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Spoken in Scandinavia
Language extinction evolved into Old Norse from the 8th century
Language family Indo-European
Writing system Elder Futhark
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 gem
ISO 639-3

Proto-Norse (also Proto-Scandinavian, Primitive Norse, Proto-Nordic, Ancient Nordic, Old Scandinavian and Proto-North Germanic) was an Indo-European language spoken in Scandinavia that is thought to have evolved from Proto-Germanic over the first centuries AD. It is the earliest stage of a characteristically North Germanic language, and the language attested in the oldest Scandinavian Elder Futhark inscriptions, spoken ca. from the 3rd to 7th centuries (corresponding to the later Roman Iron Age and the earlier Germanic Iron Age). It evolved into the dialects of the Old Norse language at the beginning of the Viking Age.




The stress accent 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 involved into the stød of modern Danish.[1][2] 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.[3] Finally, quite a number of linguists have assumed that even the first phonetic rudiments of the distinction didn't appear until the Old Norse period.[4][5][6][7]


A distinguishing feature of the Proto-Norse vowel system is the lack of symmetry between long and short vowels as seen below.

Short vowels

  • a: [a]
  • e: [e]
  • i: [i]
  • u: [u]

Long vowels

  • ā: [aː]
  • ō: [oː]
  • ī: [iː]
  • ū: [uː]


  • eu: [eʊ]
  • au: [aʊ]
  • ei: [eɪ]
  • ai: [aɪ]



Proto-Norse had the same six stops as had Old Norse. When one of the voiced stops stands in between vowels, it is realized as a fricative.

  • p: [p]
  • t: [t]
  • k: [k]
  • b: [b] between vowels [β]
  • d: [d] between vowels [ð]
  • g: [ɡ] between vowels [ɣ]


  • f: [f]
  • þ: [θ]
  • h: [x]
  • s: [s]
  • z: [z], at later stages probably pronounced like a retroflex r. (Traditionally, U+280, ʀ has been used for z by texts transcribing Proto-Norse inscriptions).


  • n: [n]
  • m: [m]


  • j: [j]
  • w: [w]


  • l: [l]
  • r: [r]
  • ʀ - see fricatives z above.

Sources attesting Proto-Norse

Runic inscriptions

composite photograph of the Einang stone inscription (ca. AD 400)

The surviving examples we have 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.

Examples of inscriptions:

  • Øvre Stabu spearhead, Oppland, Norway. 2nd century raunijaz, O-N raun, tester, cf. Norwegian røyne (try, test). Swedish utröna (find out). The word formation with a suffix ija is evidence of Sievers' law.
  • Gallehus gold horn 2, South Jutland, Denmark 400 A.D. ek hlewagastiz holtijaz horna tawido, I Hlewagastis of holt made the horn. Note again the ija suffix
  • Tune Runestone, Østfold, Norway 400 A.D. ek wiwaz after woduride witadahalaiban worahto. [me]z woduride staina þrijoz dohtriz dalidun arbija sijostez arbijano, I Wiwaz, after Woduridaz bread-warden wrought. For me Woduridaz, the stone, three daughters prepared, the most noble of heirs.
  • The Einang stone, near Fagernes, Norway, is dated to the 4th century. It contains the message [ek go]dagastiz runo faihido ([I, Go]dguest drew the secret), in O-N ek goðgestr rún faða. The first four letters of the inscription have not survived and are conjectured, and the personal name could well have been Gudagasti, or something similar.
  • Kragehul spear, Denmark, c:a 500 A.D. ek erilaz asugisalas muha haite, gagaga ginuga, he...lija... hagala wijubi... possibly, I eril of Asgisl, was named Muha, ga-ga-ga mighty-ga (ga being most likely an abbreviation of indeterminable reference), (incomplete) hail I consecrate.
  • The Björketorp Runestone, Blekinge, Sweden, is one of three menhirs, but is the only one of them where, in the 6th century, someone has written a curse: haidz runo runu falh'k hedra ginnarunaz argiu hermalausz ... weladauþe saz þat brytz uþarba spa (Here, I have hidden the secret of powerful runes, strong runes. The one who breaks this memorial will be eternally tormented by anger. Treacherous death will hit him. I foresee perdition.)
  • The Rö runestone, in Bohuslän, Sweden, was raised in the early 5th century and is the longest early inscription: Ek Hrazaz/Hraþaz satido [s]tain[a] ... Swabaharjaz s[a]irawidaz. ... Stainawarijaz fahido. I, Hrazaz/Hraþaz raised the stone ... Swabaharjaz with wide wounds. ... Stainawarijaz carved.

