Proto-Norse (also called Proto-Scandinavian, Proto-Nordic, Ancient Scandinavian, Proto-North Germanic and a variety of other names) was an Indo-European language spoken in Scandinavia that is thought to have evolved as a northern dialect of Proto-Germanic in the first centuries CE. It is the earliest stage of a characteristically North Germanic language, and the language attested in the oldest Scandinavian Elder Futhark inscriptions, spoken from around the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE (corresponding to the late Roman Iron Age and the Germanic Iron Age). It evolved into the dialects of Old Norse at the beginning of the Viking Age around 800 CE, which later themselves evolved into the modern North Germanic languages (Faroese, Icelandic, the three Continental Scandinavian languages, and their dialects).
|Era||2nd to 8th centuries|
Proto-Norse phonology probably did not differ substantially from that of Proto-Germanic. Although the phonetic realisation of several phonemes had probably changed over time (as with any language), the overall system of phonemes and their distribution remained largely unchanged.
|Stop||p b||t d||k ɡ||kʷ ɡʷ|
|Fricative||ɸ (β)||θ (ð)||s||z||h (ɣ)||hʷ|
The system of vowels differed somewhat more from that of Proto-Germanic than the consonants. Earlier /ɛː/ had been lowered to /ɑː/, and unstressed /ɑi/ and /ɑu/ had developed into /eː/ and /ɔː/. Shortening of word-final vowels had eliminated the Proto-Germanic overlong vowels.
At least the following diphthongs were present: /æi/, /ɑu/, /eu/, /iu/.
Old Norse had a stress accent which fell on the first syllable. Several scholars have proposed that Proto-Norse also had a separate pitch accent, which was inherited from Proto-Indo-European and has evolved into the tonal accents of modern Swedish and Norwegian, which in turn have evolved into the stød of modern Danish. Another recently advanced theory is that each Proto-Norse long syllable and every other short syllable received stress, marked by pitch, eventually leading to the development of the Swedish and Norwegian tonal accent distinction. Finally, quite a number of linguists have assumed that even the first phonetic rudiments of the distinction did not appear until the Old Norse period.
The surviving examples of Proto-Norse are all runic inscriptions in the Elder Futhark. There are about 260 surviving Elder Futhark inscriptions in Proto-Norse, the earliest dating to the 2nd century.
Numerous early Germanic words have survived largely unchanged as borrowings in Finnic languages. Some of these may be of Proto-Germanic origin or older still, but others reflect developments specific to Norse. Some examples (with the reconstructed Proto-Norse form):
The differences between attested Proto-Norse and unattested Proto-Germanic are rather small. Separating Proto-Norse from Northwest Germanic can be said to be a matter of convention, as sufficient evidence from the remaining parts of the Germanic-speaking area (Northern Germany and the Netherlands) is lacking in a degree to provide sufficient comparison. Inscriptions found in Scandinavia are considered to be in Proto-Norse. Several scholars argue about this subject matter. Wolfgang von Krause sees the language of the runic inscriptions of the Proto-Norse period as an immediate precursor to Old Norse, but Elmer Antonsen views them as Northwest Germanic, but his views on Runic Script and related subjects might be considered extreme.
One early difference shared by the West Germanic dialects is the monophthongization of unstressed diphthongs. Unstressed *ai became ē, as in haitē (Kragehul I) from Proto-Germanic *haitai, and unstressed *au likewise became ō. Characteristic is also the Proto-Norse lowering of Proto-Germanic stressed ē to ā, which is demonstrated by the pair Gothic mēna and Old Norse máni (English moon). Proto-Norse thus differs from the early West Germanic dialects, as West Germanic ē was lowered to ā regardless of stress; in Old Norse, earlier unstressed ē surfaces as i. For example, the weak third-person singular past tense ending -dē appears in Old High German as -ta, with a low vowel, but in Old Norse as -ði, with a high vowel.
The time that *z, a voiced apical alveolar fricative, represented in runic writing by the algiz rune, changed to ʀ, an apical post-alveolar approximant, is debated. If the general Proto-Norse principle of devoicing of consonants in final position is taken into account, *z, if retained, would have been devoiced to [s] and would be spelled as such in runes. There is, however, no trace of that in the Elder Futhark runic inscriptions, so it can be safely assumed that the quality of this consonant must have changed before the devoicing, or the phoneme would not have been marked with a rune different from the sowilō rune used for s. The quality of the consonant can be conjectured, and the general opinion is that it was something between [z] and [r], the Old Norse reflex of the sound. In Old Swedish, the phonemic distinction between r and ʀ was retained into the 11th century, as shown by the numerous runestones from Sweden from then.
From 500 to 800, two great changes occurred within Proto-Norse. Umlauts appeared, which means that a vowel was influenced by the succeeding vowel or semivowel: Old Norse gestr (guest) came from P-N gastiz (guest). Another sound change is known as vowel breaking in which the vowel changed into a diphthong: hjarta from *hertō or fjǫrðr from *ferþuz.
