The Scandinavian Languages – A Common History

The Scandinavian Languages – A Common History

August 15, 2020 Off By Ludvig Hoel

Scandinavian languages, which are also called North Germanic languages belong to a group of Germanic languages known as the modern standard, which include Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese. These languages are typically divided into two groups – the East Scandinavian of which are Danish and Swedish and West Scandinavian (which are Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese). 

History of Old Scandinavian

The oldest evidence of any Germanic language are about 125 inscriptions that date from ad 200 to 600, carved in the older runic alphabet (futhark). Most of these are from Scandinavia, but a lot of it has also be found in southeastern Europe, which suggest the use of runes was like with other Germanic tribes. Most are brief inscriptions that mark ownership or manufacturer.

A number of inscriptions are memorials to the dead, while others were believed to have magical content. The earliest inscriptions were carvings on wood or metal objects, but over time, they were done on stones.

Further information about the language is gotten from names and loanwords in foreign texts, from place-names, and from comparative reconstruction based on related languages and later dialects.

The unstressed vowels that descended from the Germanic and Indo-Europeans are still present in the inscriptions, all these are no more present in later Germanic languages.

The Emergence of Old Scandinavian

Inscriptions from the Ancient period show a unique dialect, North Germanic. Runic inscriptions contain the information about the earliest stages, which became more abundant after the short runic futhark was created in ad 800.

With the expansion of Nordic peoples in the Viking Age (c. 750–1050), The Scandinavian speech was established in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man, parts of Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Russia.

However, in all these territories besides the Faroe Islands and Iceland, Scandinavian languages later disappeared. 

During the expansion period, communication between Scandinavians was without difficulty and they thought of their language as one, but the differing orientations of the various kingdoms in the Viking Age led to several dialectal differences.

Today, one can distinguish between a conservative West Scandinavian area and a more innovative East Scandinavian.

The Advent of Christianity

Of significant linguistic importance was the establishment of the Roman Catholic church in the 10th and 11th centuries. It helped to consolidate the existing kingdoms, bringing the North into classical and medieval European culture, and introduced the writing parchment of Latin letters.

Runic writing was still in use for epigraphic purposes and for general information. The Latin alphabet was used for more sustained literary efforts – initially for Latin writings but later for native writings.

The first works to be written down were old oral laws, followed by translations of Latin and French works, which include legends, epics, and sermons.

Reformation and Renaissance

The many local dialects in existence today were developed in the late Middle Ages, when most of the population had few travel opportunities. The people living in the cities developed new forms of urban speech with a touch of rural dialects, through foreign contacts, as well as written languages.

The chanceries where government documents were produced influenced written norms that were not just local but had gone nationwide. The Reformation was to come from Germany and with it the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther. Which was later to be translated into Danish, Swedish and Icelandic.

However, since no Norwegian translations existed, it became one of the reasons no Norwegian literary language arose.

With the invention of printing and the growth of literacy, speakers of all Scandinavian dialects gradually learned to read and eventually write the new languages.