“Norse” must die

Some lame stereotypical image of “Norse Vikings” I found on the interwebz

I’ve been on a little campaign lately to get rid of the use of the word “Norse” in both popular and scholarly publications, media, etc., about Vikings and related subjects. Why, you ask? Well, because the chance is that you’re not using it right. I’ll bet that 99% of the times you see this word used, it’s used improperly as a synonym for “Viking” or “Scandinavian” or “the Viking Age language in Scandinavia” or something like that, and that’s why Norse needs to die.

Quick facts about this post

Before you start reading, here are the quick facts about this post:

  1. “Norse” as a cultural and linguistic descriptor only applies to Norwegians.
  2. “Old Norse” is the term that is used by linguists to describe the language that emerges in western-northern Scandinavia and the North Atlantic in the 1100s.
  3. The term “Norse” is in no way applicable to eastern and southern Scandinavia in any period.
  4. The term “Norse” or “Old Norse” is in no way applicable to any people or linguistic group in the Viking Age or before.
  5. The only way that the term “Norse Mythology” can be accepted is if we strictly focus on the fact that the mythology is largely written down in the Old Norse dialect of the Scandinavian languages. The bulk of so-called Norse Mythology is centered on the Scandinavian mainland and is closer associated with Sweden and Denmark than, for instance, Iceland.

What is the origin of “Norse”?

The word came into existence in the English language in the late 16th century, when English speakers adopted a Dutch-, and possibly Danish-Norwegian-influenced, word for Norwegians: Noordsch, Norsk. This is the adjective form of the word “North” in those languages: Noord, Nord. Soon, to English-speakers the word became commonplace for “those people north of Scotland.” English-speakers with little to no capacity to distinguish between the Faroese, the Orkneyers and Shetlanders, the Icelanders, and, of course, the Norwegians, basically lumped them all together as “Norse.”

In the 17th century, the intensified antiquarian interest in saga literature, Nordic mythology, and other medieval texts from the North Atlantic and Scandinavian realms, resulted in the word becoming attached to the language of these aforementioned peoples north of Scotland. In the 19th century, Old Norse emerged as a more precise definition. English scholars used this term to distinguish the older language written in medieval books in, for instance, Iceland, from the contemporary languages and dialects spoken in the North Atlantic. 

From the 13th and 14th centuries, Icelandic scholars had been using the adjective form of “northern,” norræn, to describe the western Nordic dialect that emerged from c. 1100. They referred to the earlier Common Nordic language from the Viking Age as dönsk tunga, Danish tongue, and used the term norræn tungumál to define the western Nordic dialect that since the 1100s had developed distinct characteristics. In the 19th century, Old Norse therefore became used in English as the direct translation of the word norræn.

What is the problem?

During the 19th century, a lot of developments were happening in the field of Nordic history and literature. These developments happened as a result of political upheaval. 1814 saw the Danes ceding Norway to Sweden and an ensuing Norwegian pursuit to regain a separate national identity. Similar sentiments emerged in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which were still under Danish hegemony. Since 1397, Norway and its Atlantic possessions, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Orkneys, and Shetland, had been joined with Denmark in a union kingdom. Furthermore, from 1397 and until 1523, all the Nordic countries were joined in the Kalmar Union, effectively ruled from the Danish throne. In 1523, Sweden broke free from the union and this also caused some Norwegian aristocrats to question the Danish king.

From 1536, the union kingdom was effectively dissolved into a hegemonic Danish kingdom, thanks to the Reformation and the ambiguity among some of the Norwegian aristocrats during the Swedish war of liberty. The Danish king used the situation to take possession of the properties and offices of the former Catholic church and to dethrone the would-be Norwegian opposition altogether. This meant that the different former centers of religious power that had been part of maintaining some aspects of local hegemony and language were now subject to the king, and they would receive their clergy and bureaucrats through Denmark.  

