Similarities between Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and modern (plus old) Icelandic

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A page from a skin manuscript of Landnáma in the Árni Magnússon Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland

I wrote a post on this subject back in September with a wee bit of comparison between the vocabulary of Icelandic and Old English, which according to some theories were mutually comprehensible. Today I stumbled upon another page here written entirely in Icelandic (meaning that I can only make out about half of it) that has some more comparisons between the two languages.

One of them is a poem, which thanks to a thread here on Unilang (the only other page to show up when searching for "Þæt mælede mín módor") I don't have to try to translate myself:

Old English
Old Icelandic
Modern Icelandic
Modern English

Þæt mælede mín módor

Þat mælti mín móðir, Það mælti mín móðir Thus counselled my mother
þæt me scolde ceapian at mér skyldi kaupa að mér skyldi kaupa For me should they purchase
flæge and fægra ára, fley ok fagrar árar, fley og fagrar árar, A galley and good oars
faran aweg wið wícingum, fara á brott með víkingum, fara á brott með víkingum, To go forth a-roving.
standan úppe in stefnan, standa upp í stafni, standa upp í stafni, So may I high-standing,
stíeran deorne cnear, stýra dýrum knerri, stýra dýrum knerri, A noble barque steering,
faran swá tó hæfene, halda svá til hafnar halda svo til hafnar, Hold course for the haven,
héawan man and óðer. höggva mann ok annan. höggva mann og annan. Hew down many foemen.


The other example given is one often seen when comparing two or more languages: The Lord's Prayer:

Icelandic Old English
Wycliffe's Bible (14th century)
(mostly) Modern English
faðir vor þú sem ert á himnum Fæder úre, þú þe eart on heofonum, Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi name;
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy Name.
sé þitt nafn helgað til komi þitt ríkisí þín nama gehálgod, tóbecume þín ríce,thi kyngdoom come to; be thi wille don
thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
verði þinn vilji á jörðu svo svo á himnumgeweorþe þín willa on eorþan swá swá on heofonum.`in erthe as in heuene;on earth as it is in heaven.
vorn daglegan hleif sel oss í dagÚrne gedæghwámlícan hláf syle ús tó dæg yyue to vs this dai oure `breed ouer othir substaunce;
Give us this day our daily bread.
og fyrirgef oss vorar skuldir svo svo vér fyrirgefum vorum skuldunautumand forgyf ús úre gyltas swá swá wé forgyfaþ úrum gyltendumand foryyue to vs oure dettis, as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
og né leið þú oss í freistniheldur leys oss af illuand ne gelæd þú ús on costunge ac álýs ús of ýfele.and lede vs not in to temptacioun, but delyuere vs fro yuel.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


Since this isn't my specialty I'll let the synopsis to the book Comparative Syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic sum up the idea that the two languages were so similar as to be mutually intelligible:
This book takes the subject one step further by offering a comparison of the syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic, the two best-preserved Old Germanic languages. Overwhelmingly the two languages show the same word-order patterns - as do the other Old Germanic languages, at least as far as can be determined from the fragments which have survived. It has long been recognised that Old English and Old Icelandic have a high proportion of common lexis and very similar morphology, yet the convention has been to emphasise the differences between the two as representatives respectively of the West and North sub-families of Germanic. The argument of this book is that the similar word-order of the two should instead lead us to stress the similarities between the two languages. Old English and Old Icelandic were sufficiently close to be mutually comprehensible. This thesis receives copious support from historical and literary texts. Our understanding of the Old Germanic world should be modified by the concept of a common «Northern Speech» which provided a common Germanic ethnic identity and a platform for the free flow of cultural ideas.

7 comments:

Voix Intérieure said...

It seems that the modern Icelandic has changed little from the old Icelandic, and the old English look so similar to Icelandic.

Drew said...

I never realized they were so similar. Thanks for the article. It seems the influences from French were even stronger than I always thought.

From the outside, I think the thorns in icelandic throw most people off, but that is cosmetic. I took up danish a few years ago, and I think I might have to take a look at this icelandic now, and see how those two differ.

Mithridates said...

Apparently though (you can see the discussion on that link there to the unilang forums) what has changed in Icelandic is the pronunciation, but it retains the archaic spelling. Some people there were arguing about which language *sounds* more like Old Norse, Swedish or Icelandic.

Still though, it's not just cosmetic because the grammar is still remarkably different from mainland Scandinavian so I would still say modern Icelandic is much closer even if the pronunciation has changed. In that way it's a bit like Middle English I think, where it's still quite easy to read but the pronunciation was apparently quite different (that's why a lot of the words in Canterbury Tales don't look like they rhyme, because they did but don't anymore in modern English).

Yankee said...

The Germanic family is described as a can of worms, rather than a family tree. Your analysis of the germanics here is pretty awesome. I would love to see a comparism of these phrases between English, Old English, Icelandic/Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Middle German, and Dutch and German. You might see a few things explained out here. (And possibly left with a few more questions.)

Also, you realize that with the amount of trade that went on between the different regions, and other encounters, there were dialects of English that were mutually intelligible with many other Germanics, notably Icelandic, Danish, Frysian, and Dutch. Compare this to what is happening to the Dutch language in General, and Business German. While they pass the phonology of words from english in to the target language, the sheer number of English and French words introduce new phonemes and sometimes vowels into the respective languages.

Mithridates said...

That's right - it's definitely a mistake to simply look at the standardized forms we have today and use those alone to attempt to ascertain whether people were able to understand each other 10 or more centuries ago.

One really interesting dialect/language is Yola:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yola_language

It was kind of like a mix of Chaucerian English and some Irish, and only died out in the 19th century.

Yankee said...

The Germanic family is described as a can of worms, rather than a family tree. Your analysis of the germanics here is pretty awesome. I would love to see a comparism of these phrases between English, Old English, Icelandic/Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Middle German, and Dutch and German. You might see a few things explained out here. (And possibly left with a few more questions.)

Also, you realize that with the amount of trade that went on between the different regions, and other encounters, there were dialects of English that were mutually intelligible with many other Germanics, notably Icelandic, Danish, Frysian, and Dutch. Compare this to what is happening to the Dutch language in General, and Business German. While they pass the phonology of words from english in to the target language, the sheer number of English and French words introduce new phonemes and sometimes vowels into the respective languages.

Voix Intérieure said...

It seems that the modern Icelandic has changed little from the old Icelandic, and the old English look so similar to Icelandic.

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