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Old Norse may be succinctly characterized as the "language of the vikings". Indeed the term víkingr is found in Old Norse itself; but its use in other languages (cf. Old English wicing), where it refers to the seafaring marauders who plagued their shores, typically forms the basis for the modern connotations. Beginning in the late 8th century AD, much of western Europe fell subject to periodic harassment by these ship-borne warriors from the north, and their desecration of such holy sanctuaries as Christian monasteries did much to cement the notion of ruthless, lawless savages which remains bound to the term viking.
But this is not the whole story. To be certain, the northmen who went on such raids were harsh warriors taking plunder from often defenseless peoples. They did not, however, form the entirety of the culture of Old Norse speakers. Not every speaker of Old Norse was termed a víkingr; and often when the term is applied, it has more the connotation of 'free enterpriser' than 'cutthroat pirate'. Archaeology rounds out the picture, showing that the part of Scandinavian culture not engaged in foreign raids was in places tied to the land, and more often centered on trading. Presumably it was the search for new trade routes which impelled Scandinavians to push into eastern Europe, laying the foundations for the cultures mentioned in the earliest Russian documents. Scandinavians prospered along such trade routes, the wealthiest evidently in Gotland. These Gotlanders were themselves wary of pirating, since most of the treasures unconvered by archaeologists come from hidden stashes deliberately buried by the foot of trees or near large rocks.
Of course it is the literature of Old Norse itself which finally rounds out the cultural picture. The literature is voluminous, and the lengthy sagas often mention a bold víkingr and his exploits. They tout manly virtues, extol armed combat, and laud rash and rowdy behavior. But most of these stories were written over a century after the viking raids ceased to dominate the concerns of other Europeans. Though the writing style of many sagas is matter-of-fact, it must be borne in mind that it is being written for a nobility which is sometimes more attached to political intrigue and literary pasttimes than to pillaging and plundering. It is uncertain how much of the heroic actions are to be attributed to historical fact, and how much to the romanticizing tendencies of the authors. Poetry, by contrast, does seem to date back to the period of the viking raids. And it may be telling that sagas often portray great warriors simultaneously as great poets. In fact, some of the Scandinavian poetry is more technically and metaphorically complex than anything else produced in Europe at the time.
The linguistic genealogy of Old Norse begins with the spread of Proto-Indo-European. Schematically, we may imagine that the community which later became Germanic speakers was at some time a group of speakers of a certain dialect of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). When their speech community became sufficiently separated from other PIE speakers to allow for independent language evolution, over time their dialect developed into what we may term Common Germanic or Proto-Germanic (PGmc). The same process then repeated, so that, through the course of migration, distinct groups within the PGmc speech community became isolated from one another. By the late pre-Christian, early Christian era, there emerged three distinct dialects: East, West, and North Germanic. From West Germanic developed Old English and Old Frisian, as well as Old High German and Old Saxon. From North Germanic are descended the Scandinavian languages, with the oldest literature in Old Norse. East Germanic is only attested in Gothic, which has no modern descendants.
Such a tripartite division unfortunately oversimplifies the situation. There seem to be several points of convergence between branches, so that it is difficult to maintain a view of early division and subsequent isolation. For example, Old Norse and Gothic show a common innovation within the Germanic family, whereby medial jj and ww are both sharpened (to ddj and ggw in Gothic, to ggj and ggw in Old Norse). Likewise both retain -t as a marker of the second person singular past indicative. These might be considered indications of a close affinity between the East and North branches of Germanic.
On the other hand, Old Norse shares some features with West Germanic, to the exclusion of Gothic. In Old Norse and West Germanic both -dōm and -skapi are used as suffixes to produce abstract nouns, whereas they are only used as root nouns in Gothic. Old Norse and the West Germanic languages also show the pervasive traces of umlaut, which is absent in Gothic. Gothic exhibits the change of initial fl- to þl-, absent in both North and West Germanic. Reduplicated verbs are still somewhat productive in Gothic, but completely marginalized in Old Norse and West Germanic.
Thus a simplistic family-tree model resulting from presumed linguistic isolation is a tenuous and sometimes misleading synopsis of the early development of the Germanic languages. Close ties between speech communities must have survived migratory periods, and the relative uniformity of literary traditions must gloss over a more intricate web of common speech.
