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Bibliography of Sources for Learning Old Norse and Modern Scandinavian Languages

I am frequently asked to translate some phrase from English to "Viking", a request which is nearly impossible for me to do. Since Old Norse is a dead language, there is no need (according to the folks who write dictionaries) for an English-to-Old-Norse dictionary. As a result, I don't do this sort of translation.

When I must for some reason figure out what the Old Norse equivalent of a word is, first, I look up the word in all the modern Scandinavian languages and note the results. One will often be able to find dictionaries inexpensively at Half-Price Books and other used book stores, especially near university campuses.

Once I have an idea of what the word might look like, then I go to the Old Norse/Old Icelandic dictionaries and look for there. Sometimes this doesn't work -- either the modern term is a loan-word from English or German, or the best word in Old Norse has not survived to one of the modern forms of the language. But it's the best one can do.

Additionally, many people are interested in learning to read the sagas in the language in which they were written. This is a noble and worthwhile effort, because so much is lost in any translation. The problem is even worse when poetry is translated, because it is nearly impossible to maintain the original poetic form while hewing closely to the exact meanings of the words translated. Puns and other types of humor may be entirely lost in translation as well, and the sagas include many instances of noteworthy plays on words.

Finally, on occasion I receive correspondence from people looking to travel to one of the Scandinavian countries who wish to learn the modern form of the language. This bibliography should provide a starting point for anyone interested in learning a Scandinavian language, old or new.

As a note, many of the items listed below may not be available in your local public library. There are a couple of ways to access these if you are not a student at a university or college:

The first is to visit a university or college library. Most allow non-students to use the library, although often you won't be able to check out books. However, it's simple to photocopy a journal article, and every university library I've ever visited had copy machines for public use.

The second method would be to go to your library and ask the reference librarian for information on obtaining materials through Interlibrary Loan (ILL). Surprisingly small libraries have been able to get really obscure documents for me via ILL. Sometimes your local branch library can handle an ILL request, sometimes you have to go to the main branch of the library - just ask, the librarians will be happy to tell you how it's done in your library. Usually ILL involves a small fee to cover photocopying and shipping articles to you. You can also get books this way, and in the case of books they usually loan the book to your library, and you will then either check it out from your library or else you may have to use it while at the library, depending on the practices of the library which owns the work.

And, Gentle Readers, if you have suggestions for other books or articles which should be listed here, please contact me at!


Learning Old Norse

Old Norse Dictionaries

  • Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandr Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon. 1957.
    [The Old Icelandic equivalent of the Webster's Unabridged, this is the best dictionary of Old Icelandic/Old Norse for English speakers. Gives compounds, etymologies, and quotes using the words from the Old Norse literature.]
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  • Zoëga, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Oxford: Clarendon. 1910. Reprint, Toronto: University of Toronto Press (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 41). June 2004.
    [A fairly limited Old Norse dictionary, designed primarily for students. Zoëga is a subset of the Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionary, and is the Old Icelandic equivalent of the Webster's Collegiate.]
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  • Beatrice La Farge and John Tucker. Glossary to the Poetic Edda. Skandinavistische Arbeiten 15. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1992.
    [The language of the Poetic Edda can be particularly difficult at points, and like any poetry, more challenging to translate than prose. This glossary focuses on the words of the Poetic Edda and is particularly useful for students studying the Eddaic poetry in the original Old Norse.]
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Learning Modern Icelandic

  • Bartoszek, Stanislaw and Anh-Dao Tran. Icelandic for Beginners (Book and audiocassette). Reykjavík: Brefaskolinn, 1991.
    [This is the textbook that I have seen Icelanders recommending. It's a good text for the basics of the Icelandic language and provides explanatory information.]

  • Chapman, Kenneth, E. Trygvodottir, and P. Petursson. Icelandic Conversations (Book and Audio Cassette). Audio Forum Publishers. 1997.
    [Provides side-by-side Icelandic with English translation and quite a bit of instruction on speaking Icelandic.]
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  • Einarsson, Stefán. Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. 2nd ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. 1985.
    [Provides an excellent discussion of syntax and declensions, grammar notes, information on Icelandic orthography, and a selection of Icelandic texts for practice. Some of the information seems to be a little dated, but is overall sound and useful.]
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  • Glendenning, P.J.T. Teach Yourself Icelandic. French & European Publications. 1992.
    [While this book provides useful grammatical information, it's poorly arranged and the exercises are not well-thought-out. Although the date of publication is recent, it's an old, outdated text with a bright new cover. Includes language constructions that are no longer in use in spoken Icelandic (for instance, the formal "you").]
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  • Kristinsson, Ari Pall. The Pronunciation of Modern Icelandic. Reykjavík: Malvisindastofnun Haskola Islands. 1988.
    [Includes audiocassette].

