Proto-Norse (also called Ancient Nordic, Ancient Scandinavian, Primitive Norse, Proto-Nordic, Proto-Scandinavian, Proto-North Germanic and North Proto-Germanic) was an Indo-European language spoken in Scandinavia and a reconstructed proto-language of Old Norse 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 three 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.
|Stop||p b||t d||k ɡ||kʷ ɡʷ|
|Fricative||ɸ (β)||θ (ð)||s||z||h (ɣ)||hʷ|
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.
At least the following diphthongs were present: /æi/, /ɑu/, /eu/, /iu/.
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. 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. 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.
The surviving examples of Proto-Norse are all runic inscriptions in the Elder Futhark. There are about 260 surviving Elder Futhark 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):
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.
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, but his views on Runic Script and related subjects might be considered extreme[according to whom?].
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 -ði, 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.
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 P-N 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. 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 and PN gastiz resulted in ON gestr (guest). Some words underwent even more drastic changes, like *habukaz which changed into ON haukr (hawk).