Old Norse Pronunciation

Something I’ve run into a couple times lately is people looking for good pronunciation guides for Old Norse, and not knowing how to sort through the conflicting results that turn up when looking online.

As with so many other things, a major problem is that the more accurate you want to be, the more difficult it’s going to be to get it right. As I’ve mentioned here before “Old Norse” is not a very precise term. In most contexts, if someone says “Old Norse” and leaves it at that, they’re talking about Classical Old Icelandic, spoken in Iceland in the early 13th century, or around the time of Snorri Sturlusson. This is markedly different from the language written on Viking-age runestones, just as one example — most of which were carved by speakers of an East Norse dialect, unlike Old Icelandic which is  West Norse dialect.

Most pronunciation guides that I’ve found, I find to mix and match features anachronistically. For example, the guide in Michael Barnes’ A New Introduction to Old Norse (a book I otherwise highly recommend) suggests pronouncing á like the a in father but also says that the guide was written for the language after the letter ǫ́ was lost. This is wrong, however — after á and ǫ́ merged, the written symbol á continued to be used, but it stood for the sound previously represented by ǫ́ (a sound like in English boss). Most pronunciation guides also maintain that the difference between a short (unaccented) and long (accented) vowel is just a matter of length, but there is reason to believe that already by the thirteenth century this had started to change.

One of the difficulties in constructing a pronunciation guide is of course that we can never actually know for sure. What linguists are typically able to reconstruct is kind of a framework or model of the language that tells how sounds are related to each other (phonemes) — not necessarily the actual sounds themselves (phones). This isn’t to say that we can’t narrow down the possibilities quite far, just that it’s not as simple as one might think. For example, we can describe an Old Icelandic phoneme /e/ for the mid-twelfth century (the time of the First Grammatical Treatise) and we can suspect that its actual sound may have fluctuated a bit when surrounded by different words, because the First Grammarian described it as two different sounds, e and ę (at an earlier time, these really WERE two separate phonemes, but the fact that they had merged is shown by the First Grammarian’s inability to keep them apart in a way that is etymologically meaningful). Indeed, the “real” e and the e that “should” have been ę (from i-umlaut of a) already rhyme with each other in skáldic poetry as far back as the 10th century.

(Side note: these are some of the reasons I tend to suggest speaking with modern Icelandic pronunciation).

Because of all of these issues, I’ve decided to make a couple of different pronunciation guides for different contexts. I will use IPA notation and also try to match sounds to English words when possible, or words from other, better-known, modern languages when not. The consonants don’t change all that radically between periods, so I will list them once and then just mark the changes after that.

Disclaimer:

As usual I am taking many shortcuts. This is meant to keep to the goal of the website — to be a middle ground between accessible and easy to swallow on one hand, and precise but impenetrable on the other. This is meant for people who want to say words out loud right now and to feel pretty good that they’re doing it close to right, NOT for someone who is studying historical phonology.

Note that this is written for English-speakers with an American accent.

Nasal Vowels

The earliest documented Old Icelandic still had nasal vowels. These are pronounced by cutting off airflow through the mouth while speaking so that it redirects to the nose (or by speaking while having a cold). The First Grammarian suggested marking these with a dot above the letter: “ȧ”. Unfortunately nobody followed his advice. Therefore it can be rather difficult to tell if a vowel should be nasal or oral (regular) without knowing the etymology of the word. A vowel is nasal if during the prehistory of the word, a letter *n had disappeared, and lengthened the vowel. Examples include æsir (from *ansīʀ), Þórr (from *þunraʀ). These probably disappeared around 1200, and so apply to Common West Scandinavian and First Grammarian’s Icelandic below, but not to the others.

Nasality was phonemic for long nasal vowels, but not short ones. So at a very early stage there were 9 vowel qualities, and these could be shortlong, or nasal.

I have never met a single person who I have known to incorporate this into their pronunciation of Old Norse. It’s very difficult to maintain a conversation while trying to remember or figure out the etymology of every long vowel you’re saying.


 Unstressed Vowels

Old Icelandic had only three unstressed vowels — usually meaning vowels in syllables other than the first (since the first syllable always bears the stress; though this doesn’t count for compound words). They are usually written a, i, and u, although sometimes you will also see the latter two written e and o. No matter how it’s written — whether you see Óðinn or Óðenn, the pronunciation is the same. This holds from the beginning up until Modern Icelandic, when unstressed u becomes [ʏ]

  • a: [ɑ] like in English father
  • i/e: [ɪ] like in English pit
  • u/o: probably [ʊ] like English put until Modern Icelandic fronted it to [ʏ].

There are some who believe that Icelandic may have had some element of vowel harmony like Norwegian (so that there would have been some fluctuation in pronunciation of i/e and o/u) but this has not been demonstrated for certain.

