Ancient Nordic
Era2nd to 8th centuries
Elder Futhark
Language codes
ISO 639-3
 qdl "Runic" (perhaps Old Norse is intended)
Glottologolde1239  Older Runic (perhaps)
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Proto-Norse (also called Ancient Nordic, Ancient Scandinavian, Ancient Norse, Primitive Norse, Proto-Nordic, Proto-Scandinavian and Proto-North Germanic) was an Indo-European language spoken in Scandinavia that is thought to have evolved as a northern dialect of Proto-Germanic in the first centuries CE. It is the earliest stage of a characteristically North Germanic language, and the language attested in the oldest Scandinavian Elder Futhark inscriptions, spoken from around the 2nd to the 8th centuries CE (corresponding to the late Roman Iron Age and the Germanic Iron Age). It evolved into the dialects of Old Norse at the beginning of the Viking Age around 800 CE, which later themselves evolved into the modern North Germanic languages (Faroese, Icelandic, the Continental Scandinavian languages, and their dialects).


Proto-Norse phonology probably did not differ substantially from that of Proto-Germanic. Although the phonetic realisation of several phonemes had probably changed over time, the overall system of phonemes and their distribution remained largely unchanged.


Proto-Norse consonants
  Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Labial–velar
Nasal m n (ŋ) (ŋʷ)
Stop p  b t  d k  ɡ   ɡʷ
Fricative ɸ  (β) θ  (ð) s z h  (ɣ)
Trill r
Approximant j w
Lateral l
  1. /n/ assimilated to a following velar consonant. It was [ŋ] before a plain velar, and probably [ŋʷ] before a labial-velar consonant.
  2. Unlike its Proto-Germanic ancestor /x/, the phoneme /h/ probably no longer had a velar place of articulation. It eventually disappeared except word-initially.
  3. [β], [ð] and [ɣ] were allophones of /b/, /d/ and /ɡ/, and occurred in most word-medial positions. Plosives appeared when the consonants were lengthened (geminated), and also after a nasal consonant. Word-finally, [b], [d] and [ɡ] were devoiced and merged with /p/, /t/, /k/.
  4. The exact realisation of the phoneme /z/, traditionally written as ʀ in transcriptions of runic Norse (not to be confused with the phonetic symbol /ʀ/ used in other languages), is unclear. While it was a simple alveolar sibilant in Proto-Germanic (as in Gothic), it eventually underwent rhotacization and merged with /r/ towards the end of the runic period. It may have been pronounced as [ʒ] or [ʐ], tending towards a trill in the later period. The sound was still written with its own letter in runic Old East Norse around the end of the first millennium.


The system of vowels differed somewhat more from that of Proto-Germanic than the consonants. Earlier /ɛː/ had been lowered to /ɑː/, and unstressed /ɑi/ and /ɑu/ had developed into /eː/ and /ɔː/. Shortening of word-final vowels had eliminated the Proto-Germanic overlong vowels.

Oral vowels
Front Back
short long short long
Close i u
Mid e o ɔː
Open ɑ ɑː
Nasal vowels
Front Back
short long short long
Close ĩ? ĩː ũ? ũː
Mid ɔ̃ ɔ̃ː
Open ɑ̃? ɑ̃ː
  1. /o/ had developed from /u/ through a-mutation. It also occurred word-finally as a result of the shortening of Proto-Germanic /ɔː/.
  2. The long nasal vowels /ɑ̃ː/, /ĩː/ and /ũː/ occurred only before /h/. Their presence was noted in the 12th-century First Grammatical Treatise, and they survive in modern Elfdalian.
  3. All other nasal vowels occurred only word-finally, although it is unclear whether they had retained their nasality in Proto-Norse or had already merged with the oral vowels. The vowels /o/ and /ɔ̃/ were contrastive, however, as the former eventually developed into /u/ (triggering u-mutation) while the latter was lowered to /ɑ/.
  4. The back vowels probably had central or front allophones when /i/ or /j/ followed, as a result of i-mutation:
    • /ɑ/ > [æ], /ɑː/ > [æː]
    • /u/ > [ʉ], /uː/ > [ʉː] (later /y/, /yː/)
    • /ɔː/ > [ɞː] (later [œː] or [øː])
    • /o/ did not originally occur before /i/ or /j/, but it was later introduced by analogy (as can be seen on the Gallehus horns). Its allophone was probably [ɵ], later [ø].
  5. Towards the end of the Proto-Norse period, stressed /e/ underwent breaking, becoming a rising diphthong /jɑ/.
  6. Also towards the end of the Proto-Norse period, u-mutation began to take effect, which created rounded allophones of unrounded vowels.


