Cultural identity is realised through language and it is more than a cliché. Language is the most intimate, the most unmediated access to culture. After all, why do we want to learn a foreign language if we are not drawn to the culture it will unlock for us?
Learning a language for its linguistic appeal is certainly a beautiful experience but usually it is not an end in itself. People are motivated to learn a new language for all sorts of reasons, from practical benefits like finding a better job, moving to another country, having a foreign partner, to advantages of more ‘intellectual’ consequences. I know an English professor who is learning German to read German philosophers in the original, an American student learning Armenian because it is a very old language with a unique alphabet. I am learning Welsh because of my passion for Celtic culture, and Wales in particular.
I do, of course, get asked why I am not instead spending the energy on a more widely spoken language — as if the merit of a language could ever be limited to its use as a means of communication.
The sad fact that so many people assign priority, even singularity, to communication as the main and only function of language is why half of the world’s 6,000 or so languages are seriously endangered today. We might, in (an improbable) theory, survive speaking just one universal language, but without linguistic diversity cultures are opaque and impossible.
This applies to all languages, living, dead, endangered or otherwise. Old Norse is a case in point. Had not the early Icelanders decided to adapt the Latin alphabet modelled on Anglo-Saxon to create a written form of their language in the eleventh century, we would now have little direct knowledge of the sagas of those famous Vikings. The intimacies of early medieval Scandinavian culture — which was so instrumental in the shaping and reshaping of the world and its boundaries — may have been lost to history without the direct sources of the Icelandic sagas and histories.
My fascination with Scandinavia has recently landed me upon a book on Old Norse called Viking Language, written by Jess L. Byock.
It comes in two volumes: the first focuses on grammar, vocabulary, exercises, runes and sagas, while the second volume is a reader. There is also an accompanying audio CD if you want to get the pronunciation right from the start. The book lists the frequently used words in the sagas, provides extracts from the major sagas in English with passages in the original, as well as stimulating exercises and translation practice. On the website, you can also find text and audio samples, teaching videos and the answers to the exercises in the books.
It is fascinating how modern Icelandic has changed but little from Old Norse, and in learning Old Norse you are also picking up a fair bit of modern Icelandic! This is rare when a language stays so close to its earliest form, but not impossible, especially given the seclusion of Iceland as an island country.
Proto-Old Norse belonged to the northern branch of Germanic languages and later developed into West Old Norse (Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian) and East Old Norse (Old Danish and Old Swedish). And if you have ever studied Old English, learning Old Norse becomes ever more exciting, with all the intrigue of pondering on the similarities and differences!
Playing the etymology sleuth is very often part of the delightful experience of learning a new language. In this respect, the influence of Scandinavian loan words on English vocabulary is substantial. The great merit of such kind of integrated language learning books is that they do not aim to teach purely the structure and grammar of the language and then refer to the literary or cultural dimensions – but have language, literature and culture all hand in hand, as it should be in all languages teaching practices and experiences.
Learning a new language is an intriguing, beautiful, empowering, even therapeutic experience. With Old Norse, on the one hand there is the rich Scandinavian culture at its most raw and on the other hand, there is the sheer linguistic beauty of tasting modern Icelandic while learning its ancestral tongue and drawing on other Germanic languages you may know.
A dead language unlocks the doors to a lost world of runes, superstition, journeys, trade, beards and dragons… No language is really dead in this sense. In fact, a language can be classified as living or dead only if we limit its definition to a means of communication. Instead, we need to foster and cherish languages so we keep the treasures they contain, and therefore our planet, truly animated.
About the Author
Annie Martirosyan is a linguist, philologist, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky researcher with a PhD in Philology from Yerevan Brusov State University of Languages and Social Sciences in Armenia (2014). She also did MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham (2014). Annie has contributed to various linguistic/literary magazines and also blogs at the Huffington Post UK. She has taught English language at university level and is currently a freelance Russian/English translator and proofreader. Her passions broadly range from books and reading to language, literature and history.
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