The result of that was a shift in language from local dialects to what quickly became Copenhagen Danish, especially in the 1600s. The effect on the local dialects in Norway and the North Atlantic was considerable. Although the Nordic languages had begun splitting in the 1100s, Snorri Sturluson’s nephew Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson reported that Danish was mutually intelligible with Icelandic when he visited the Danish king Valdemar 1 in the 1230s. In the 1400s, the differences accelerated considerably thanks to influence from German traders. With the Reformation, where focus shifted from Latin as the language of learning to different German dialects, the developments in learned and urban Danish and Norwegian, even Icelandic, became more considerable. 

In the 19th century, the ideas of German national romantics and enlightenment thinkers like Herder, Goethe, and Schiller, had precipitated into the Nordic intelligentsia. Especially Herder’s idea of the Volksgeist, the shared soul of a people, became important to the Nordic populations that were looking for their post-imperial identities. What had happened with the Reformation was that Biblical material had been translated into local languages. In turn, this had raised the question what these local languages even were, and then, of course, foregrounded the languages of the local and regional elites. German became influential in Scandinavian languages because of the translation of ecclesiastical material, and the dissemination of learning from the continent. In Scandinavia, Finland, and the North Atlantic, between c. 1600 and 1800, there were two dominating languages, elite Danish and elite Swedish, thanks to that same development: the dissemination of knowledge through Copenhagen and Stockholm (and Uppsala).

So, when the time came to reject these languages that had basically materialized into Copenhagen Danish and Stockholm-Uppsala Swedish, as part of a project of coming back to a distinct Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, and Finnish identity in the 1800s, looking back to earlier records of the languages—before they became “tainted” by “foreign” influence—was the name of the game. Enter norræn as the glorious savior in the North Atlantic. This norræn tungumál that developed from the 1100s until the Danes messed it all up in the 1500s, became a universal standard that would be looked to during the reconstructions of the Norwegian, Faroese, and Icelandic languages that occurred in the 19th century.

United by a general disdain for that “low German dialect” that Danish had become (at least, according to one old, drunk punk-rocker and descendant of a certain prominent Icelandic philologist that I met at Dillon in Reykjavík a couple years ago) these linguists went to work, creating what has later become the modern national languages in Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The saga literature, written in the norræn language in the 1200-1300s was used as reference when scholars found that the influence from Danish had eroded an ending, a grammatical form, shifted the semantics of a word, replaced it with something foreign, and so on. Iceland was more radical than Norway (which after all had a lot more complexities and dialects) and up there, this was called “the great purge.” The result was this modern myth that “Icelanders speak like the Vikings did,” and norræn became the translation of “Norse,” the “Viking” language. 

In the last 20-or-so years, the word “Norse” has then spread like a wildfire as a catchall for some-Viking-ish-related-whatever-in-northern-Europe-in-the-general-period-before-the-invention-of-guns-and-cannons in popular media, science, and scholarship alike. In the case of scholarship and science, the fact that English has replaced German as the learned language of this field of study, has of course had major impact on the use of the word “Norse.”

Alright, fine, but what’s the problem with that, then?

Okay, so, if you have been paying attention, you will realize that we haven’t really gotten to the Viking Age yet. We’ve established that the modern Icelandic word norræn, known as norrønt in Norwegian and Danish, is a word for the languages spoken in Norway and the North Atlantic from 1100 to 1500, roughly. We have also established that there has been a tendency to translate the word norræn to “Norse.” None of this has to do with the Viking Age. The Viking Age ends somewhere around 1100, depending on how you make the cut, and as we saw above, the Icelandic definition of the language that existed in the Viking Age was “Danish tongue.”

Those Icelandic scholars of the medieval period, who wrote the grammatical treatises on the Icelandic language, like Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson, they aptly recognized changes between what they called norrænand dönsk tunga: what linguists and philologists refer to as West Nordic (Icelandic, Norwegian dialects, some Swedish dialects, Faroese, Greenlandic) and East Nordic (Danish, Swedish, Gutnish, Jutlandic dialects, Scanian dialects, Finland-Swedish, etc.). The Icelandic scholars also recognized the differences between Icelandic and Norwegian dialects, although they weren’t huge. What nobody ever did was to call any language that belonged to the East Nordic category norræn, “Norse” in English. This means that calling the languages that split in the 1100s “East Norse” and “West Norse” is absurd. Furthermore, the lack of recognition of differences between the two main groups waters down our understanding of linguistic complexities.