Old Norse had a stress accent which fell on the first syllable, like its ancestor, Proto-Germanic. Several scholars have proposed that Proto-Norse also had a separate pitch accent, which was inherited from Proto-Indo-European and has evolved into the tonal accents of modern Swedish and Norwegian, which in turn have evolved into the stød of modern Danish.[1][2] Another recently advanced theory is that each Proto-Norse long syllable and every other short syllable received stress, marked by pitch, eventually leading to the development of the Swedish and Norwegian tonal accent distinction.[3] Finally, quite a number of linguists have assumed that even the first phonetic rudiments of the distinction did not appear until the Old Norse period.[4][5][6][7]


Composite photograph of the Einang stone inscription (c. 400)

All attestations of Proto-Norse are Elder Futhark inscriptions. There are about 260 of these inscriptions in Proto-Norse, the earliest dating to the 2nd century.



Numerous early Germanic words have survived with relatively little change as borrowings in Finnic languages. Some of these may be of Proto-Germanic origin or older still, but others reflect developments specific to Norse. Some examples (with the reconstructed Proto-Norse form):

A very extensive Proto-Norse loanword layer also exists in the Sámi languages.[8][9]


Some Proto-Norse names are found in Latin works, like tribal names like Suiones (*Sweoniz, "Swedes"). Others can be conjectured from manuscripts such as Beowulf.


Proto-Germanic to Proto-Norse

The differences between attested Proto-Norse and unattested Proto-Germanic are rather small. Separating Proto-Norse from Northwest Germanic can be said to be a matter of convention, as sufficient evidence from the remaining parts of the Germanic-speaking area (Northern Germany and the Netherlands) is lacking in a degree to provide sufficient comparison. Inscriptions found in Scandinavia are considered to be in Proto-Norse. Several scholars argue about this subject matter. Wolfgang von Krause sees the language of the runic inscriptions of the Proto-Norse period as an immediate precursor to Old Norse, but Elmer Antonsen views them as Northwest Germanic.[10]

One early difference shared by the West Germanic dialects is the monophthongization of unstressed diphthongs. Unstressed *ai became ē, as in haitē (Kragehul I) from Proto-Germanic *haitai, and unstressed *au likewise became ō. Characteristic is also the Proto-Norse lowering of Proto-Germanic stressed *ē to ā, which is demonstrated by the pair Gothic mēna and Old Norse máni (English moon). Proto-Norse thus differs from the early West Germanic dialects, as West Germanic ē was lowered to ā regardless of stress; in Old Norse, earlier unstressed ē surfaces as i. For example, the weak third-person singular past tense ending -dē appears in Old High German as -ta, with a low vowel, but in Old Norse as i, with a high vowel.

The time that *z, a voiced apical alveolar fricative, represented in runic writing by the algiz rune, changed to ʀ, an apical post-alveolar approximant, is debated. If the general Proto-Norse principle of devoicing of consonants in final position is taken into account, *z, if retained, would have been devoiced to [s] and would be spelled as such in runes. There is, however, no trace of that in the Elder Futhark runic inscriptions, so it can be safely assumed that the quality of this consonant must have changed before the devoicing, or the phoneme would not have been marked with a rune different from the sowilō rune used for s. The quality of the consonant can be conjectured, and the general opinion is that it was something between [z] and [r], the Old Norse reflex of the sound. In Old Swedish, the phonemic distinction between r and ʀ was retained into the 11th century, as shown by the numerous runestones from Sweden from then.

Proto-Norse to Old Norse

From 500 to 800, two great changes occurred within Proto-Norse. Umlauts appeared, which means that a vowel was influenced by the succeeding vowel or semivowel: Old Norse gestr (guest) came from PN gastiz (guest). Another sound change is known as vowel breaking in which the vowel changed into a diphthong: hjarta from *hertō or fjǫrðr from *ferþuz.