Loan words

Numerous Proto-Norse words have survived largely unchanged as borrowings in Baltic-Finnic languages. Some of these words are (with the reconstructed form in P-N): rõngas (Estonian)/rengas (Finnish) < *hrengaz (ring), kuningas (Estonian, Finnish) < *kuningaz (king), ruhtinas (Finnish) < *druhtinaz (sv. drott), silt (Estonian) < *skild (tag, token), märk/ama (Estonian) < *mērke (to spot, to catch sight of), riik (Estonian) < *rik (state, land, commonwealth), väärt (Estonian) < *vaērd (worth), kapp (Estonian) / "kaappi" (Finnish) < *skap (chest of drawers; shelf)


Some Proto-Norse names are found in Latin works, for example tribal names like Suiones (*Sweoniz, Swedes). Others can be conjectured from manuscripts such as Beowulf.

Evolution from Proto-Germanic into Old Norse

Proto-Germanic to Proto-Norse

The differences between attested Proto-Norse and unattested Proto-Germanic are small. The difference in name is mostly a matter of convention. Inscriptions found in Scandinavia are considered to be in P-N; inscriptions found elsewhere that are old enough are considered to be Proto-Germanic. For example, the name inscribed on the Negau helmet is Proto-Germanic though it would be the same in Proto-Norse. One distinctive difference between the two is the P-N lowering of P-G ē to ā; this is easiest seen in the pair mēna (Gothic) and máni (Old Norse) (English moon). When the phoneme /z/, a voiced apico-alveolaric fricative, represented in runic writing by the *Algiz-rune, changed to /R/ an apico-post-alveolaric approximant, is debated.

It is worthy of mention that scholars argue as to whether the language should be called Proto-Norse (Proto-Scandinavian), or merely Northern Proto-Germanic. Whereas, for instance, Wolfgang von Krause sees the language of the runic inscriptions of the proto-Norse period as an immediate precursor to Old Norse, Elmer Antonsen views them as Northwest Germanic.[8]

Proto-Norse to Old Norse

In the period 500–800, two great changes occurred within Proto-Norse. Umlauts appeared which means that a vowel was influenced by the succeeding vowel or semi-vowel, e.g. Old Norse gestr (guest) came from P-N ȝastiz (guest). Umlauts also resulted in the appearance of the new vowels y (e.g. fylla from *fullian) and œ (e.g. dœma from *dōmian). The umlauts are divided into three categories, A-umlaut, I-umlaut and U-umlaut; the latter was still productive in the Old Norse era. The first, however, appeared very early, and its effect can be seen already around 500 AD, on the Golden horns of Gallehus.[9]

There was also another kind of umlaut known as breaking, i.e. the vowel changed into a diphthong, e.g. hiarta from *herto or fjorðr from *ferþiuR. The variation caused by the umlauts was by and in 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, i.e. phonemicizing what was previously allophones.

Due to syncope the long vowels of unstressed syllables were shortened and many shortened vowels 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 hurna was changed into Old Norse horn and P-N ȝastiz resulted in ON gestr (guest). Some words underwent even more drastic changes, like the polysyllabic *haƀukaz which changed into a monosyllabic ON haukr (hawk).

The postpositioned definite article also appeared during this time. It evolved as an enclitic form with the demonstrative pronoun inn. Thus, dagr inn, (literally this/that day), becomes dagrinn (the day).

Sources and external links

  1. ^ Kock, Axel, 1901: Die alt- und neuschwedische Akzentuierung. Quellen und Forschungen 87. Strassburg
  2. ^ Hamp, Eric P., 1959: Final syllables in Germanic and the Scandinavian accent system. I: Studia Linguistica 13. S.29-48.
  3. ^ Riad, Tomas, 1998: The origin of Scandinavian tone accents. I: Diachronica XV(1). S.63–98.
  4. ^ Kristoffersen, Gjert, 2004: The development of tonal dialects in the Scandinavian languages. Analysis based on presentation at ESF-workshop 'Typology of Tone and Intonation', Cascais, Portugal 1-3 April 2004. [1].
  5. ^ Elstad, Kåre, 1980: Some Remarks on Scandinavian Tonogenesis. I: Nordlyd: Tromsø University Working Papers on Language and Linguistics 3. 61-77.
  6. ^ Öhman, Sven, 1967: Word and sentence intonation: a quantitative model. Speech Transmission Laboratory Quarterly Progress and Status Report, KTH, 2-3. 20-54, 1967., 8(2-3):20-54.[2]
  7. ^ Bye, Patrick, 2004: Evolutionary typology and Scandinavian pitch accent. Kluwer Academic Publishers. [3].
  8. ^ Runeninschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung, "The linguistic status of the Early Runic Inscriptions", Hans Frede Nielsen, Walter de Gruyter GmBH & Co. KG 1998, ISBN 3-11-015455-2
  9. ^ Spurkland, Terje, Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions, Boydell Press 2005 ISBN 1-84383-186-4

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