The recognition that there are distinct differences is the reason that, when you go to any other northern European language that has a decent research tradition in Nordic philology and history, you will find that they use different terminology than English.

The terms oldnordisk and fornnordisk are well-established descriptors for the common pre-1100s Nordic language that medieval Icelandic scholars called “Danish tongue.” We find this language carved on rune-stones across Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. While the norræn language is very, very close to that language, there are distinct differences, too. These differences of course merit that we apply a terminology that can express that. For that reason, you can go to the German language and see that German scholars would tend to call the language spoken in the Viking Age Altnordisch: Old Nordic. This is the direct translation of oldnordisk and fornnordisk.

What is also important to recognize is that there are distinguishably Icelandic traits and distinguishably Norwegian traits. This makes it possible to talk about a forníslenska and a fornnorskoldnorsk: an old Icelandic and an old Norwegian. In German, this is also possible: Altisländisch and Altnorwegisch. Similarly, you can talk about olddansk and fornsvensk in Danish and Swedish. Runologists also like to get even more specific and talk about Rune-Nordic or Rune-Danish, Rune-Swedish, Rune-Norwegian, highlighting that this is the language carved in runes, not written in books, and that it comes with its own little quirks.

Essentially, what happens in the English definition is that all these intricate differences in languages, regions, peoples, ethnicities, periods in time, developments, hard labor of philologists (whether you agree with them or not), are boiled down to “duh Norse.” A word that was invented by drunken sailors in the North Sea in the late 1500s. Thanks to English functioning as a lingua franca to Europeans nowadays, even they are beginning to mess up with these distinctions, especially Scandinavians.

Why does this matter?

You should reserve the use of the word “Norse” for instances where you talk about Norwegian language in the period 1100-1500 because anything else is a misrepresentation of languages and ethnicities. 

The Nordic languages emerge in history in the period 400-700 (roughly) as Proto-Nordic or North Germanic. In that period, we can detect distinct differences between runic inscriptions produced in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and those further south in the German area and in the English area to the west. From 700 onwards, we can clearly distinguish the Old Nordic or Common Nordic language from its cousins in Saxony, Frisia, Bavaria, and the Rhineland to the south, as well as the English kingdoms to the west. From the 1100s, we can see that the Common Nordic language has split between an eastern and a western variant.

In the period 1100-1500, Icelandic, Greenlandic, Faroese, and Norwegian develop distinct differences and can be properly defined as old Icelandic, old Greenlandic, old Norwegian, and old Faroese, but I guess the catchall “Norse,” which lends hegemony to western Norwegian dialects, can be used if one fancies it. In the same period, the dialects in Denmark and Sweden are producing their own distinct traits, and they cannot—at all—be defined as “East Norse” like it says on the English Wikipedia, and definitely not as austurnorræn as the Icelandic Wikipedia claims. That is straight up rubbish. Frankly, the Wikipedia pages on this stuff (that I’ve seen even non-linguist scholars refer to in debates about this subject) are a terminological mess made by amateurs … like, what the hell is “Old West Norse” even? What’s the “old” all about now?

The reason that you should reserve the word “Norse” to talk about specific languages in a specific period in time, is that “Norse” is not an ethnonym, it’s a direction. This means that there never existed any “Norse people” in terms of a unified, identifiable culture, just like “eastern European” doesn’t really mean anything else than someone from somewhere west of Poland saying: “those people over there.” At best it’s an awkward categorization of a bunch of different people based on shared location, at worst it’s a pathetically inaccurate assumption that because these different people share geographical location (and often root language), they must necessarily be inherently similar or even the same. If you can beguile yourself to believe that there are regional differences in French wine so that you can feel awesome at some fancy soiree, you can take the time to learn the differences between people and their identities, too.

