century. Some of our forms may reflect early 13th century language while others mirror that of the late part of the century. Perfect consistency is very hard to achieve (and is certainly not in evidence in any manuscript - even the same scribe would often spell the same word in more than one way) but we prefer to have some kind of standard. Thus our choices are arbitrary here and there and may not exactly reflect that of any other study material. Don't panic.
That said the interested student may find a discussion of variant forms to be of some value. The variations can be grouped into two categories.

1. Variations in space

We have already mentioned that the West Norse language forms are different from those of East Norse. But how different are they? This question is best answered by providing examples. One of the better known East Norse texts is "The Legendary History of Gutland". It starts with those words:
Gutland hitti fyrsti mar an sum ieluar hit. a war gutland so eluist at et daghum sanc Oc natum war uppj. En ann mar quam fyrsti eldi a land Oc sian sanc et aldri.
Translated word for word into English this produces: "Gutland found first {a man} that who Thieluar {was called}. Then was Gautland so bewitched that it {during days} sank and {during nights} was up. But that man put first fire on [the] land and since sank it never."
Note that the spelling is that of the original manuscript. No normalisation has been undertaken. This is in line with the usual trend that Old Icelandic texts are normalised but other Old Norse texts are not - or to a lesser extent. This makes comparison with our "standardised" language more difficult but we will attempt it nevertheless. So here we provide those lines as they would look in our Norse Course spelling:
Gautland hitti fyrst mar s sem jalarr ht. var Gautland sv *elvst at at dgum skk ok nttum var uppi. En s mar kvm fyrst eldi land ok san skk at aldri.
Most of the differences are insignificant differences between manuscript spelling and normalised spelling - but some of them are quite interesting. Let's take a better look at those:
Old Gutnish Old Icelandic
an s
daghum dgum
sanc skk
The word "ann" is actually not as far from "s" as it might seem. The declension paradigm of "s" is like this:
In essence, what has happened in Old Gutnish is that the accusative form has been generalised to include the nominative. As a side note it might be mentioned that the exact same thing happened in English. This pronoun is the origin of the English definite article, 'the'. The Old English paradigm was like this:
The "irregular" s-form was thrown out in favor of the -forms to (eventually) yield "the".
The next word on our list is "daghum", as opposed to "dgum". First we note that the 'gh' is a common East Norse way of spelling the "soft" g (see pronunciation guide). It also sometimes occurs in Icelandic manuscripts. In any case the difference between 'gh' and 'g' is merely one of spelling. The other difference is much more interesting. Instead of the umlauted -vowel the Gutnish text has the un-umlauted 'a'. This reflects a general tendency. The u-umlaut effect, while remaining in full force in Icelandic up to the present day, was much less prevalent in other Old Norse dialects - and it is completely lacking from the dialect of Guta saga.
The third difference is no less interesting. Instead of the Old Icelandic "skk" we have the much more English form "sanc". Again we have not an exception but a general tendency. The assimilation of 'nk' to 'kk' happened to a lesser extent in East Norse than in West Norse. In this case English and Old Gutnish maintain the more archaic forms. Again the u-umlaut has not taken place in the East Norse form.
There are many small, differences between East Norse and West Norse. One that might interest the English reader is that West Norse dropped the 'v' in 'vr' clusters early on but East Norse has preserved it to the present day. Where West Norse has "reir" East Norse had "vrr" and Modern Danish has "vred". English has preserved this consonant in its spelling but dropped it in the pronunciation. The English cognate is "wrath".
Now let's turn our attention to Old Norwegian. We already know that Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic are collectively known as West Norse. We might wonder what the key differences between the two dialects are. For the student of Old Norse the most visible difference is that Old Norwegian texts are usually published in their manuscript spelling - unlike Old Icelandic texts which are usually normalised. For the linguist the difference is mainly that Old Icelandic is in some instances slightly more conservative than Old Norwegian.
One example where Old Icelandic is more conservative is in keeping the 'h' in the consonant clusters 'hr' and 'hl'. Those were dropped in Old Norwegian before the writing age. One stanza from the Norwegian Rune Poem illustrates this.
Rei kvea rossum vesta,
Reginn sl sverit besta.
(A wagon is said to be worst for horses,
Reginn forged the best sword.)
You notice the alliterative triad rei-rossum-Reginn. This would be destroyed in "translating" into Icelandic since rossum would become hrossum.

2. Variations in time

No living language is static and Old Icelandic underwent many changes from 1200 to 1400. Major changes include the merging of the phonemes and and and oe respectively. Both happened in the 13th century.
+ ->
+ oe ->
Other noteworthy changes include the "softening" of final 't' and 'k' in several common words. Thus:
ok -> og
ek -> eg
ik -> ig
at -> a
hvat -> hva
vit -> vi
-it -> -i (neuter article)
The absence of and oe and the "soft" consonants in the common words are two features that can easily be used to differentiate between Old Icelandic and Modern Icelandic spelling at a glance
The forms of many individual words changed with time according to arbitrary rules; we have had to decide in each case which form to use as our standard one. Our choices are not entirely consistant. In cases where this course gives another form than other grammar references you can rest reasonably assured that both forms are correct - though one may be older than the other. A few common variants are listed below.
it - it
r - r
hon - hn - hn
hnum - honum
ek hef - ek hefi

