What Are the Branches of Old Norse?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Old Norse or Old Scandinavian is classified as North Germanic, which is distinct from West Germanic and East Germanic. Gothic belongs to East Germanic. East Germanic went extinct with Gothic in the past and East Germanic is being revived with Gothic in the present. West Germanic includes English and Scottish, the Frisian languages, Luxembourgish, Dutch, Afrikaans (Cape Dutch), German, and Swiss German. North Germanic is just another synonym of Scandinavian or Nordic as long as one excludes Samic and Finnic from this Germanic linguistic grouping. To clarify the distinction from Samic and Finnic, one may of course say Scandinavian Germanic, Nordic Germanic, or even Norse Germanic. But in the end, North Germanic just means Scandinavian and that is what one really needs to know.

There are three types or branches of Old Norse:

  • (Old) West Norse or (Old) West Scandinavian
  • (Old) East Norse or (Old) East Scandinavian
  • (Old) Gutnish/Gotlandic or (Old) Insular Norse/Scandinavian

Old Norse was originally a highly unified language, but over time it split off into Old West Norse, Old East Norse, and Old Gutnish. Old West Norse or Old West Scandinavian later developed into Old Norwegian and Old Icelandic. Modern descendants of Old West Norse are Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese. For this reason, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese may be classified as West Scandinavian.

Commentary I. It is very important to remember that Icelandic and Faroese are genetically most closely related to Norwegian. Icelandic and Faroese are much more archaic than Norwegian in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but Norwegian is sometimes more archaic in terms of pronunciation, such as with the diphthongs øy and ei. Swedish and Danish and Gutnish are more distantly related to Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian. Since the insular Faroese and Icelandic are widely divergent from the Scandinavian languages of the mainland, they have been described as Insular Scandinavian. This is, however, not to be confused with (Old) Insular Scandinavian. In order to disambigue the two, one might say that Faroese and Icelandic are Insular West Scandinavian, Norwegian is Continental West Scandinavian and Old Gutnish/Modern Gutnish is properly Insular Scandinavian as a separate branch from West and East Scandinavian. 

Old East Norse or Old East Scandinavian later developed into Old Danish and Old Swedish. Modern descendants of Old East Norse are Danish, Swedish, and Elfdalian. For this reason, Danish, Swedish, and Elfdalian may be classified as East Scandinavian.

Commentary II. It is very important to remember that Danish is genetically more related to Swedish than Norwegian. Danish has exercised tremendous historical influence over Norwegian, but Danish and Norwegian genetically belong to different branches of Scandinavian/North Germanic. 

Old Gutnish, which was spoken on the island of Gotland, formed its own branch separate from Old East Norse and Old West Norse. The modern descendant of Old Gutnish is Modern Gutnish. Rather than being a single language, Gutnish may be a group of related languages. There is the divergent Fårö Gutnish (which I might call Fårögotländska or Fårögutniska in Swedish) and there is the Mainland Gutnish (huvudöns gotländska or huvudöns gutniska in Swedish, literally it means “Main Island Gutnish”). The latter may be called Lau Gutnish (which I might call Laugutniska or Laugotländska in Swedish), thus named after Lau parish (Lau socken in Swedish) which has medieval origins. If we can say there is “Mainland Gutnish,” we may call Fårö Gutnish “Insular Gutnish” by contrast.

Commentary III. I am cautious not to say "Gutnish dialects" because dialect is not a very nice word as I explain in commentary IV and it is neutral to say Gutnish languages instead while languages are equal yet dialects are perceived as unequal. Wikipedia (last accessed 30 July 2022) has a page dedicated to Fårö Gutnish under the title "Fårö dialect" and "Faroymal." I prefer not to say Faroymal/Färömål since although ᛘᛅᛚ (mál) originally means language in Old Norse, mal/mål, which is a Gutnish/Swedish term respectively, nowadays seems too much like saying "dialect." The same goes for saying Laumål instead of Laugotländska/Laugutniska or Lau Gutnish.  

Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are national linguistic collectives people identify with. It is the same situation as with Dutch and Frisian. Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, and Frisian are actually entire language families. Therefore, one may better speak of Norwegian languages, Danish languages, Swedish languages, Dutch languages, and Frisian languages.

Commentary IV. Notice that I do not say: "There is one Norwegian language, one Danish language, one Swedish language, one Dutch language, and one Frisian language and these language have many dialects." I take great care not to say that or to perpetuate that national myth of there being a "single national language with many regional dialects" because dialect is a discriminatory term and all new terms aimed at expressing the same meaning as dialect are discriminatory as well. All languages are equal, yet dialects are treated as inferior languages. So we speak only of languages here in order not to think in terms of superiority/inferiority, but only in terms of equality. There are no Norwegian dialects, Danish dialects, etc. in our worldview, since we do not discriminate against these languages, but treat them all as equals and as equally deserving of scientific attention. 

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