Umlauts resulted in the appearance of the new vowels y (like fylla from *fullijaną) and œ (like dœma from *dōmijaną). The umlauts are divided into three categories: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut; the last was still productive in Old Norse. The first, however, appeared very early, and its effect can be seen already around 500, on the Golden Horns of Gallehus.[11] The variation caused by the umlauts was itself no great disruption in the language. It merely introduced new allophones of back vowels if certain vowels were in following syllables. However, the changes brought forth by syncope made the umlaut-vowels a distinctive non-transparent feature of the morphology and phonology, phonemicising what were previously allophones.

Syncope shortened the long vowels of unstressed syllables; many shortened vowels were lost. Also, most short unstressed vowels were lost. As in PN, the stress accent lay on the first syllable words as PN *katilōz became ON katlar (cauldrons), PN horną was changed into Old Norse horn (horn) and PN gastiz resulted in ON gestr (guest). Some words underwent even more drastic changes, like *habukaz which changed into ON haukr (hawk).


  1. ^ Kristensen, Marius (1 January 1902). "Kock A. Die alt- und neuschwedische Akzentuierung· unter Berücksichtigung der andern nordischen Sprachen". Indogermanische Forschungen. 13 (1): 54–56. doi:10.1515/if-1902-0130. ISSN 1613-0405. S2CID 170224007. Archived from the original on 17 August 2021. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  2. ^ Hamp, Eric P. (1959). "Final Syllables in Germanic and the Scandinavian Accent System". Studia Linguistica. 13 (1–2): 29–48. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9582.1959.tb00392.x. ISSN 0039-3193.
  3. ^ Riad, Tomas (1998). "The Origin of Scandinavian Tone Accents". Diachronica. 15 (1): 63–98. doi:10.1075/dia.15.1.04ria. ISSN 0176-4225.
  4. ^ Kristoffersen, Gjert (2004). "The development of tonal dialects in the Scandinavian languages. Analysis based on presentation at ESF-workshop 'Typology of Tone and Intonation'". Cascais, Portugal. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 2 December 2007..
  5. ^ Elstad, Kåre, 1980: Some Remarks on Scandinavian Tonogenesis. I: Nordlyd: Tromsø University Working Papers on Language and Linguistics 3. 61–77.
  6. ^ Öhman, Sven (1967). Word and sentence intonation : a quantitative model. Speech Transmission Laboratory, Dept. of Speech Communication, Royal Institute of Technology. OCLC 825888933.
  7. ^ Bye, Patrick (2004). "Evolutionary typology and Scandinavian pitch accent" (PDF). Kluwer Academic Publishers. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2008. Retrieved 2 December 2007..
  8. ^ Theil, Rolf (2012). "Urnordiske lån i samisk". In Askedal, John Ole; Schmidt, Tom; Theil, Rolf (eds.). Germansk filologi og norske ord. Festskrift til Harald Bjorvand på 70-årsdagen den 30. juli 2012 (in Norwegian). Oslo: Novus forlag. Archived from the original on 18 August 2021. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  9. ^ Aikio, Ante (2012). Grünthal, Riho; Kallio, Petri (eds.). "An Essay on Saami Ethnolinguistic Prehistory" (PDF). Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne (266, A Linguistic Map of Prehistoric Northern Europe). Helsinki: Finno-Ugrian Society: 76. Archived (PDF) from the original on 31 October 2020. Retrieved 9 June 2017.
  10. ^ Düwel, Klaus; Nowak, Sean (1998). Runeninschriften als Quellen interdisziplinärer Forschung : Abhandlungen des Vierten Internationalen Symposiums über Runen und Runeninschriften in Göttingen; Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Runes and Runic Inscriptions in Göttingen, 4–9 August 1995. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-015455-2. OCLC 40365383.
  11. ^ Spurkland, Terje (2005). Norwegian Runes and Runic Inscriptions. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-186-0. Archived from the original on 9 August 2023. Retrieved 13 December 2015.

Further reading