Umlauts resulted in the appearance of the new vowels y (like fylla from *fullijaną) and œ (like dœma from *dōmijaną). The umlauts are divided into three categories, A-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut; the last was still productive in Old Norse. The first, however, appeared very early, and its effect can be seen already around 500, on the Golden Horns of Gallehus. The variation caused by the umlauts was itself no great disruption in the language. It merely introduced new allophones of back vowels if certain vowels were in following syllables. However, the changes brought forth by syncope made the umlaut-vowels a distinctive non-transparent feature of the morphology and phonology, phonemicising what were previously allophones.
Syncope shortened the long vowels of unstressed syllables; many shortened vowels were lost. Also, most short unstressed vowels were lost. As in P–N, the stress accent lay on the first syllable words as P–N *katilōz became ON katlar (cauldrons), P–N horną was changed into Old Norse horn and P–N gastiz resulted in ON gestr (guest). Some words underwent even more drastic changes, like *habukaz which changed into ON haukr (hawk).
The Björketorp Runestone (DR 360 U) in Blekinge, Sweden, is part of a grave field which includes menhirs, both solitary and forming stone circles.
It is one of the world's tallest runestones measuring 4.2 metres in height, and it forms an imposing sight together with two high uninscribed menhirs.Einang stone
The Einang stone (Einangsteinen) is a runestone located east of the Einang Sound near Fagernes, in Oppland, Norway, notable for the age of its runic inscription. The Einang runestone is located within the extensive Gardberg site. It is placed on a grave mound on a ridge overlooking the Valdres valley. There are several other grave mounds nearby. Today the runestone is protected by glass walls and a roof.Erilaz
Erilaz is a Migration period Proto-Norse word attested on various Elder Futhark inscriptions, which has often been interpreted to mean "magician" or "rune master", viz. one who is capable of writing runes to magical effect. However, as Mees (2003) has shown, the word is an ablaut variant of earl, and is also thought to be linguistically related to the name of the tribe of the Heruli, so it is probably merely an old Germanic military title (see etymology below).Golden Horns of Gallehus
The Golden Horns of Gallehus were two horns made of sheet gold, discovered in Gallehus, north of Møgeltønder in Southern Jutland, Denmark.
The horns dated to the early 5th century, i.e. the beginning of the Germanic Iron Age.
The horns were found in 1639 and in 1734, respectively, at locations only some 15–20 metres apart. They were composed of segments of double sheet gold. The two horns were found incomplete; the longer one found in 1639 had seven segments with ornaments, to which six plain segments and a plain rim were added, possibly by the 17th-century restorer. The shorter horn found in 1734 had six segments, a narrow one bearing a Proto-Norse Elder Futhark inscription at the rim and five ornamented with images. It is uncertain whether the horns were intended as drinking horns, or as blowing horns, although drinking horns have more pronounced history as luxury items made from precious metal.
The original horns were stolen and melted down in 1802. Casts made of the horns in the late 18th century were also lost. Replicas of the horns must thus rely on 17th and 18th-century drawings exclusively and are accordingly fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, replicas of the original horns were produced and are exhibited at the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, and the Moesgaard Museum, near Aarhus, Denmark. These replicas also have a history of having been stolen and retrieved twice, in 1993 and in 2007.
The horns are the subject of one of the best-known poems in Danish literature, "The Golden Horns" (Guldhornene), by Adam Oehlenschläger.Gummarp Runestone
The Gummarp Runestone, designated as DR 358, was a runestone from the Vendel era and which was located in the former village of Gummarp in the province of Blekinge, Sweden.Hogganvik runestone
The Hogganvik runestone is a fifth-century runestone, bearing an Elder Futhark inscription, that was discovered in September 2009 by Arnfinn Henriksen, a resident of Hogganvik, in the Sånum-Lundevik area of Mandal, Vest-Agder, Norway, while working in the garden.Istaby Runestone
The Istaby Runestone, listed in the Rundata catalog as DR 359, is a runestone with an inscription in Proto-Norse which was raised in Istaby, Blekinge, Sweden, during the Vendel era (c. 550-790).Järsberg Runestone
The Järsberg Runestone is a runestone in the elder futhark near Kristinehamn in Värmland, Sweden.Kalleby Runestone
The Kalleby Runestone is an enigmatic Iron Age runestone inscribed in Proto-Norse with the Elder Futhark:
þrawijan * haitinaz wasThis short text has been the subject of several interpretations where þrawijan, which means "yearning", is interpreted as either a name or an epithet. The words haitinaz was mean "was named", and so the text is open to various interpretations, such as:
Yearning was imposed (on him).
(I/he) was commanded/called.
(I/He) was promised to þrawija.The stone is 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall and 1.6 metres (5.2 ft) wide, and it was part of a bridge.Kragehul I
Kragehul I (DR 196 U) is a migration period lance-shaft found on Funen, Denmark. It is now in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark. The spear shaft was found in 1877 during the excavation of the classic war booty sacrificial site Kragehul on southern Funen. The site holds five deposits of military equipment from the period 200 to 475 AD. The spear shaft probably belongs to the latest deposit.Möjbro Runestone
The Möjbro Runestone is a runestone that is designated as U 877 in the Rundata catalog and is inscribed in Proto-Norse using the Elder Futhark. It was found in Möjbro, which is about 8 kilometers north of Örsundsbro in Uppsala County, Sweden, which is in the historic province of Uppland. The runestone is on display at the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm.
