I recently started watching History Channel Vikings for the second time. It is a good show, highly recommended, that tells the story of various famous Viking leaders more or less contemporary but often with an age gap that would have made impossible for them to share deeds and adventures. Ragnar Lothbrok, for instance, is a semi legendary figure thought to have died around 860, whereas Rollo, founder of Normandy, is a histotical leader that lived between 845 and 930. But I’m not going to speak about them here – there is plenty of information out there for those who wish to learn more. I’d like to speak a little about two aspects of the show that fascinate me as a linguist and as a lover of historical linguistics: the occasional use in the show of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Old Norse (among other languages that have been long gone), and the meaning of the names of some of the characters, some of which are still used nowadays but people are unaware of their origin (part II of this post).
The languages of the Germanic tribes
Around 100 AD, the Germanic tribes moved out of southern Scandinavia and northern Germany to adjacent lands. The Saxons and the Angles settled in Celtic Britain, controlled by romanized Briton tribes until the sixth century, the time when the historical King Arthur lived - if he ever did so (Arthur would have been a Briton chieftain uniting Celtic and Roman tribes to fight the Saxon invaders). Other tribes stayed in Scandinavia. All of these tribes spoke a language or dialects of a language that we call Proto-Germanic (or Common Germanic) and which was in turn diversified into several dialects. In the Northern countries it got to be Old Norse. In the Anglo-Saxon territories it got to be Old English. The Germanic tribes settling in the British Isles, who spoke basically the same language as their Scandinavian (and German) cousins, got relatively isolated, both socially and linguistically, for 200 years, until they got in touch again during the Viking era. In those 200 years, the two dialects of course underwent some changes (Old English is more syntactically like German than like Old Norse, although Modern English is more syntactically like Swedish than to German), but scholars believe they remained mutually intelligible to a great extent.
These are two main old languages we can hear on Vikings: Old Norse and Old English. Old Norse is the ancestor of the Scandinavian languages and Anglo-Saxon is the ancestor of English (this is a deliberate oversimplification, since how modern-day English got to be is a quite complex matter).
The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons needed no interpreter to understand each other
So, Old English and Old Norse were cousin languages, but in the show we often see that the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons need interpreters to communicate with each other. In Ragnar’s second journey to England, the Viking longships drift to the Wessex coast where they are met by a group of Anglo-Saxon soldiers. They try to speak to each other, but to no avail. How realistic is that? The mutual intelligibility of the two languages is a topic of study in historical linguistics and it is believed that differences between the two Common Germanic dialects (Old English in England and Old Norse in Scandinavia) derived from that 200 year isolation period would not have posed a problem of intelligibility. The literature of this period supplements these notions of mutual intelligibility. Therefore, even though linguistics (and specially historical linguistics) is not an exact science and there are obvious syntactic differences between the two languages, we believe that Ragnar Lothbrock and his Anglo-Saxon friend, the monk Athelstan, would have been able to speak to each other quite well.
As a testimonial from those times, the author of the thirteenth century Icelandic Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu makes a reference to the spoken English language in the time of Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred (986 – 1016 AD):
Ein var þá tungu á Englandi sem í Nóregi ok í Danmörku.
“One was the tongue in England as in Norway and in Denmark”
(Quote from Old English and Old Norse: An Inquiry into Intelligibility and Categorization Methdology. Master's Thesis by Eric Martin Gay. University of South Carolina - Columbia (2014).