A Very Brief History of the Scandinavian Languages

by Talan Gwynek (Brian M. Scott)

© 2002 by Brian M. Scott; all rights reserved.

Most of the languages of Europe belong to the Indo-European family of languages and are therefore at least distantly related to one another. The only major exceptions are Basque, Turkish, the closely related languages Finnish and Estonian, and their distant relative Hungarian. Within the Indo-European family are subfamilies of more closely related languages. One of these is the Germanic family of languages, one branch of which includes English, German, and Dutch. Another branch, the North Germanic family, consists of all of the languages of Scandinavia except Finnish and its distant relative Sami, the language of the people formerly called Lapps. These North Germanic languages are all descended from a common ancestor, Common Scandinavian, that is first attested in runic inscriptions from the middle of the sixth century C.E.

Over time Common Scandinavian split up into various dialects. The main division was between the West Scandinavian dialects of the lands facing the Atlantic Ocean and the East Scandinavian dialects of those facing the Baltic Sea. The West Scandinavian region comprised Norway together with the now-Swedish provinces of Jämtland, Herjedalen, and Bohuslän, Iceland, Greenland, and the western isles of Shetland, the Faroes, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man. The East Scandinavian area included Denmark, the rest of Sweden, parts of Finland, and some of the Baltic coast opposite Finland.

This division of Common Scandinavian into Old West Scandinavian and Old East Scandinavian was established by the beginning of the Viking period around 800 C.E., though the differences between the two dialects were still quite small. After about 1000 C.E., however, the differences increased markedly, and by the time of the earliest preserved manuscripts — about 1150 C.E. in Iceland and Norway and about 1250 C.E. in Denmark and Sweden — they are quite noticeable. Different dialects within each of these two main branches also become increasingly apparent. By the 12th century we can distinguish Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian dialects within West Scandinavian, though the differences remained very minor until the 13th century. Within East Scandinavian we distinguish Old Swedish from Old Danish after 1250 or so, with major differences appearing after 1300. It is important to understand, however, that these dialect divisions did not have sharp boundaries, either geographically or linguistically. Neighboring dialects were generally quite similar, regardless of lines drawn on maps. For instance, there were significant differences between the western and eastern dialects of Old Norwegian, the latter having some characteristics in common with Old Swedish.

The term Old Norse is sometimes used generically for the Old West Scandinavian dialects, but in careful usage it refers to a scholarly abstraction, a standardized and regularized version of 13th century written Old Icelandic. This normalized language draws on modern Icelandic spelling to make distinctions that were rarely or never made in Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. For instance, the Old Norse name Herjólfr actually appears in Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian as Heriolfr, Heriulfr, Heriólfr, Heriolbr, and Heriulfuer, the first of these apparently being the most common.

In the later Middle Ages — say from the Black Death to the Reformation, roughly 1350-1550 — the Continental Scandinavian languages underwent significant changes. In all of them the original complex inflectional system was greatly simplified. Old Norwegian ceased to exist as a written standard in the late 14th century, when Norway came under Danish control, though the rural spoken dialects continued to develop normally. Old Danish and Old Swedish were greatly influenced by Middle Low German, the language of the Hanseatic League. Old Icelandic was exceptional: its pronunciation changed significantly during this period, but isolation and a strong and strongly conservative native written tradition preserved the written language almost unchanged.

From about the middle of the 16th century on we can speak simply of Icelandic, Danish, and Swedish; all three written languages were by then much like their modern counterparts, just as Shakespeare's English is recognizably modern compared with, say, Chaucer's Middle English. In Norway the situation was different, thanks to Danish rule. The written language was essentially contemporary Danish, and the spoken language of the elite was heavily influenced by the written standard. When Danish rule of Norway ended in the early 20th century, this Dano-Norwegian mixture was codified as a standard language. Its contemporary descendent, called bokmål 'book language', is one of the two modern standard Norwegian languages and is the standard of a majority of Norwegian school districts. The other standard, called nynorsk 'new Norwegian', was created in the mid-19th century by Ivar Aasen. Roughly speaking, it is a reconstruction of what Old Norwegian might have become had it developed with much less outside influence, based especially on the conservative western dialects of spoken Norwegian. The official bokmål and nynorsk standards converged noticeably during the 20th century, but significant differences remain.

Published by The Academy of Saint Gabriel