Ever wanted to speak like a Viking but disappointed that language apps never have that option? Have no fear - we spoke to Ian Sharpe, author of the Vikingverse series and co-author of the new book "Old Norse for Modern Times," a phrase book for those moments when modern languages just aren't enough. Ian told us about the process of making this book, the beauty of Old Norse, and just how on Midgard Old Norse words for "wifi" and "binge watching" were developed.
Want to grab a copy of "Old Norse for Modern Times"? Click here!
Follow Ian on Twitter or on his website, where you can also find his books!
In Viking times, a 'Thing' was a gathering a place where leaders and warriors could meet and talk. In the 21st century, our Thing is a virtual place where history academics and enthusiasts from around the world can come together to share knowledge. I'm your host, Miranda Schmeiderer. Hold on to your helmets for this episode of That JORVIK Viking Thing Podcast.
Today we have Ian Sharpe with us, author of a series of books and comics that take place in what he calls the Vikingverse and one of the authors, along with Dr. Arngrímur Vídalín and Josh Gillingham, of a new book called "Old Norse for Modern Times," a helpful phrase book for anyone who wants to add some Nordic influences to their everyday conversations. You may have heard of Old Norse before. It is, after all, the language of the Vikings. Runes and runic inscriptions were written in Old Norse and famously, the sagas were written in Old Norse. It's even one of the languages that you'll hear as you go around JORVIK today. In our Coppergate episode "A new light on Vikings," Sarah Maltby told us all about it:
So we've put in a lot more detail this time for this version of JORVIK. And we've also, of course, put live actors on the ride to portray our Vikings and train them to speak in Old Norse or Old English, which is very new. So we've done a lot of work on language this time around.
Old Norse was a Germanic language, meaning that it's related to Old English, Old Saxon and even Old Dutch. Old Norse was primarily spoken from the 7th to 15th centuries, mostly in Scandinavia, but it could be heard all over Europe during that time. Today, Old Norse has developed into modern Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and even Faroese. There's also elements of Old Norse in modern English and Gaelic thanks to the Viking influences on the British Isles. When we use words like "guest," "egg," and the ever important to archaeologists "dirt," we're using Old Norse words that have managed to stick around until today.
But Old Norse for Modern Times isn't a book about the linguistic history and evolution of Old Norse. It's a phrase book for those moments when modern languages just aren't enough.
In the interview, Ian and I talk about kennings a few times, and in case you've forgotten what those are, a kenning is a figure of speech used in Old Norse and Old English where something is named in a roundabout sort of way. For example, the Vikings liked to say that they sailed along the whale road, which is a kenning for the sea. If you want to learn more about sagas, make sure you listen to our very first episode, Viking Storytelling with our own skald, Lucas Norton. But without further ado, here's our chat with Ian Sharpe.
Well, first of all, Ian, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Thank you so much for having me. Very excited.
So first things first, other early languages have similar dictionaries to this one. You even mentioned a Latin one in your preface. Why did you decide to go with Old Norse?
I've been writing novels and comics about Vikings for a while, it's something I called the Vikingverse, it is an alternative timeline where the Vikings never Christianized, and therefore, they spread across the world and the present, in my timeline, is a pagan present. So throughout those books and novels, I sprinkle bits of Old Norse, because obviously, as people would do, and it's not exactly the same as the Old Norse of a thousand years ago, but the language would have evolved in the same ways that English evolved. And at some point, I thought, "huh, I better make sure I know what I'm talking about, because sprinkling in bits of Old Norse and wrestling with the correct grammar," and you know, it's a very heavily genderized language. And so I realised that I was being something of a fraud, and I thought I ought to get to grips with it a bit more. And hence "Old Norse for Modern Times" came about in collaboration with Professor Arngrímur Vídalín and he is a professor in Reykjavik and he is the mastermind behind all of the actual translations and we can play you a few bits of his authentic pronunciation later on.
Perfectly accented and all, I'm sure.
