Essays, Language, Series, The Viking Age Languages
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The Germanic Languages of the Viking Age

Updated 23 May 2020

This is the first part about Germanic languages in the Viking Age. Two parts are forthcoming about the Romance and Slavic languages.

Have you ever wondered how medieval texts in your language sound if you read them out loud? Have you ever tried reading them out loud? And what did you notice? Did the words sound familiar? Or did you trip over your tongue? Were there unfamiliar letters or words? And most importantly, did you have fun? If so, welcome to the world of historical linguists who love to learn about older versions of our modern languages!

The Germanic Languages

Now, let me take you back in time. Before the Middle Ages, when Germanic tribes roam the northern European continent and the British isles and they speak, well, some form of a Germanic language. Some tribes move to Scandinavia and we call their languages North Germanic. They are still spoken today and you will know them as Danish, Swedish etc. Other Germanic tribes stay or move to northwestern Europe, and speak a form of what we call West Germanic. These include the languages you know as German, Dutch, English etc. If you ever needed a clue why Dutch and English seem alike, here it is!

Old and Middle Languages

Most of these languages are written down for the first time in the Middle Ages. And the textual sources, any and all of them – not just the literary ones, help to see how the languages change and evolve during the Middle Ages. When a significant change happens in how a language is spoken, we refer to it as Old or Middle. For example, Old Dutch is spoken from around the seventh century onwards. A sound change signals the transition to Middle Dutch around the twelfth century when vogala becomes vogele, and hebban becomes hebben (see DBNL and Treasures of Dutch).

If you want to learn more about the evolution of Germanic languages, there is a fine article on Encyclopaedia Britannica to get you started. There is also a fine article in Babbel Magazine with a good examples of the similarities between the Germanic languages.

In current research, historical linguists are creating apps, videos and audio files in which they read these medieval texts out loud. I have gathered a few in chronological order, to let you hear the magic, too! I will also update this article when I find more online gems. If you know of some excellent links, then leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

High German

A consonant shift (the second one) in the third to fifth centuries establishes Old High German and another sound shift causes it to change to Middle High German from the eleventh century onwards (see Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Listen to the Gospel of Luke in this language in an old Youtube video by the American linguist Alexander Arguello:

English

The Old English language probably emerges around the fifth century when the Angles and Saxons arrive in England, and lasts until the conquest of the Normans in 1066. With the influence of the Norman language it transitions into Middle English (see History of English).

There is a fantastic app Vanished Voices by Alwin Kloekhorst that shows the evolution of English, from its very roots in Indo-European to Modern English.
Or listen to the Beowulf in an audio-recording by an Icelandic storyteller.
THE medieval text in Anglo-Saxon is, of course, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle!

Dutch

The oldest known text in Old Dutch is “hebban olla vogala”. Listen to the text and more medieval Dutch literature on Vogala.org.
Listen to eleventh-century pronunciation as spoken in the village Rotta (later Rotterdam). This video is the result of the collaboration between the historical linguist Peter-Alexander Kerhof, and the archaeologists of the city of Rotterdam. See the Youtube channel of Archeologie Rotterdam (the automated English subtitles by Youtube are really bad by the way, so I recommend that you just listen!):

Old Norse

When Old Norse emerges around the eighth century it consists of three main dialects, called Old West, Old East and Old Gutnish. From Old West derive Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. For example, in Norway the language changes to Middle Norwegian around the sixteenth century (see Språkrådet).

To get a really good idea of the pronunciation and expression of the language, you’d best go to the Youtube channel of Dr Jackson Crawford.
Another option is to go to Iceland and hear the local folk speak. The saying goes that Icelanders can read the medieval texts quite easily. There is a fine explanation about this on Medievalists.net.
THE texts to consult, without doubt, are the Icelandic Sagas.

Frankish (Franconian)

There is more to Frankish than meets the eye. Several Franconian dialects were spoken by the Frankish tribes in the Germanic regions, such as Rhenish Franconian.

Toward the end of the Roman empire, one Frankish tribe moved into northern France and by the time they started ruling the area, their language had thoroughly mixed with the Gallo- and Romance language there. Eventually, the French language would emerge from this mix, but we will discuss this as part of the Romance languages of the Viking Age.

The ninth-century treaty Oaths of Strassbourg includes both Franconian as well as the first French text (see the Ludwigslied).

More detailed information about the evolution of Rhenish Franconian is explained in the Ludwigslied series.
As a sneak peek: a brilliant video of the history of the French language including pronunciations by an educational French Youtube channel:

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