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LRC Blog

June 22, 2010

Todd B. Krause

Classical ON Pronunciation

N.B. The email exchange below may have been edited, e.g. to remove content not essential to the main point(s) or to standardize English spelling/grammar.


Dear Dr. Todd Krause:

I would like to thank you and Dr. Jonathan Slocum for your excellent site Old Norse Online. I have been using it to teach myself this beautiful and mystic language. However, I do have a few questions about the classical pronunciation I hope you could help me with.

My questions are:

  1. By following your classical pronunciation guide outlined in Lesson 1, are there any additional pronunciations I should be aware of?
  2. In An Icelandic Primer by Henry Sweet, M.A., he shows the letters g and k palatalizing before front vowels: how accurate is this?
  3. My understanding is that all recommended pronunciation guidelines are just reconstructions with no way of every being 100% accurate. With that said, if I follow your pronunciation guideline exactly, how well would my pronunciation represent that of a true ancient speaker of Old Norse?

Any help and advice you can give me will be greatly appreciated!

Sincerely, E. G.


Howdy Mr. G.,

Thank you very much for your kind words regarding Old Norse Online. I'm thrilled by your excitement for the language, and I think your goals are quite laudable. Let me try to take a stab at answering your questions.

As regards pronunciation (classical rather than modern), I'm not aware of any other particular systems of pronunciation. But to be honest, on the one hand Old Norse is not my present specialty (meaning I don't keep up with the scholarship on a daily basis), and on the other hand I never investigated other possible reconstructions of the pronunciation of the classical period. So when I say I'm not aware of any other systems, I need to stress the word aware.

I'm glad you've found Sweet's Primer. Sweet is a great authority to have at hand. When you ask about the palatalization of g and k before front vowels, I guess you could say that's very accurate. But probably the question should really be: to what degree do they palatalize? For example if I say in English what you're asking..., depending on a number of factors (my particular dialect, the tempo of my speech, the emphasis I place on the words), the final consonant of what and the initial glide of you're can range anywhere from a hard t with a glide after it (ty) all the way to an affricate (tchy: whatchyoor asking). As in English, so in ancient languages in general: such nuances are rarely represented in the written language. So I'd say Sweet is right: palatalization of these consonants occurs in those environments. But that's really a general principle, and a vast number of languages show the same effect. The bigger issue from your point of view is this: as you actually try to pronounce things, you'll have to decide whether you should say the equivalent of ty or of tchy. Since there are no native speakers around, you'll always be on somewhat shaky ground in such matters.

Finally, from my own experience, I suspect that the end product of someone who has truly dedicated himself to studying reconstructed pronunciations and the reasons behind them will be essentially the equivalent of an American's pronunciation of Spanish. I'm not saying it'll be as bad as some gringos, who don't even bother to trill their rs. But my wife provided me with this little tongue-twister:

Rápido ruedan los carros cargados de azucar por el ferrocarril.

All of the rs are trilled, from the American perspective, but some get only one flap, while others get more than one. You may pronounce most of the rs correctly with practice, but will you hit them all? I think little details like that are probably the gaps that still remain as we reconstruct the pronunciation of ancient languages in general. We can get pretty darn close to sounding like a native, but we might still have a slight foreign accent.

I hope that helps to answer some of your questions. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance, and best of luck.

Sincerely, Todd