Be sure to always stress the first syllable.

Common West Scandinavian (c. 9th-10th centuries)

This is the name by which Hreinn Benediktsson (1959) describes the language immediately following the end of the “umlaut period.” He was taking specifically about the vowels, not the consonants,

Consonants:

  • b: like English b
  • d: like English d but more dental (stick your tongue out slightly more, to your teeth)
  • ð: like the th in father; doesn’t contrast with þ and often written “þ”, especially with þ-rune in inscriptions
  • f
    • beginnings of words: like English f
    • between vowels: [β], like a Spanish v, or like English v; often written with a b-rune in inscriptions
    • before ln, pronounced like English p
  • g
    • beginnings of words: like English g
    • between vowels: [ɣ], like Icelandic saga, Spanish amigo; like Scottish loch but voiced; sometimes written h in runic inscriptions (but rare until later)
  • h: usually like English h
    • hv: [xw], like Scottish lochw
  • j: like English consonantal y (yes)
  • k: like English k
  • l: like Swedish, Norwegian l (l is weirder in English than you probably notice — just consider this a regular l and you’ll do fine)
  • m: like English m
  • n: like English n (including ŋ before g and k)
  • p: usually like English p
    • before t: like English f (and sometimes written “f”); alternates in paradigms like kaupakeypti (pronounced keyfti)
  • r: trilled, like Spanish rr, probably alternating with flapped r like Spanish r
  • s: like English s (never like English z)
  • t: like English t but dental
  • v: like English w
  • þ: like the th in thank
  • ʀ: see “What is ʀ and how do you say it?” Disappeared very early from West Norse, stayed for a while in East Norse.

Vowels

Note that ǿ is also often written “œ” — this is just writing, don’t confuse them with the phonetic symbols in the IPA columns below.

Letter IPA
a [ɑ] father (short)
á [ɑ:] father (long)
e [e] Mexican Spanish mesa (short)
é [e:] German Seele (long)
i [i] bit
í [i:] beat
o [o] German oder (short) (not much different from boat)
ó [o:] German oder (long) (not much different from boat)
u [u] boot (short)
ú [u:] boot (long)
y [y] German über (like i with rounded lips; short)
ý [y:] German über (like í with rounded lips; long)
ę [æ] bat (short)
ǽ [æ:] bat (long)
ø [ø] German schön (short)
ǿ [ø:] German schön (long)
ǫ [ↄ] bought (short)
ǫ́ [ↄ:] bought (long)
au [au] bout
ei [ei] bay
ey [øy] Norwegian øy

First Grammarian’s Icelandic (c. 1125-1175)

This doesn’t seem like a big change, but there are some important differences. The symmetry between the short and long systems is partially gone. Vowel length is still important though. Nasal vowels are phonemic (that is, they can change the meaning of a word… hár ‘hair’ is pronounced differently and means something different from há̃r ‘shark’).

Consonants

The letter v is still pronounced like an English w.

The introduction of the scribal tradition means some notes should be made on the writing system. None of these things are changes to the sound system, but occur frequently in writing:

  • (c): identical to k
  • (q): identical to k before v
  • (x): in writing, stands for hs; ks
  • (z): in writing, stands for a dental consonant + sðs, ts, ds

Vowels

Changes bolded, greyed out

Letter IPA
a [ɑ] father (short)
á [ɑ:] father (long)
e [ε]* bet
é [e:] German Seele (long)
i [i] ~[ɪ]* beat (short) ~ bit
í [i:] beat (long)
o [o] German oder (short)
ó [o:] German oder (long)
u [u] boot (short)
ú [u:] boot (long)
y [y] German über (like first stage’s i with rounded lips; short)
ý [y:] German über (like í with rounded lips; long)
ę > e [æ]
ǽ [æ:] bat
ø [ø] German schön (short)
ǿ [ø:] German schön (long)
ǫ [ↄ] bought (short)
ǫ́ [ↄ:] bought (long)
au [au] bout
ei [ei] bay
ey [øy] Norwegian øy

*This is not something you will normally find in handbooks or other pronunciation guides. My interpretation here follows Hreinn Benediktsson (1959). It is more likely that i was still pronounced as a short [i] than that e was still pronounced [e]; it’s believed that when e and ę merged it was to something between them, which I would think is probably [ε].


Classical Old Icelandic (early but not too early 13th century)

More or less the language to which the Íslenzk fornrit series of saga editions normalizes their texts. Long ǫ́ has merged with á.

Note that quite a lot of important Icelandic texts, including the Edda poems of the Codex Regius, don’t come until after this period. One example of what this means is that ø and ǫ have merged already in the versions of Vǫluspá that we have, which is why scholars have had so much trouble figuring out what Ragnarök means. After the merger, the sound was probably [œ] as in Modern Icelandic. Shortly after, æ and ǿ merged as well (to [æ]).

