Learning Old Norse: what's the plural of "axe"?

In the Viking sagas, writes Jesse L. Byock, there are "accusations of witchcraft, fights over beached whales, cheating, stealing, harboring of outlaws, and vengeance sought for scurrilous or erotic verse." Viking Language 1 is, hands down, the most exciting foreign language book I have ever read.

I just spent three months learning Icelandic for no better reason than that a friend said he was going to do it and I believed him. Then a different friend1 pointed out that Old Norse is to Icelandic as Shakespearean English is to 21st century English (even though Old Norse is a few hundred years older). Some words have changed their meanings, and there are small grammatical shifts here and there, but my Icelandic studies would probably give me a head start on talking like a Viking.

And they did! When I picked up Viking Language, the first few texts might as well have been in the Icelandic I'd already learned; I could read them with ease. Eight verbs with unpredictable past tenses? I knew them all! Modern Icelandic ágætur, "great", which the besweatered folk of Reyikjavík are always saying about their cheese popcorn and trips to the kaffihús? It comes from Old Norse ágætr, "noble"! , "money", once meant "cattle"! Being able to read the texts before studying the vocabulary is like eating your chocolate cream pie before you even look at your green beans.

And since there are no Vikings around to ask for cups of tea or directions to the geothermal spa, the Viking Language lessons go straight to the sagas - the centuries-old manuscripts that recount Scandinavian history and folklore - for their examples. Even in the first chapter, the readings are excerpts of real documents (and by Chapter 3, you're studying transcriptions of runestones.) People have names like Þorbjörg Boat-breasted and Svein Forkbeard. The vocabulary list includes mannblót, "human sacrifice". A reading about a Viking digging up a king's burial mound to take a famous sword is accompanied by a note: "In the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (Hrólfs saga kraka), Hrolf uses [the sword] to slice off the buttocks of Aldils, the sorcerer king of Sweden." And that fight over the beached whale? That's the reading in a couple more chapters.

Viking Language does give you huge tables of endings to memorize, and while in general I'm not a big fan of this approach, I'm much more forgiving when it's applied to a language like Old Norse or Latin — which most students want to read, but will never need to speak or write — than when I have to slog through it to learn a living language. (Though it doesn't hurt that Old Norse is so similar to Icelandic that I'm usually only learning one or two differences, rather than a brand-new declension or conjugation.)

I am sure Viking Language will get harder as I go along — it's not as though I already know words like "axe" or "burial mound" from my self-taught Icelandic curriculum — but I'm looking forward to the upcoming lessons. It's not every day that a language book rewards you before and after you study.

1. Or "friend" (back to article)

Written on March 10, 2016