Reviving a “lost” Viking language — The Nynorn Project

Way back in the 9th century, the Norse people settled the islands of Shetland and Orkney. With this, they brought along a dialect of Old Norse spoken in the Viking times. These Norse people also likely migrated to Iceland and the Faroe Islands thereafter, spreading the old North Germanic language around. Over time, the language spoken in the islands of Shetland and Orkney would become the so-called “sixth Scandinavian language”. This language was known as “Norn”.

In the mid-15th century, these islands were pledged to James III, thereby joining the country of Scotland. Naturally, the Scots language began to replace Norn, with reports suggesting that this replacement began even before Shetland and Orkney came under Scottish rule. Nevertheless, this marked the decline of Norn. By the 18-20th century, Norn was teetering on the edge of extinction, but nobody really knows when Norn became extinct. What we do know, is that Norn was gradually replaced by Scots and English over time.

So what is Norn? It is generally thought to be a Scandinavian language, and considered to be rather similar to Faroese. It does seem to be split into the Orkney and Shetland dialects, given the geographic separation between the two island groups.

However, due to the scarcity of surviving material, we do not quite grasp the full picture on what Norn sounded like. What linguists could figure, was that Norn probably shared similar features with the dialects spoken in Southwest Norway. Despite this lack of sources, academics were able to determine that Norn shared many grammatical features with other Scandinavian languages. This included the expression of “the” as a suffix attached to the end of a noun, three grammatical genders, and four noun cases that have long been lost in languages like Swedish and Danish.

Today, Norn still survives as a ceremonial language in Shetland and Orkney, or as some names of ferries and ships in the Northern Isles. Other instances today may show some influences by the Scots language. However, its use in everyday speech is now long gone. But, not for long.

The Nynorn project (literally “New Norn”), created in the early 2000s, aims to reconstruct this “long lost” Norse language to be a usable language in today’s context. Using the few surviving texts, the project tries to recreate, or reconstruct, the words, sounds, and even the sound changes in Norn. Most of this project focuses on the Shetland dialect, however, so perhaps reconstructing the Orkney dialect could also be a possibility in the new future.

Here, the Nynorn project presented the reconstructed alphabet, consisting of 24 letters, but possibly representing way more sounds through letter combinations. This includes “sj” representing the English “sh” sound, “tsj” representing the English “ch” or “tch” sounds, and “hj” representing the “y” sound in English. Interestingly, the letter “eth” (Γ°) does not appear in the beginning of words, unlike in languages like Icelandic.

There are indeed tons of interesting material waiting to be discovered, read, and appreciated from the Nynorn website, linked here:

Various languages, notably Hebrew, have undergone reconstruction, and later, revitalisation efforts in attempts to make them a usable language in everyday life. With the Nynorn project entering the digital space since 2006, the Norn language seems to hold some promise of revitalisation, and we could look forward to hear the sounds of Norn in everyday conversations for the first time in centuries.

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