Ξ Norn Language

When the Vikings drew back from the islands in the northern seas, they left a language that was used until comparatively recently.

The now extinct Norn language has interested me for years so I thought it was about time I wrote a little on the subject.

I touched on English language in a post from a few years ago (Why English language). As I travelled to other countries and heard other languages I became more and more interested in how languages develop and change until the original language is only partly understood and then unintelligible, or sometimes being forgotten as another language replaces it. English is certainly one of those languages. I find it easier to understand words from Old English by their similarities to Old Norse and modern day Scandinavian languages. In fact my interest in English language lead me on a path to understanding some modern day Norwegian. How did I use English for so many years without knowing where all those short, simple words came from? And then understanding how modern Norwegian languages Bokmål and Nynorsk contrast and link with Swedish and Danish. Of course a little road into history then leads to Faroese, Icelandic with an almost dead end into Norn.

Vikings started to settle in the Shetland Islands in the early 9th Century and the language they brought with them rippled into the Shetland, the Orkney and the northern tip of Scotland.

Shetland was under direct rule from Norway by the end of the 10th Century. Although Norway considered all islands in the North Sea to be Norwegian territory, Man and The Hebrides were surrendered to Scotland and in turn Scotland recognised Orkney and Shetland as Norwegian. During the Kalmar Union (where Denmark entered a union with Norway), the king illegally pawned Shetland and Orkney but, despite trying to redeem the islands, they were never returned.

Strong trading links existed between Norway and this area and what little is now known of Norn shows it has close similarities to Old West Norse. (East Norse: Denmark, Sweden, West Norse: Iceland, Faeroe)

One of the very few surviving examples of written Norn is a version of The Lord’s Prayer and a ballad. The line (fourth petition) which we now know as “Give us this day our daily bread” is shown below.

Shetland Norn
ga vus dagh u dagloght brau

Orkney Norn
ga vus da on da dalight brow vora

Old West Norse
gef oss i dag brauð vort daglight


Norn probably died in the northern tip of Scotland by the 15th Century but appears to have survived as a spoken language into the 17th Century in Shetland and Orkney as it gradually began to be replaced by Scots. The last record of Norn being used was in 1850 when the death of the last known speaker of the language, Walter Sutherland, died. However some of the words of the language survive in place names, animals, plants and fishing terms.

Hopefully this has been an encouragement to learn a little more about this part of the world and the languages it produced. If you speak English it will give an insight into where so many words came from. It is fascinating how much influence the old Scandinavian languages left in Northern Europe and, through English, the rest of the world.

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