From Proto-Indo-European to Icelandic

This website doesn’t just deal with “Old Norse,” but rather a whole bunch of interrelated bits of language.

1. Languages and Language Change

Unless you’ve managed to go your whole life without talking to old people, you know that languages change over time. It happens very slowly, without people realizing it’s happening. Eventually, over generations, those little changes can build up so much that people in one place can’t understand people in another place, even though their respective ancestors had no problem speaking to each other.

In this way we can observe that languages are related to each other, almost the way people are genetically related to each other. Of course it’s much more complicated and subtle than that in reality – you are a distinct person from your parents or siblings in a much more concrete way than Old Icelandic is a different language than what Vikings carved on runestones.

There is no clear definition as to where to draw the line between “language” and “dialect” and things like that. Usually a Swedish-speaking person and a Norwegian-speaking person can understand each other without practice, yet two people speaking different dialects of Norwegian may have difficulty. “Genetically,” Norwegian is closer to Icelandic than it is to Swedish, yet it would be extremely unlikely that a Norwegian could understand Icelandic without any training.

But as long as we keep that in mind, a “genetic” model is still a useful concept, and in more ways than not does accurately describe the relationships between languages. It is definitely the case that Old Icelandic and Old English are different languages, but they are also much more closely related than Old Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese.

Many of the European languages trace their ancestry back to something which is now called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), spoken thousands of years ago. One of the branches that comes from PIE – along with Greek, Italic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, etc, is called “Germanic.”

The Germanic languages include languages such as English, German, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Gothic, and plenty of others, all of which descend from an ancestor that we call Proto-Germanic. Proto-Germanic was never written, but linguists have figured out quite a lot about it by observing the languages that come from it (called “the comparative method”). The Gothic language, recorded in a translation of the Bible by the bishop Wulfila in the fourth century, is the earliest Germanic language attested in any great volume, and has been extremely useful in reconstructing Proto-Germanic. The earliest runic inscriptions – the earliest dating to around 150 A.D. – are extremely brief, but nonetheless provide extremely important linguistic data for the same purpose.


(Click to enlarge) A cladistic tree or “family tree” of Germanic languages, which I reproduced from The Germanic Languages by Wayne Harbert. I bolded the path to Icelandic, which is the path that this website concentrates on, though it will also include lots of East Norse.

2. Norrǿnt mál

Sharp distinctions between stages in a language is basically illusory – the language of the Vikings didn’t change into the language of Snorri Sturlusson overnight, it happened very slowly and gradually. Nonetheless, here’s an idea of the distinctions this website will use as a sort of “rule of thumb.” I’ll give the term I’m using to describe the stage in the language, a rough estimate of the timespan it covers, the word for the adjective ‘good’ in the masculine “strong” declension, and a transliteration of that word into (one version of) the runes of the time:

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ??? *gʰedʰ-  –
Proto-Germanic (PGmc) ??? *gōđaz  –
Proto-Northwest Germanic (PNWG) <200? *gōđaz ᚷᛟᛞᚨᛉ
Proto-Norse (PN) 200?-700 *gōđaʀ ᚷᛟᛞᚨᛉ
Early Old Norse (EON) 700-1050 gōðʀ ᚴᚢᚦᛦ
Old Icelandic (OIce) 1050-1350 góðr ᚵᚮᚦᚱ
Modern Icelandic (MIce) 1350+ góður ᚵᚮᛑᚢᚱ

(Roughly following Odd Einar Haugen’s dating in Frå urnordisk til norrønt språk but with my own terms. The PIE form is just the stem, without ending – I am not comfortable enough with PIE to give you an inflected form).

These are the terms I’m going to use. However, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect – far from it. They’re just the ones that I guessed seemed least problematic. Others use different terms instead, and that might get confusing. Proto-Germanic and of course Modern Icelandic are uncontroversial, but here are some explanatory notes on the others:

  • Proto-Northwest Germanic is a perfectly fine term, although some linguists disagree that it ever existed. Following Einar Haugen, Odd Einar Haugen (not to be confused with each other!), Don Ringe, and others, I include it while pointing out that it may have never been a uniform language but may result from long periods of interaction between North and West Germanic peoples. Its dating is uncertain; if the the time estimate of 200 A.D. as an endpoint is correct, the “proto” discrepancy below may apply here as well.
  • Proto-Norse has a few names. One of the problems is that technically, a “proto” language is supposed to be unattested. Proto-Norse is barely attested, but the runic inscriptions technically disqualify it. For that reason some people call it Runic Norse. I think that’s misleading though, because runes were also used after this period, and in West Germanic dialects as well. Some others include Primitive Norse, Primitive Scandinavian, and Proto-Scandinavian.
  • Early Old Norse is a term I made up myself just for this. Common Norse is a not-terrible term for it but already there were tiny differences between East and West Norse by the end of this period (such as more complete u-umlaut in West Norse and retention of vr– word-initial clusters in East Norse… you don’t need to know what those mean). In theory Old Norse would be a great term but for better or worse, that term can either encompass both this and the next stage, or refer specifically to Old Icelandic.
  • Old Icelandic is hardly different enough from Old Norwegian to distinguish the two. However, because of the volume of Icelandic material, the importance of the Icelandic Fyrsta Málfræðiritgerðin (‘First Grammatical Treatise’) to reconstructed phonology,  and the historic tendency to refer specifically to (normalized) Classical Old Icelandic as Old Norse, I’m deciding to err on the side of specificity, rather than call it Old West Norse (which already had started to distinguish itself in the previous stage).

These are… more or less… the terms I’ll be using on this website. Most likely I’ll have additional information to explain the context in time and place, but I thought it was important to set some standard.

Notice that with the example word, the word ending is the ONE thing that changes in each stage (except the second into the third). I didn’t do that on purpose. There are considerable amounts of differences between every one of these stages, and it’s not divided specifically by one word ending, but it is not unreasonable to use it as a tool for identifying a word’s placement in time.

3. Sources

  • Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language, 9th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011.
  • Harbert, Wayne. The Germanic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Haugen, Einar. The Scandinavian Languages: An Introduction to Their History. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1976.
  • Haugen, Odd Einar. “Frå urnordisk til norrønt språk” (unpublished). written for Handbok i norrøn filologi. version 1.0 (2012). (Norwegian)
  • Ringe, Don. A History of English, Volume 1: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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