The Forgotten Language of the West: Rediscovering Old Norse, Spoken by Icelandic Vikings

“When a language dies,” said writer, philosopher, and critic George Steiner, “A way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world.” Undoubtedly he is correct. Numerous studies have demonstrated the relationship between language and perception of time, language and memory, and even claimed that the language we speak shapes consciousness itself. At the very least, a language enshrines a unique culture, one that is forever bastardized when preserved only in translation. Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote his memoir in English, and then rewrote it—rather than translating it—in Russian, believing a life cannot be told the same way in different tongues.

But what happens to those languages of the bygone days, the words, the phrases, the alphabet, even, that we now marvel at as parchment behind museum glass? What of the languages that no one has spoken for hundreds of years, yet whose half-understood and twice-told symbols weave themselves throughout a culture’s literature, present yet absent as ghosts?

Posterity’s access to its ancestry [is in]… one dense and antiquated read.

Such is the precarious state of Old Norse, or, more precisely, Old Icelandic. This North Germanic language, losing its leaves on the outer edges of the Indo-European language tree, mainly owes its continued existence—and therefore posterity’s access to its ancestry—to one dense and antiquated read, E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse. Not for the faint of heart (just look at its reviews on Amazon), Gordon’s book remains on the shelf. Its pages are revived only by the dedicated academic, questing linguist, or diligent Ph.D student, and, slowly, the sound of the Viking’s sagas fades like one of their square-sailed ships on the arctic horizon.

Every student has read, or at least encountered, the Old English Beowulf. The indomitable hero and his wretched archenemy Grendel are well known amongst readers, and even recently came to life in a (controversial) 2007 animated film starring Angelina Jolie. But who has read Iceland’s The Prose Edda? Who is aware that so many of our daily words–window, husband, happy–come from Old Icelandic? Thor, Odin, and Loki are only household names because of the recent success of the Marvel superhero films—a great help, but hardly a faithful rendering of the Edda.

The fault lies in the poor communication of cultural origins from one generation to the next.

And yet, the tales of Old Norse speak to the Western psyche in a powerful way: they inspired Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle), or, more familiar to the contemporary reader or audience, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, the Dungeons and Dragons mania that consumed the video gaming and film industries, and the ongoing Vikings television series, which averaged over 7 million viewers per episode during Season 4. Considering how appealing Asgard and its derivatives are to Westerners, one would think Old Norse, rather than the fictional Elvish, Dothraki, or Klingon would warrant an app for readers aspiring to immerse themselves in the world of their favorite mythology. It’s not that there is a lack of interest in our inherited myths and the languages that weave together like a Celtic knot—the fault lies in the poor communication of cultural origins from one generation to the next.

There is some hope, however—such as the news that Iceland recently built a Norse temple, the first to be erected since Old Icelandic was spoken in 11th century Reykjavik. And new series of Viking Language books, written by Jesse Byock, are making an appreciation of Icelandic culture and literature accessible to both the student and self-taught curious mind. Our literature, film, and media echo the tales first told by Vikings beneath the rippling northern lights. It would be a tragedy to lose the gift of speaking as they once did—of seeing between the window panes of the letters Þ (thorn) or Ð (eth) a stark landscape mesmerized by ice and Valkyries.


Image seen abovePeter Nicolai Arbo (1872), The Wild Hunt of Odin. From the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design.

Note on the artwork: The art represented here was downloaded from the Nasjonalmuseet’s (The National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Norway) collection of 40,000 works free for non-commercial use. We would like to extend our gratitude and appreciation to the museum for making its collection available to art lovers and scholars around the world. The complete collection can be found at this link.