1. Grammar

1.1 Genitive Case: Possession

The fourth and last remaining case in Old Norse declension is called 'genitive'. English has the following relations:
John owns an expensive computer.
John's computer is expensive.
Bill steals John's expensive computer.
The orthographic -'s ending here is one part of the English genitive. It is the characteristic role of the genitive to mark the owner of a following item. Words marked with the -'s genitive stand in the same position as normal adjectives, as can be seen above.
In ON, the strong masculine nouns we have encountered so far are also marked with -s in the genitive singular; thus, the full singular declension of a word like 'hestr' is:
In the plural, the ending is -a for all masculine nouns, and most other nouns as well:
Again, the article must be declined with the noun. Now that we have all the cases, let's see the full masculine declension of the suffixed article:
sg pl
nom inn inir
acc inn ina
dat inum inum
gen ins anna
And combined with a noun:
sg pl
nom hestrinn hestarnir
acc hestinn hestana
dat hestinum hestunum
gen hestsins hestanna
There! Now you have the full declension of the normal strong masculine noun.
We'll look at the full declension of our only irregular noun to date as well.
sg pl
nom mar menn
acc mann menn
dat manni mnnum
gen manns manna

1.2 Genitive Case: Forms

Section 1.1 already has the forms of most strong masculine nouns. Here is the full declension of most of the personal pronouns encountered so far:
'I' 'you' 'he' 'it' 'we two' 'we' 'you two' 'you'
nom ek hann at vit vr it r
acc mik ik hann at okkr oss ykkr yr
dat mr r hnum v okkr oss ykkr yr
gen mn n hans ess okkar vr ykkar yvar
'they' (masc) 'they' (neut) 'they' (fem)
nom eir au r
acc au r
dat eim eim eim
gen eira eira eira
The personal pronouns all have a special form for the genitive, often a very distinctive one, so extra attention must be paid here. Note that the 3rd person plural pronouns all have the same dative and genitive forms. The only pronoun not presented in this table is 'hon' (she), since we won't be using it just yet. The full declension of adjectives in masculine form:
Note especially the plural genitive ending: -ra. To students' relief, the plural dative and genitive forms are the same for all genders, so make sure you learn them well.

1.3 Article Usage with the Genitive

In English "titles", such as:
The king of Norway.
The lord of men.
The sound of battle.
The keel of the ship.
There, the titled entity always has an article attached to it. However, if we change the titles to a different type of genitive, the -s marked one, the article disappears:
Norway's king.
Men's lord.
Battle's sound.
The ship's keel.
But with titles, it is more customary to use the prepositional genitive (with "of" and article). In Old Norse however, the genitive is only marked with an inflection, where the same rule applies; i.e. no article should be attached to the "titled entity":
Konungr Noregs.
Drottinn mannanna.
But if this were to be paraphrased into a title with a preposition, we would have an article just as in English:
Konungrinn Noregi.
It is merely that such usage is not the norm in ON, unlike in English.

1.4 Reflexive Pronouns

When the object of a sentence is the same as its subject the reflexive pronouns come into play. In English it works like this:
I see myself.
You see yourself.
He sees himself.
We see ourselves.
You see yourselves.
They see themselves.
Old Norse, however, is content with letting its first and second person personal pronouns perform this duty.
Ek s mik.
sr ik.
Vit sjm okkr.
it s ykkr.
Vr sjm oss.
r s yr.
But when it comes to the third person it has a special pronoun.
Hann sr sik.
Hon sr sik.
eir sj sik.
r sj sik.
This 'third person reflexive pronoun' has the following declension:
It observably declines just as 'ek' and '' do. This pronoun has exact equivalents in many other Indo-European languages that you may be familiar with. German has "sich". French, Spanish and Latin have "se".
Let's have more examples of usage:
Hann kallar sik konung.He calls himself a king.
eir gefa sr gan mat.They give themselves [some] good food.
And other reflexive usage:
Ek kalla mik Eirk.I call myself Eric.
Vit teljum okkr Normenn.We consider ourselves Norwegians.
Ek foeri mik brott.I move myself away. ('foera' = bring, move)
Hv foerir ik til mn? Why do you move yourself over to me?
('til' + gen = [over] to)

2. Vocabulary

This lesson is light on vocabulary and exercises - for historical reasons relating to the composition of the course.

2.1 Nouns

egnthane, freeman, subject of a king, "citizen"
sporrtail of a fish or serpent

2.2 Pronouns

sikhimself, herself, itself

2.3 Adjectives

sar / saddrsated, having had one's full
vndrevil, wicked
fastr fast, firm, stuck

3. Exercises

3.1 Translate the phrases into English

  1. Hvrt etr ormrinn sjlfan sik?
  2. Menn konungs eru egnar hans.
  3. Eigi er sporr fisks matr gr.
  4. Ragnarr vill vega orm; hann hefir geirinn me sr.
  5. Ragnar vegr orminn en oddr geirs hans stendr fastr honum.

3.2 Translate the phrases into Old Norse

  1. The helm of the dwarf is gilded.
  2. The earl's hawk sees itself.
  3. People do not eat the tail of the serpent.
  4. Ragnarr's spear is broad.
  5. The point of Ragnarr's spear is big.
Sentences like the last one with "nested" genitives are actually not idiomatic in Old Norse.