Consonants

Earlier v (pronounced w) probably now pronounced like English v.

Vowels

Nasal vowels are gone by now, reducing the number of vowels (including short, long, and nasal) to a mere 16 from its earlier 27.

Letter IPA
a [ɑ] father (short)
á [ↄ:] bought (long)
e [ε] bet
é [e:] German Seele (long)
i [ɪ] bit
í [i:] beat
o [o] German oder (short)
ó [o:] German oder (long)
u [u] boot (short)
ú [u:] boot (long)
y [y] German über (like first stage’s i with rounded lips; short)
ý [y:] German über (like í with rounded lips; long)
ǽ [æ:] bat
ø [œ]* German Hölle (short)
ǿ [œ:]* German Hölle (long)
ǫ [ↄ] bought (short)
ǫ́ > á [ↄ:]
au [au] bout
ei [ei] bay
ey [øy] Norwegian øy

*Unlike the rest of this page, I’m kind of inferring this one myself rather than finding it written somewhere. My primary source for this whole page is Hreinn Benediktsson, who is FAR more structural phonology than phonetics — he usually doesn’t dare to tell you the actual sound itself unless with a great deal of support and necessity for the rest of his argument. This is my best guess considering the changes that happened shortly after — in order to explain the merger of ø/ǫ and æ/ǿ, it makes the most sense to me that the would have lowered from [ø] to [œ] by this point. It may well be that this change had already happened in the previous stage, although we can be quite confident that the sound was [ø(:)] following the end of the umlaut period.


Modern Icelandic

This is a HUGE step forward in time, and misses a lot of little changes that happened slowly over hundreds of years (and in fact quite a lot of these changes happened early following the last step).

Consonants

  • g, before i, sounds like j (góðan daginn ‘good day!’ sounds like dyin’).
  • ll sounds like tl
  • nn, when following a long vowel or diphthong, sounds like tn.
  • r combinations
    • rl sounds like tl, or rtl for young speakers; impossible or difficult to hear the difference between kettling ‘kitten’ (acc.) and kerling ‘old woman’
    • rn sounds like tnrtn or rn for young speakers
    • rs merges with ss in some dialects but is reversed by modern day
  • tj sounds like English ch for many young speakers
  • dj sounds like English j for many young speakers, English loanwords (djamma)

Vowels

The biggest change was the quantity shift. Instead of vowel length being contrastive — something that separates one letter from another — it became automatic, a product of the other sounds in the word. Now any vowel can be either long or short, and nobody really thinks about it. This didn’t result in mergers except in a few very special cases, because the short and long vowel systems had drifted apart, mostly in the form of long vowels becoming diphthongs, before the quantity shift. That strongly suggests that some of these pronunciations had already changed in the centuries leading up to the shift, although when exactly can be a little hard to tell.

Because of the quantity shift, any vowel can be long or short; for simplicity I won’t write [ɑ(:)] — I’m sure you can remember the (:) part.

Letter IPA
a [ɑ] father
á [au] bout
e [ε] bet
é [jε] yet (with the y)
i [ɪ] bit
í [i] beat
o [ↄ] bought
ó [ou] boat (long)
u [ʏ] German Schütze; like i with rounded lips
ú [u] boot
y [ɪ]* bit (different from i in writing only)
ý [i]* beat (different from í in writing only)
æ [ai] bide
ø > ö [œ] German Hölle
ǿ > æ
ǫ > ö
au [œy] bout
ei [ei] bay
ey [ei] bay

y and ý merge with i and í (with the sound of i and í) but they are kept separate in writing (although many manuscripts from before the official standard for written Icelandic lack this distinction).

Sources

  • Hreinn Benediktsson. (1959) 2002. “The Vowel System of Icelandic: A Survey of Its History”. In Linguistic Studies, Historical and Comparative. Edited by Guðrún Þórhallsdóttir, Höskuldur Þráinsson, Jón G. Friðjónsson, and Kjartan Ottoson. 50—73. Reykjavík: Institute of Linguistics. Originally published in Word 15:282-312.
  • Hreinn Benediktsson. (1962) 2002. “The Unstressed and the Non-Syllabic Vowels of Old Icelandic”. In Linguistic Studies, Historical and Comparative. Edited by Guðrún Þórhallsdóttir, Höskuldur Þráinsson, Jón G. Friðjónsson, and Kjartan Ottoson. 74—91. Reykjavík: Institute of Linguistics. Originally published in Arkiv för nordisk filologi 77:7—31.
  • Hreinn Benediktsson, ed. 1972. The First Grammatical Treatise. Reykjavík: The University of Iceland Publications in Linguistics.
  • Kristján Árnason. 2011. The Phonology of Icelandic and Faroese. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Advertisements

One thought on “Old Norse Pronunciation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s