The Basics of Old Norse
The Language(s) of Viking Age Scandinavia
Old Norse is a branch of the Germanic family of languages which include English, German, Dutch and the Modern Scandinavian languages. It is a North Germanic branch of this family, and the precursor of modern Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. Taking the term Old Norse vin a general sense, we can say that it was the language spoken by the Norse peoples during the Viking Age (and into the medieval period) across Scandinavia and in areas settled by Scandinavians such as communities in the British Isles. There were several sub-divisions of the language, with evidence provided by Viking Age runic inscriptions, but as the vast majority of written evidence comes from medieval Iceland, the Old West Norse dialect (predominant in Norway and Iceland) is what students learn to read, and in most cases 'Old Norse' is used to refer to what some scholars prefer to call Old Icelandic. You can read more about this in the Old Norse section of the website Norse Mythology for Smart people.
The Main Features of the Language
Old Norse is an inflected language, meaning that changes in words (and particularly the endings of words) are used to indicate different grammatical categories. Modern Scandinavian languages and German are still highly inflected, and English has a degree of inflection (such as she, her, hers, to indicate subject, object and possessive, and viking / vikings to indicate singular and plural). The hardest thing for English speakers learning Old Norse is dealing with a lot more endings than we are used to!
The vocabulary of Old Norse poses no more difficulty than any other language, and English speakers will recognise quite a few words that were borrowed into Old and Middle English and still survive today. Speakers of Scandinavian languages will find even more common ground, whilst Icelanders will have few problems mastering a language very close to its modern descendant in Iceland.
The pronunciation of Old Norse is a matter of some debate, with some scholars opting to pronounce it like modern Icelandic, and some prefering a reconstructed pronunciation. The important thing is that there are no Vikings around to get upset if we pronounce something wrong... and most teachers of Old Norse pronounce things slightly differently themselves. There are resources to help with this in our 'speaking Old Norse' section.
Why Learn Old Norse?
Aside from being an interesting exercise in itself (as all language learning should be), and teaching us something about the languages we speak today, Old Norse gives us access to an incredible body of medieval literature: one unparalleled in Europe. Most students of Old Norse want to learn to read the Icelandic sagas, sources for Norse myth, or anything from chronicles of Norwegian history to praise poetry... or at least to have the tools to compare translations with the original. Without Old Norse it is hard to appreciate the stories and belief systems of the Vikings, or to work with primary sources from Viking Age and medieval Scandinavia.