Formerly placed in the 3rd century, the inscription and drawing are now mostly placed in the 5th or early 6th centuries.Rö runestone
The Rö runestone, designated under Rundata as Bo KJ73 U, is one of Sweden's oldest and most notable runestones.Seeland-II-C
Seeland-II-C (Sjælland bracteate 2) is a Scandinavian bracteate from Zealand, Denmark, that has been dated to the Migration period (around 500 AD). The bracteate bears an Elder Futhark inscription which reads as:
hariuha haitika : farauisa : gibu auja : tttThe final ttt is a triple-stacked Tiwaz rune. This use of the rune is often interpreted as three invocations of the Norse pagan god Tyr.The central image shows a male's head above a quadruped. This is the defining characteristic of C-bracteates (of which some 400 specimens survive), and is often interpreted as a depiction of the god Odin healing his horse.
David W. Krause translates the inscription as: "Hariuha I am called: the dangerous knowledgeable one: I give chance." farauisa is interpreted as fara-uisa, either "danger-wise" or "travel-wise". Erik Moltke translates this word as "one who is wise about dangers". The giving of "chance" or "luck" in the inscription is evidence of the use of bracteates as amulets.Skåäng Runestone
The Skåäng Runestone, designated as Sö 32 under Rundata, is an Iron Age runestone located in Skåäng, Södermanland, Sweden, which is inscribed in Proto-Norse with the elder futhark. During the Viking Age, a second runic inscription was added in Old Norse using the younger futhark.Stentoften Runestone
The Stentoften Runestone, listed in the Rundata catalog as DR 357, is a runestone which contains a curse in Proto-Norse that was discovered in Stentoften, Blekinge, Sweden.Tjurkö bracteates
The Tjurkö Bracteates, listed by Rundata as DR BR75 and DR BR76, are two bracteates (medals or amulets) found on Tjurkö, Eastern Hundred, Blekinge, Sweden, bearing Elder Futhark runic inscriptions in Proto-Norse.Tune stone
The Tune stone is an important runestone from about 200–450 CE. It bears runes of the Elder Futhark, and the language is Proto-Norse. It was discovered in 1627 in the church yard wall of the church in Tune, Østfold, Norway. Today it is housed in the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The Tune stone is possibly the oldest Norwegian attestation of burial rites and inheritance.Vadstena bracteate
The Vadstena bracteate (Rundata Ög 178) is a gold C-bracteate found in the earth at Vadstena, Sweden, in 1774. Along with the bracteate was a gold ring and a piece of gold sheet: all were nearly melted down by a goldsmith who was stopped by a local clergyman. The bracteate was stolen in 1938 from the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities and has not yet been found.
The bracteate is believed to have been made about AD 500. In the middle of the bracteate is a four-legged animal with a man's head above it, and in front of this a bird separated from the other images by a line. This image is commonly associated with the Norse god Odin in bracteate iconography. The bracteate is most famous for containing a full listing of the Elder Futhark runic alphabet. The runes in the futhark are divided by dots into three groups of eight runes which are commonly called an ætt. The entire inscription reads:
tuwatuwa; fuþarkgw; hnijïpzs; tbemlŋo[d]The last rune (d) is hidden below the necklace holder piece that has been molded on top of the bracteate, but archaeologists know what it is because a duplicate bracteate was found in Motala (image) which read:
(t)uwatuwa; fuþarkgw; hnijïpzs; tbemlŋod.The first part of the inscription is not yet understood but is assumed to be associated with magic, however this is a common stock-explanation for runic text that has not yet been interpreted.The Motala bracteate was struck with the same die and was found at a nearby town in the same province, Östergötland, in 1906. When it reached the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, however, it was erroneously catalogued as deriving from Mariedamm in the adjoining province Närke (Nä 10). This misattribution lives on sporadically in the literature. Another persistent misconception regarding the Vadstena bracteate (probably also inspired by the 1906 find) is that two identical bracteates were found in that town, bringing the total number of extant specimens to three.Vimose inscriptions
Finds from Vimose, on the island of Funen, Denmark, include some of the oldest datable Elder Futhark runic inscriptions in early Proto-Norse from the 2nd to 3rd century in the Scandinavian Iron Age.
Vimose Comb (c. 160, considered the oldest datable runic inscription altogether): harja (ᚺᚨᚱᛃᚨ)
Vimose Buckle (c. 200) aadagasu =? ansuz-a(n)dag-a(n)su / laasauwija =? la-a[n]sau-wija;
Vimose Chape (c. 250): mariha || [.]ala / makija; possibly "Mari (the famous one) is the sword of Alla"
Vimose Woodplane (c. 300) talijo gisai oj: wiliz [..]la o[...] / tkbis: hleuno: an[.]: regu
Vimose Sheathplate (c. 300): awgns; possibly "son/descendant of Awa"
Vimose Spearhead: [w]agni[ŋ]o