What Language Did the Vikings Speak?

The development of sailing technology and superior maritime skills helped the Vikings to conquer large areas of Europe from their northern lands at the close of the 8th Century.How did they come up with their ideas and communicate them over such a large area of land, from Newfoundland (Canada) to the eastern Baltic Sea. Surprisingly, they did it much more quickly than the people who live in these places today. They spoke the same language back then.Old Norse is a language that emerged in the 8th century. It was then used during the Viking Age, then the medieval period. Kristel Zilmer, a runologist at Oslo's Museum of Cultural History, said that Old Norse can be found around the 8th Century. It was used in Scandinavia, as well as on the many islands in the North Atlantic that were settled by the Scandinavians.Old Norse still exists in English. Viking conquests over the years brought words like egg, knife and take with them.Where did this language come and how did it get used?Norse OlderOld Norse wasn't born out of thin air. It was created in the early 8th Century, which is several decades before longships were developed and the Viking Age began to take shape. The Scandinavians used an older, northern Germanic language called Ancient Nordic or Proto-Norse before this. This language was written in runic scripts and the oldest Scandinavian alphabet, which contains about 24 letters. It is also known as Elder Futhark.The oldest known example of such writing dates back to around A.D.150. It was found on a tiny comb made of bone that was discovered in Denmark. Zilmer states that most linguists believe the language originated before that time, possibly sometime in the first century of AD.Elder Futhark was still used up to the 700s. Runic letters were used to inscribe on leather, antlers, bone artifacts, metal, and the famed runestones during this time. They first appeared in the fourth or fifth century. However, they became more popular in the centuries that followed.The Scandinavians shortened their alphabet around the start of the 8th Century, mixing sounds like K and G with B with P. This left them with a simplified 16 letter runic alphabet. Zilmer claims that researchers have discovered more than 3500 runic inscriptions dating back to the Viking Age. Researchers found that runes from the Viking Age were easier to misinterpret because of the combination of letters.The sound of the language also changed with these alphabet changes. Between 500 and 700 new words were created and new vowel sounds and consonant sounds started to appear. Many of the lengthy words in Ancient Nordic were cut down. Zilmer states that it has been completely restructured.RunestonesThe best examples of runic inscriptions can be found all across Europe, from the Black Sea in Russia to Normandy all the way to the British Isles. These stones are often covered with runic inscriptions and sometimes have artwork. Zilmer states that although the inscriptions may be different, they are usually commemorative and list names of deceased family members, friends, or trading partners. The inscriptions are usually not very long due to the large size of the stones. The inscriptions might include information about who placed the stone and how long they were kept, as well as a brief description of the farm where it was found.Vikings carved a runestone in Sweden 1000 years ago. (Credit to Mats O Andersson/Shutterstock).A few runestones contain lines of verse. In the earlier period, Norse gods such as Odin and Thor are often mentioned. When Vikings brought the religion of certain lands they had conquered back home in the 11th century, Scandinavia was Christianized. Runestones often contained prayers for the souls of deceased family members and friends.The runic inscriptions and runestones are the only source we have of information about Vikings. The accounts of Europeans at the brunt of Viking attacks provide most of the information about Viking raids and other exploits.Zilmer states that Runic inscriptions are the source of the time. These are the best way to get a glimpse into their society.Lingua FrancaOld Norse was the language connecting the Scandinavian people during the Viking Age. However, due to the international nature Nordic countries at the time, polyglots were required. They didn't always have to raid first and then ask questions later.Zilmer states that multilingual communities and many people would have existed at the time.Some Vikings conquered Britain and other countries, and brought their language with them. Old Norse became blended with local languages over the years. Old English is influenced a lot by Norse, so many of the place names we have in Britain today are Old Norse.Zilmer stated that the language contact had been intense.Old Norse, although considered one language, had distinct dialects between Denmark and Iceland. However, people living in these areas might still be able to understand each other. Many of these differences became more similar to languages spoken in the countries where they are today, during the middle ages.Other characteristics of Old Norse and its predecessors began to disappear, partly due to the international nature Vikings. Around the same time Christianity was established, the Roman alphabet was brought to Scandinavia. It is possible that some Vikings also learned the alphabet while they were on raids or trade missions throughout Europe. The Roman alphabet and the runic alphabet were both used for about a hundred years before being replaced by the latter. Zilmer states that the last runestones are from the 14th century or 15th century.