He does it all much more justice than mine.
And you have a really nice line in the book about your "guiding principle was to be as authentic as academically possible while allowing for a raise smile or eyebrow once in a while." Why did you go for a cheeky take on such an academic subject?
So the Latin book that you mentioned is called "Latin for All Occasions." It was published by a guy called Henry Beard back in 1990. And I got hold of a copy of it when I was in college, which was also way back in the '90s. And it was just hilarious. It was just hilarious to see phrases like - I'm a Tottenham Hotspur supporter for my sins, and just to see things like "come on you spurs" in Latin was amusing. And so I'd always had this idea in my mind that there should be an Old Norse version of it. I mean, people are fascinated by languages, right? And people are fascinated with the evolution of language. And one of the fascinating things for me as I've been writing my books and investigating all of this is just how close Old Norse is to English. Both languages have a Germanic root. The words that we have in the language today that are similar to most things like steak and knife, all kinds of things that you recognise. The place names, when you go up to Cumbria or Yorkshire, there's so much that is resonant in the language. And the more North you go, the more apparent that is. I was actually brought up in Norfolk, Norfolk was part of the Danelaw, and so there's lots of that culture and language sprinkled around as well. People often say, there's a phrase "normal for Norfolk," which is a little bit disparaging, but it comes from the fact that there are all of these dialect words and strange aphorisms that hark back to it, at a time where Danish kings ruled the land. And so I think all of that is fascinating. And the reason why we decided to do Old Norse is because all of that is literally part of our DNA. This culture, this heritage and it's part of our linguistic and cultural heritage. And I thought it was just fascinating to bring it up to date, again, in line with the parallel timeline that I mentioned in my books.
Well, I definitely agree. And we really loved all the pop culture references in the book. We especially love the Star Wars and Star Trek quotes, and the quotes from the Vikings TV series. So how did you decide which phrases to translate? Well, how did you go through that process?
So there's a another author who worked with me on this, a guy called Josh Gillingham. So we both live on the far side of the universe, and the Vikings never actually got here. We live in a place called Victoria BC, which is on the west coast of Canada. And funnily enough, there's a few authors here who write about Vikings stuff. So Josh is one of them. There's another friend of ours who's also writing some Vikings books, and we would get together, and we would just go throw these phrases into the pot and see which ones did resonate, see which ones did make us laugh. So you know, ones that were kind of on the zeitgeist, there's a couple of things. We kickstarted this book last summer, and so we also invited all of our Kickstarter backers to submit a phrase. And so some of the ones that you referenced are ones that came from the 300-400 people who supported this book on Kickstarter and brought it to life. Others are ones that we kicked around in our front room. And some of them, quite frankly, were just vetoed by the professor. So we'd reached out to the professor and he had agreed to help us translate. And some of them he just said, "I can't actually translate that. That doesn't make sense." Or in some cases, he said, you know, that the Vikings would never have said that. And we footnote it so yeah, and we were trying to be respectful of the culture and also be funny, but yeah, one of the things we've got in there is "Honey, I'm home." And he said, "Well, no self respecting Norse raider would come home and say that, they'd just walk off and drink some mead," but we translate it nevertheless. And we just footnote it to say "this would be best delivered with a cold hard glare."
Fair. Well, you did also include some direct from the sagas quotes in your book. The sagas have amazing one liners. So how did you decide which of those to include then?
It's worthwhile noting that the Norse culture isn't just about pillage and hitting monks over their head, there's this is a rich culture of wordplay and kennings and sophisticated skalds, and there's so much richness in their literature, that it is relatively easy to pick these things out. Now, that's not to say that in contrast to how we speak today, they don't beat around the bush, there are some kennings and some phrases that are so obtuse and obscure that you have to have a degree to pull them apart. But that's really where the professor came in. So not only is he an expert in mediaeval Icelandic literature, he knows about the evolution of Old Norse into modern Icelandic, he knows about the sagas. He's actually translating Alice in Wonderland into novels for all of those people who want to go down a rabbit hole beyond just reading our "Old Norse for Modern Times," but so yeah, he's very adept at identifying phrases that if you can't literally translate them, or even if you could, then there's a kind of better way of saying, drawn from the sagas, he would find that phrase. So again, there's there's four or five instances throughout the book where he said, this is best told with a line from the sagas, which is the equivalent and gives you a little bit of insight into that Norse mindset.