Archaeological and genetic investigations of the early populations and settlements in Iceland have revealed that the country was settled by a considerable number of people from the British Isles. Similarly, scholarship is aware that the Sámi were involved in the early settlement of Iceland. We also know that the Scandinavian settlers did not just comprise people from western and northern Norway, even though that is what the saga literature will have you believe. There were people from southern and eastern Scandinavia involved, too, however small their percentage was. I’m sure that we can also identify at least a handful of people from Saxony in northern Germany if we look for them 

… and then there is the guy named Tyrkir in the saga of Greenlanders. His name means “Turk.” Just saying …

The fact is that throughout time, Scandinavia and the North Atlantic have been populated by a myriad of different identities, some of which were more distinguishable than others. In mainland Scandinavia, we can identify a long list of local and regional identities based on a variety of sources, including rune-stones, municipal names, literature, and, of course, archaeology. Many of these regional and local identities were well-known to medieval Icelandic authors, and I am sure that even if they included them in the group of norræn-speakers, they were aware of persisting differences. Just consider how much time the saga writers spent on the political and religious differences between Vestlandet and Møre in the Norwegian kings’ sagas. The skaldic poem Háleygjatal is literally a big northern Norwegian F-U to the Ynglinga circle jerk that Ari fróði, Snorri Sturluson, and the kings in Vestlandet were down with.

In Norway, we can identify the regional identities called Háleygir (Hålogaland), Þrændir (Trøndelag), Mærir (Møre), Hörðar (Hordaland), Rygir (Rogaland), Egðir (Agder), possibly corresponding to ancient tribal jurisdictions. In Sweden, there are at least the Jämtar (Jämtland), Svear (Uppland, Svearíki), the Götar (Götalandene), and the Gutar (Gotland). In Denmark, we find Danir (Danes), Jótar (Jutlanders), Saluar (Fyn, at least of we believe the Glavendrup stone), Anglir (Anglia, Schleswig), Skáningar (Scania), and Borgundarhólmar (Bornholm). Aside from that, there are, obviously, Sámi and Finnish identities present. There were also other peoples from the Circum-Baltic area involved, such as Frisians, Vends, Saxons, Pomeranians, Čuds, Estonians, Lithuanians, etc. This list is far from exhaustive, but it should give you an idea about the variations in identities in the Scandinavian mainland in the Viking Age and medieval period, which can hardly be contained in “Norse.”

A little note on “Norse mythology”

Stop calling it “Norse mythology.” It’s only “Norse” by virtue of the language that it is written in. Snorri Sturluson called that language norræn and we can translate it to “Norse,” sure. However, in Edda, Snorri mentions the Scandinavian landmass and Norway, Denmark, and Sweden at roughly the same rate. Saxony and Germany, Russia, and Asia, Finns and Finland, are mentioned more than the North Atlantic. Iceland is practically non-existing. Snorri’s focus is 1) the pre-Norse period, i.e., the Viking Age (when people, according to him, spoke dönsk tunga), and 2) East, East, East. He is always looking east and intentionally placing all the stuff he talks about in Sweden and prehistoric Denmark and Norway, because he knows it all comes from there.

One could perhaps argue that the distinct West Nordic character of a lot of the skaldic poetry that has preserved pre-Christian Nordic mythology could make it “Norse.” There is a tendency to consider skaldic poetry a particularly “Norse” artform, yet this claim of course overlooks skaldic stanzas present on rune-stones in the eastern and southern parts of Scandinavia, as well as the popularity of the skaldic artforms at the Swedish and Danish courts in the 1200s, not least early English and Scottish interests in the art. While most of skaldic poetry has been preserved in the norræn language, there is nothing to authenticate that it was particularly West Nordic in its inception and popularity until after the 1300s.

In Eddic poetry, the North Atlantic and a west-east Nordic distinction is practically non-existing. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are mentioned, but only in passing. We can see from the animals and trees mentioned in the Eddic poems that the general world they take place in is northern Europe, not the North Atlantic. The historical and cultural content of these texts is, in all respects, tied to Scandinavia, Germany, and the Circum-Baltic area, not least Sápmi and Finland. There is a possibility for some aspects of the poems and also Snorri’s prose myths to have been interpreted distinctly in context of the Icelandic environment (I’ve written extensively about that in scholarly publications), but even so, these interpretations rest on an already existing connection to mainland Scandinavia.

Ultimately, it is Nordic mythology: “Nordic” used as the most inclusive category for the differences that exist and existed in Northern and Atlantic Europe.

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