Proto-Norse language

Proto-Norse language
Spoken in Scandinavia
Era evolved into Old Norse from the 8th century
Language family
Writing system Elder Futhark
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Proto-Norse (also Proto-Scandinavian, Primitive Norse, Proto-Nordic, Ancient Nordic, Old Scandinavian, Proto-North Germanic and North Proto-Germanic) was an Indo-European language spoken in Scandinavia that is thought to have evolved as a northern dialect of 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 late Roman Iron Age and the early Germanic Iron Age). It evolved into the dialects of the Old Norse language at the beginning of the Viking Age.




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 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]


Short vowels

  • a: [ɑ]
  • e: [e]
  • i: [i]
  • o: [o] (from a-mutation of u)
  • u: [u]

Long vowels

  • ā: [aː]
  • ē: [eː] (from ē2 and unstressed ai)
  • ō: [oː]
  • ī: [iː]
  • ū: [uː]


  • eu: [eu]
  • iu: [iu] (from i-mutation of eu)
  • au: [ɒu]
  • ai: [æi]



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 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 AD. ek hlewagastiz holtijaz horna tawido, I Hlewagastis of holt made the horn. Note again the ija suffix
  • Tune Runestone, Østfold, Norway 400 AD. 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 AD. 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 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) / (panna) merkille (Finnish) < *mērke (to spot, to catch sight of), riik (Estonian) < *rik (state, land, commonwealth), väärt (Estonian) / väärti (Finnish) < *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 rather small, though substantial, as several hundred years separate these language stages. Separating Proto-Norse from Northwest Germanic can be said to be a matter of convention, as sufficient evidence from the remaining parts of the area (i.e. Northern Germany, the Netherlands etc.) 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, for one, 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,[8] though his views on Runic Script and related subjects might be considered extreme.

Some of the distinctions between Proto-Norse and Proto-Germanic can be partially proved and demonstrated by the names inscribed on the Negau helmet harigastiteiwa, Harigasti Teiwa, which can be said to be late Proto-Germanic. The two words both exhibit the loss of the final nominative marker /z/, which is retained in Proto-Norse as /R/ (i.e. a palatal "r", similar to, though not identical with, the English /r/); this is exhibited by similar names such as HlewagastiR from the Golden Horns of Gallehus and several others.

Another distinctive difference between the two is the Proto-Norse lowering of Proto-Germanic ē to ā; this is demonstrated by the pair mēna (Gothic) and máni (Old Norse) (English moon). Unstressed diphthongs were also monophthongized, as in haitē (Kragehul I) from Proto-Germanic *haitai, and likewise unstressed *au became ō.

When the phoneme /z/, a voiced apical alveolar fricative, represented in runic writing by the *Algiz-rune, changed to /R/ an apical post-alveolar approximant, is debated. Taken into account the general Proto-Norse principle of devoicing of consonants in final position, a retained */z/ would have been devoiced to an *[s], and would be thus realized in runes. There is, however, no trace of this in the Elder Futhark runic inscriptions, ergo it can be safely assumed that the quality of this consonant must have changed before the devoicing, otherwise the phoneme would not have been marked with a rune separate from the rune used for /s/. The quality of this consonant is only determined from conjecture, and the opinio communis is that it has to be something between /z/ and /r/, which is the Old Norse reflex of the sound. In Old Swedish, the phonemic distinction between /r/ and /R/ was retained into the 11th century, as exhibited by the numerous rune stones from Sweden from that period.

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 gastiz (guest). There was another kind of sound change known as breaking, in which the vowel changed into a diphthong, e.g. hiarta from *herto or fjorðr from *ferþiuz.

Umlauts 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] 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 were 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 gastiz resulted in ON gestr (guest). Some words underwent even more drastic changes, like the polysyllabic *haƀukaz which changed into a monosyllabic ON haukr (hawk).


  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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