Well, definitely, you kind of mentioned mythbusting a little bit, trying to get rid of these ideas that we had of the Vikings and you've already translated a very important one for us here at JORVIK. You translated "no, Vikings did not wear horned helmets." Could you tell us how to say that one?
Well, I could. But what I'm going to do is I'm going to play you the professor himself saying it in his own words, because he does much more justice to it. But this is the phrase you mentioned, "no, Vikings did not wear horned helmets."
[Old Norse] Eigi mun that sva. Hofdu vikingar eigi horn a hjalmum sinum.
So as you can tell, it's from a native speaker. It's a very melodic rolling tongue. So the professor has recorded all of these phrases for us, at least he did for the Kickstarter, because it is difficult when you've got a book and you look at it and you think, "Oh, my gods how am I going to pronounce that?" Especially because you know, some of the letters are a little beyond us, right the thorn and ash and the the characters that are used in Old Norse are very different. And people just don't know how to pronounce them. So we've actually, as part of the Kickstarter, recorded all of the phrases in the book, and I have a website, which is VikingVerse.com. And on the website is all of the phrases that are recorded by a lovely Scottish lady called Siobhan , who runs the Myth Legend and Lore podcast, and she has wrestled with the Icelandic and delivers it in her wonderfully melodic lilting burr from from Scotland and, and all of that is available on the website for everyone to listen to free. And we will be launching an Audible version of it as well. Just as soon as we've you know how these things are running a podcast, you need to just make sure you've got the the technical details, right. And once we've done that, we'll submit it to Amazon and Audible. And then everyone can have the pleasure of listening to Siobhan deliver all of that stuff and the professor, having vetted it and dotted his eyes cross his T's and linked his ashes. I don't know what the phrase is in Old Norse.
I definitely think that that worth a listen to, so that'll be very good. I'm very excited about that. And you mentioned a little bit earlier on about some stuff just not being able to be translated, but you did include quite a few modern words like binge watching and Wi Fi that don't have a direct Old Norse translation. So how did you adapt these words?
So that's the fascinating thing about Icelandic, you know, how it has evolved from Old Norse, being a very poetic language and not wanting to be polluted by its Anglo Saxon and English cousins. The Icelandic people have an institute that monitors and evolves their language and chooses words that might have fallen into disuse and brings them into the modern lexicon. So the good examples are things like "simi" for phone, right - so mobile phone is actually, if you translate the word "simi," it's thread, or a long piece of thread. The other famous example is computer. Computer in Icelandic is "tolvu", which is a portmanteau that effectively is number prophetess. So computer is number and volva, which is the prophetess, which is volur in the plural. That is then the word for computer. There's all kinds of phrases like that. So in effect, the language police have come up with ways to say things in a suitably poetic Old Norse way for these modern terms. Now, English-isms do come through the whole time and you know, just because of the nature of language and the sheer volume of English, the Icelandic team at that Institute must just be inundated with difficulty because the internet is replete with English and hardly anything is Icelandic. So you're fighting this losing battle to try and stop your words being corrupted. Again, that's a long way of saying that it is possible to find the authentic, poetic way of addressing our modern words. And in some cases, you just have to take a more modern Icelandic view and plug that in. After all, this is "Old Norse for Modern Times," they clearly didn't have a word for television, but the Icelandic people have delivered that word for themselves in a way that is authentic and plausible.
I love that because especially the examples you gave us, like with mobile phone, it does sound like a kenning. Basically, it is just a better way of saying a modern word.