Recent theories place the homeland of the Proto-Germanic speakers in the region of what is now Denmark and southern Sweden. Although archaeological evidence shows that the area was inhabited as far back as 10,000 BC, the Germanic presence is usually associated with the "Battle-Axe Culture", a group which invaded the region sometime in the third millenium BC. It seems that the speakers of North Germanic did not move far from this area in the earliest migration phases of the Germanic tribes. There is a general consensus that the locus of Norse speakers was still centered on this region just before their entrance into wider European historical traditions.
This is not to say that the North Germanic speakers were necessarily completely sedentary. The nature of the contact between various members of the three basic branches of Germanic in this region is not entirely clear. As seen in the discussion of linguistic heredity, though Germanic divided into three main branches, there is a complicated network of interrelations between them. If these linguistic interrelations are reflections of close contact, then the motions of the Germanic tribes in this area were constantly shifting, and sedentary lifestyles were possibly the exception and not the norm.
Matters of locale become quite a bit easier after Old Norse speakers start to migrate from the area of Denmark and Sweden, for then their exploits are recorded, either by the Norse themselves, or by other people of Europe upon whom they made an impression. Some pushed north into modern Norway, others west toward the Orkneys and Shetland Islands. Others made their way to the northern coast of France. From the island outposts it was not a far push to Iceland; then on to Greenland and as far as North America. A long period of migration established a lasting presence in the northern region of England. Ventures in the opposite direction took the Norse along rivers of eastern Europe through western Russia and into Byzantium itself.
In this vein it should be noted that Old Norse is a term not denoting a particularly uniform spoken language as such, but rather a collection of wide ranging dialects with extremely close affinities. Old Norse is a catch-all term for Old Icelandic, Old Norwegian, Old Swedish, Old Danish, and Old Gotlandic, though it is often used as a synonym for Old Icelandic because the majority of documents come from this region.
The earliest documents from the Scandinavian speaking area are runic insciptions. These extend as far back as the 2nd century AD. For the most part they are inscriptions on stone, or on more personal artifacts, such as brooches or swords. The largest number of these come from Denmark and Sweden. They are in a dialect much more archaic than Old Norse itself.
The preponderance of documents in Old Norse comes from Iceland. Among these literary monuments, Eddic poetry appears to represent the oldest stage. This is preserved mainly in one manuscript, which contains several poems of alliterative verse. The basic themes of the poems center either around the gods and mythic origins, or around heroes of an earlier age.
Another important genre in Old Norse was that of Skaldic poetry. This was a highly wrought form of poetry well steeped in tradition. It seems generally to have been a sort of praise poetry, meant to extol the virtues and sing the notable exploits of kings and other patrons. Many references talk of how skaldic poems were composed on the spot, all the more impressive because of the intricacy of the genre. The poetic forms were varied, yet each individual form was quite rigid. Direct statement was avoided, rather persons or things were referenced by means of ornate circumlocutions known as 'kennings'. So intricate was the style, and so long was the tradition, that Snorri Sturluson composed a monumental work dedicated to the subject. His Prose Edda contains a collection of stories which flesh out the mythic material often elliptically referenced in skaldic verse. It likewise contains a robust treatment of the mechanics of skaldic composition, together with examples of the various types of meter.
Historical investigations also occupied the literary talents of Icelanders. Foremost among these was Ari Þorgilsson, who compiled a history of the settlement of Iceland. The original version of his Íslendigabók (Book of Icelanders) is lost, but a shorter version composed later still survives.
A large body of Icelandic literature is in the form of sagas. These are prose compositions with single authors, generally intended to be read as entertainment. For the most part the sagas center around some historical figure or group, and purport to give an accurate account of events. But this notion is only a skeleton about which an ornate and richly decorated narrative art is woven. Sagas tell the stories of Norwegian kings, of the early settlers of Iceland, of Snorri's own family, and of legendary personages. Typical themes are family feuds and the quest for revenge.
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Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. Germanic language courses, except for English, are taught in the Department of Germanic Studies (link opens in a new browser window). Online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).