  • Valfell, Sigrid and James Cathey. Old Icelandic: An Introductory Course. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1982.
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Modern Icelandic Dictionaries

  • Hölmarsson, Sverrir, Christopher Sanders, and John Tucker. Íslensk-Ensk Orðabök/Concise Icelandic-English Dictionary. Reykjavík: Iðunn, 1991. ISBN: 997910046X.

  • Magnússon, Asgeir Bløndal. Íslensk Orðsifjabök. Reykjavík: Orðabök Haskslans. 1989.

  • Skaptason, Jön. Ensk-Íslensk Skölaorðabök. Reykjavík: Ørn og Ørlygur. 1989.

  • Sørenson, Søren. Ensk-Íslensk Orðabök. Reykjavík: Ørn og Ørlygur. 1991.
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  • Taylor, Arnold. Icelandic-English/English-Icelandic Dictionary. Hippocrene Concise Dictionary Series. Hippocrene Books. 1989.
    [A very limited dictionary. It includes only extremely basic words, and many terms needed for ordinary conversation are missing.]
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  • Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs Translation Centre. Translation Centre Dictionary. Reykjavík, Iceland. Accessed 11 October 2000.

Danish Dictionaries And Grammars

  • Kjærulff Nielsen, Bernhard. Engelsk-Dansk Ordbog.. København: Gyldendal, 1981.
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  • Vinterberg, Hermann and C.A. Bodelsen. Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog. København: Gyldendal, 1990.
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  • Allan, Robin, Philip Holmes, and Tom Lundskær Nielsen. Danish: a Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge Grammars Series. London: Routledge. 1995.
    [An extremely good book for learning Danish. It's a big book, and packed with well-explained details.]
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Faroese Dictionaries And Grammars

  • Young, G. V. C. and Cynthia R. Clewer. Føroysk-Ensk Ordabók/Faroese-English Dictionary with Faroese Folk-Lore and Proverbs. Peel, Isle of Man: Mansk-Svenska, 1985.
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  • Lockwood, W. B. An Introduction to Modern Faroese. København: Munksgaard. 1964.

Norwegian Dictionaries And Grammars

  • Berulffsen, Bjarne and Herbert Svenkerud, eds. Cappelens Store Engelsk-Norsk Ordbok. Oslo: Cappelens Forlag. 1968.
    [English to Norwegian only.]
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  • Haugen, Einar ed. Norwegian English Dictionary/Norsk Engelsk Ordbok. 3d ed. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget. 1984.
    [This dictionary is Norwegian-to-English only, however it is extremely good, including stress marks for each entry, notations for irregular noun and verb inflections, and both Nynorsk and Bokmål entries.]
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  • Kirkeby, Willy A. English-Norwegian Dictionary. Oslo: Norwegian University Press. 1989.
    [This is the English-to-Norwegian dictionary that I've seen folks who teach Norwegian recommend.]
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  • Sandskogen, Åse-Berit and Rolf Sandskogen. Norwegian: an Essential Grammar. Essential Grammars Series. London: Routledge. 1995.
    [An excellent, well-arranged grammar of the Norwegian language.]
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Swedish Dictionaries And Grammars

  • Kärre, Karl. Engelsk-Svensk Ordbok: Skolupplaga. Stockholm: Svenska Bokförlaget. 1969.

  • Gomer, Eva and Mona Morris-Nygren, eds. Prisma's Swedish-English and English-Swedish Dictionary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1989.
    [Includes both the dictionary and basic grammar notes.]
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  • Homes, Philip and Ian Hinchliffe. Swedish: a Comprehensive Grammar. London: Routledge. 1994.
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  • Viberg, Ake, Kerstin Ballardini, and Sune Stjarnlof. Essentials of Swedish Grammar. Verbs and Essentials of Grammar Series. NTC/Contemporary Publishing. 1990.
    [A good, concise grammar with good examples of the various constructions.]
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Other Resources

  • Haugen, Einar. The Scandinavian Languages. Cambridge: Harvard University Presss, 1976.
    [After an introductory survey of the present-day Scandinavian languages, Haugen traces their history from Proto-Germanic to modern times. Includes a map of languages and dialects.]
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