And so that's just that's what I love about exploring this universe and exploring the way people think and would deliver these ideas and, and, and sometimes I come up with my own compound words. Hope that I do the language justice.
So you mentioned that you had two co authors on this book, but you guys were kind of quite spread out. You said two of you were on the west coast of Canada, one was in Iceland, what was it like working across all those time zones?
Yeah, it's always a challenge. But in my day to day life, I work with people in Thailand and people in the UK. And and so the very nature, especially in the world of the pandemic, is everything's online anyway. Right. So the pandemic itself was the biggest challenge to this because it disrupted posts and disrupted timelines, and people being ill and being forced into quarantine. And so that was the real logistical challenge. But otherwise, it was as simple as the fact that you just have a few telephone conversations, you get the framework set, and then we put the English down, we fired it over via email, and then you know, we'd kick things backwards and forwards. And that's, that's really how it evolved, in phone calls and emails. And we did everything from the very same room that I'm sitting in now talking to you. I haven't left here for two years.
So where can our listeners get your book?
Well, the book is distributed by the IPG, the Independent Publishers Group. So that means it is available to order in hardback worldwide, you can get hold of it on Amazon, or you can go into a good bookstore and talk to them about ordering it. In the UK, it's distributed by Gazelle. Because it is relatively hot off the press, we started publishing at the end of April, it is being shipped to stores around the world. We're also targeting a lot of museums, because anyone wants to learn a little bit of Old Norse, it's someone who's ventured into buy their non-horned helmet and grab a phrase book.
Amazing. Well, actually, you did mention museums. So you said you've been to JORVIK before. So tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, it was a great experience. So like I said, I'm in Canada now. So you know, it's not like I can pop over to these places every day. But my dad and I, we organise kind of Viking expeditions of our own. We call it the Vinland Invasion. It's a bit like the Beatles, but in reverse right in the blocking over there. My dad's in Spain, and we went into JORVIK, went round the attraction, got in the cars and went round and saw all of the waxworks, I presume they are, so that was fun. And I got a photo of my dad wearing that replica helmet. But then last year, I was in touch with all of your colleagues and teammates and we were actually part of your Fringe Fest. And so this was February and I was I set up shop in the Travelling Man, which is a bookshop somewhere near your HQ there. And we were at that point releasing the second book in my series was called Loki's Wager. So that was that was lots of fun. It was unfortunately, just as COVID was hitting, and it was unfortunately, a supremely wet and windy year and just about everything got cancelled. Obviously I did something to annoy Thor.
We keep saying that the next festival had better go ahead because the last one was obviously all virtual. The one before that got blown away.
Yeah, well, it's just, like they say, it's just a case of perhaps sacrificing the right goats.
Exactly, exactly. We'll have to get to work on that. Well, thank you so much. This was such a fun interview.
Well, thank you for having me on.
Thanks again to Ian Sharpe for being with us today. To get your copy of "Old Norse for Modern Times," click the link in our show notes or head over to Amazon or ask your local bookshop. To hear some Old Norse in action, check out our Instagram at JorvikViking where you can hear a few select phrases, or even better book your tickets today for the JORVIK Viking Centre at JorvikVikingCentre.co.uk, and see if you can have a whole conversation with one of our Vikings.
Next episode. we're stepping out of the Viking era to talk to Matt Lewis, chair of the Richard III Society, author of several books on the Wars of the Roses and one of the hosts of History Hits podcast "Gone Medieval." Matt is going to tell us about his favourite topic, Richard III and his relationship to York. Stay tuned.
Thanks for listening to That JORVIK Viking Thing podcast. You can find us on Spotify, Apple podcasts and anywhere you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and leave us a review and if you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend. It's the best way to help support your favourite Viking podcast.
That JORVIK Viking Thing Podcast is a production of the JORVIK Group and York Archaeological Trust. Researched by Miranda Schmeiderer and Ashley Fisher. Written and produced by Ashley Fisher. Sound designed and edited by Miranda Schmeiderer.