The origin of Modern Norwegian is fairly straight forward. One language evolved into another and so forth without too much complication (compared to English). As mentioned in How Vikings Changed the English Language: First Contact, one of the ways that scholars announce that a language existed is by written evidence. A lot of the earlier evidences of language comes from surviving texts such as poetry or chronicles. For ancient languages such as Egyptian, hieroglyphics are evidence enough. For Norwegian, runes and texts provide evidence of the Norse language. However, there are a lot of languages that only have later languages to prove they existed. This is true with the supposed grand-daddy of all the North European languages – proto-Germanic. Scholars have theorised this language into existence by comparing all the Northern European languages. Logic dictates that if the languages of Northern Europe are so similar then they must have developed from one common language. Figuring this out is called ‘linguistic reconstruction’. (We will look into this further in another post.)
Proto-Germanic is only a branch of what is called the Indo-European Language Group which includes Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, Marathi, French, Italian, Latin, Punjabi and Urdu. It is thought that language ‘started’ somewhere near India, hence the term ‘Indo-European’, and then spread all over the world through migration.
Just like the scientific naming of animals and plants, language has many categories to define and redefine it. The Germanic language branch consists of German, English, Dutch, Africaan, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese, Gutnish and, of course, Norwegian. Germanic languages are then split again into area groups. Norwegian is in the North Germanic group. Then within Norway you have regional dialects and the micro-defining goes on.
A language category also highlights the time it existed. With the evolution of Norwegian, Germanic turned into the Norse language between 200 to 1100AD – from Proto-Norse (200-600) to Old West Norse (700-1100. It then evolved into ‘Norwegian’ – old (1200-1350), middle (1350-1550), then modern.
Another, more scientific, approach aims to explain how language has evolved – genetic analysis. Since people carry language with them, it is only logical that genetic evidence should support language evolution theories. However, there are some theorists that oppose the idea of using genetics to explain language change. When it comes to Norwegian it can be logical to think that the language descended from the Vikings, especially through archaeology and text, and therefore it is natural to assume that todays Norwegians carry Viking genes. However, I can see that genetics may not be relevant in some language studies. It can be supposed that the Sami and Norwegian languages developed one from the other – meaning from the same language group, because genetically speaking, the people have integrated, and share many of the same features. However, Sami language isn’t a Germanic language. It comes from the same place as Finnish – the Finno-Ugric Family – with origins from the Baltic area. So genetics does not support all language development.
Over time there has been a small amount of Sami influence on Norwegian but the effect of Norwegian on the Sami language has been great. This is because the ruling language has more ‘power’ over the other languages. This is what happened to the British Isles with Old Norse and English. During the Dark Ages England was taken over by a Danish Viking, Guthrum, who pushed the Anglo-Saxons south and then made himself king of the North and East. Old Norse became the dominant language in this area until Alfred the Great rose an army and defeated the Danes. Alfred made Guthrum convert to Christianity and the coalition brought about the Danelaw – where the Danes were still allowed to rule England alongside the Anglos. After a short time of peace the Normans came stormin’ and French became the language of state for a couple of generations.
However, there have been many ‘contacts’ (or invasions) of England by the Scandinavians. The first official record is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that reports the Jutes whose homeland was around Denmark, that had become a force to be reckoned with in Brittany about 450 AD. Then it was the Saxons from Northern Germany-Southern Scandinavia, then the Vikings who mainly came from Denmark and Norway (800-1100AD), and then Norse settlers. So, in fact, English was created by the people of Scandinavia (largely thanks to the Saxons). Each contact impacted on English and little by little Norse wiggled its way into one of the most world wide spoken languages of today.