Old Norse is an early Germanic language that is roughly similar to modern Icelandic. It was preceded by Proto-Norse in about the 8th century, and was spoken in many of the Northern European countries until about the 14th century. Some words from this language migrated into the English language via Anglo-Saxon, but there are distinctions between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon.
Speakers of Old Norse could be found in most of Scandinavia, Greenland, and Iceland. Because of Northern European conquests into the UK, you could also have found speakers in Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales during that time. The language would be discarded in England in preference to Anglo-Saxon and then would morph into Middle English with a huge influx of French words due to the Norman invasions. The language also inspires the modern languages spoken in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and a language spoken by a small percentage of people in Denmark who live on the Faroe Islands, called Faroese.
We understand this language most because it underwent very little change to become Icelandic. A few pronunciation and spelling differences exist. Further, initial versions were written in a Runic alphabet, but later, influenced by Western Europe, it was written with Latin letters. Therefore a person from Iceland, given a time machine or an Old Norse text in the Latin alphabet would be very likely to understand what was being said or written.
You can definitely recognize some Old Norse in modern English. Words like "land" are unchanged. Other words we get from this language include birth, husband, sky, trust, window, flat, happy, wrong, ransack, gasp, rid, seem, and take.
Gradually the language began to change, with speakers from Denmark making slight changes to it first. These differences would eventually lead to quite a few distinctions between languages like Danish and Swedish for example, making the two languages quite separate and not completely understood by speakers of the different languages. Still, many of the Scandinavian languages have similarities that can be understood by most Scandinavians, regardless of primary language. A person from Denmark would understand far more of what was said by a Swedish speaker, than would an English speaker.
Perhaps one of the greatest values of Old Norse is the number of preserved sagas and poems written in the language. These keep scholars keenly interested in understanding the language, as the writing can be beautiful, features tremendous adventures, and references real as well as fictional people. Most of the texts written in this language are based on much older myths or histories that were probably preserved through oral tradition, and thus represent a valuable place in the literary canon and in literary history.
If you’re not interested in learning this language, you can of course read translations of some of these works, including:
- Saga of the Volsungs (sometimes called the Volsunga Saga)
- King Harald’s Saga
- Erik the Red’s Saga
- The Saga of Bjorn
- The Orkneyinga Saga.
Most sagas are written in prose form, and in translation they’re surprisingly approachable to the modern reader. If you’re a fan of poetry, myth and short stories, the other important literature of Old Norse is the Eddas. Look for the Elder Edda, which is a collection of poems and myths. Also one writer you will come across frequently is Snorri Sturlsson, one of the greatest scholars of the 13th century. There is a Snorri’s Edda which is indeed important if you want to expand your knowledge of Old Norse literature and mythology. These two works alone account for most of the modern information we have on Norse Mythology and are exceptionally interesting.