Proto-Norse (also called Proto-Scandinavian, Primitive Norse,
Proto-Nordic, Ancient Nordic, Ancient Scandinavian, Old Nordic, Old
Scandinavian, Proto-North Germanic, North
Proto-Germanic or Common
Scandinavian) was an Indo-European language spoken in
is thought to have evolved as a northern dialect of
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
Roman Iron Age and the Germanic Iron Age). It evolved into the
Old Norse at the beginning of the
Viking Age in about 800,
which later themselves evolved into modern North Germanic languages.
2.1 Runic inscriptions
Proto-Germanic to Proto-Norse
3.2 Proto-Norse to Old Norse
5 External links
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
/n/ assimilated to a following velar consonant. It was [ŋ] before a
plain velar, and probably [ŋʷ] before a labial-velar consonant.
Proto-Germanic ancestor /x/, the phoneme /h/ was probably
no longer a fricative. It eventually disappeared except
[β], [ð] and [ɣ] were allophones of /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/, and occurred
in most word-medial positions. Plosives appeared when the consonants
were lengthened (geminated), and also after a nasal consonant.
Word-finally, [b], [d] and [ɡ] were devoiced and merged with /p/,
The exact realisation of the phoneme /z/, traditionally written as ʀ
in transcriptions of runic Norse (not to be confused with the phonetic
symbol /ʀ/), is unclear. While it was a simple alveolar sibilant in
Proto-Germanic (as in Gothic), it eventually underwent rhotacization
and merged with /r/ towards the end of the runic period. It may have
been pronounced as [ʒ] or [ʐ], tending towards a trill in the later
period. The sound was still written with its own letter in runic Old
East Norse around the end of the millennium.
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.
/o/ had developed from /u/ through a-mutation. It also occurred
word-finally as a result of the shortening of
The long nasal vowels /ɑ̃ː/, /ĩː/ and /ũː/ occurred only before
/h/. Their presence was noted in the 12th century First Grammatical
Treatise, and they survive in modern Elfdalian.
All other nasal vowels occurred only word-finally, although it is
unclear whether they had retained their nasality in Proto-Norse or had
already merged with the oral vowels. The vowels /o/ and /ɔ̃/ were
contrastive, however, as the former eventually developed into /u/
(triggering u-mutation) while the latter was lowered to /ɑ/.
The back vowels probably had central or front allophones when /i/ or
/j/ followed, as a result of i-mutation:
/ɑ/ > [æ], /ɑː/ > [æː]
/u/ > [ʉ], /uː/ > [ʉː] (later /y/, /yː/)
/ɔː/ > [ɞː] (later [œː] or [øː])
/o/ did not originally occur before /i/ or /j/, but it was later
introduced by analogy (as can be seen on the Gallehus horns). Its
allophone was probably [ɵ], later [ø].
Towards the end of the Proto-Norse period, stressed /e/ underwent
breaking, becoming a rising diphthong /jɑ/.
Also towards the end of the Proto-Norse period, u-mutation began to
take effect, which created rounded allophones of unrounded vowels.
At least the following diphthongs were present: /æi/, /ɑu/, /eu/,
/ɑu/ was later rounded to /ɒu/ due to u-mutation.
/eu/ eventually underwent breaking to become the triphthong /jɒu/.
This was preserved in Old Gutnish, but simplified to a long rising
/joː/ or /juː/ in other areas.
As /iu/ occurred exclusively in environments with i-mutation, its
realisation was probably fronted [iʉ]. This then developed further
into [iy], which then became /yː/.
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
didn't appear until the
Old Norse period.
Composite photograph of the
Einang stone inscription (ca. 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.
Øvre Stabu spearhead, Oppland, Norway. Second century raunijaz, ON
raun "tester", cf. Norwegian røyne "try, test". Swedish utröna "find
out". The word formation with a suffix ija is evidence of Sievers'
Golden Horn of Gallehus 2, South Jutland, Denmark 400 CE, ek
hlewagastiz holtijaz horna tawido, "I, Hlewagastis of Holt, made the
horn." Note again the ija suffix
Tune stone, Østfold, Norway, 400 CE. 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 fáða. 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. 500 CE. 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
The Björketorp Runestone, Blekinge, Sweden, is one of three menhirs,
but is the only one of them where, in the 6th century, someone wrote 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
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 (Stoneguardian's) carved."
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):
Estonian/Finnish kuningas < *kuningaz "king" (
Old Norse kunungr,
Finnish ruhtinas "prince" < *druhtinaz "lord" (
Old Norse dróttinn)
Finnish sairas "sick" < *sairaz "sore" (
Old Norse sárr)
Estonian juust, Finnish juusto "cheese" < *justaz (
Old Norse ostr)
Estonian/Finnish lammas "sheep" < *lambaz "lamb" (
Old Norse lamb)
Finnish hurskas "pious" < *hurskaz "prudent, wise, quick-minded"
Old Norse horskr)
Finnish runo "poem, rune" < *rūno "secret, mystery, rune" (Old
Finnish vaate "garment" < *wādiz (
Old Norse váð)
Finnish viisas "wise" < *wīsaz (
Old Norse víss)
A very extensive Proto-Norse loanword layer also exists in the Sami
Some Proto-Norse names are found in Latin works, like tribal names
like Suiones (*Sweoniz, "Swedes"). Others can be conjectured from
manuscripts such as Beowulf.
Proto-Germanic to Proto-Norse
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
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
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
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
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.
Proto-Norse to Old Norse
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
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).
^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds.
(2017). "Older Runic".
Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ Kock, Axel, 1901: Die alt- und neuschwedische Akzentuierung. Quellen
und Forschungen 87. Strassburg
^ Hamp, Eric P., 1959: Final syllables in Germanic and the
Scandinavian accent system. I: Studia Linguistica 13. S.29–48.
^ Riad, Tomas, 1998: The origin of Scandinavian tone accents. I:
Diachronica XV(1). S.63–98.
^ 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.
"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved
2 December 2007. .
^ Elstad, Kåre, 1980: Some Remarks on Scandinavian Tonogenesis. I:
Nordlyd: Tromsø University Working Papers on Language and Linguistics
^ 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.[permanent
^ Bye, Patrick, 2004: Evolutionary typology and Scandinavian pitch
accent. Kluwer Academic Publishers. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived
from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008. Retrieved 2 December
^ Theil, Rolf (2012). "Urnordiske lån i samisk". In Askedal, John
Ole; Schmidt, Tom; Theil, Rolf. Germansk filologi og norske ord.
Festskrift til Harald Bjorvand på 70-årsdagen den 30. juli 2012 (in
Norwegian). Oslo: Novus forlag. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
^ Aikio, Ante (2012). Grünthal, Riho; Kallio, Petri, eds. "An Essay
on Saami Ethnolinguistic Prehistory" (PDF). Mémoires de la Société
Finno-Ougrienne. Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society (266, A Linguistic Map
of Prehistoric Northern Europe): 76.
^ Runeninschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung, "The
linguistic status of the Early Runic Inscriptions", Hans Frede
Nielsen, Walter de Gruyter GmBH & Co. KG 1998,
^ Spurkland, Terje (2005). Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions.
Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-186-0.
Proto-Norse paradigms and links
Philology of Germanic languages
Germanic parent language
Middle Low German
Old High German
Middle High German
Mennonite Low German
Germanic substrate hypothesis
West Germanic gemination
High German consonant shift
Germanic spirant law
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law
Great Vowel Shift
Germanic strong verb
Germanic weak verb