In my everyday translation work, the Nordic languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic) are not my priority, but I do have to check a fair amount of text that has been translated into those languages. “And how do you do that if you do not know the language?” you may ask. The answer, as any experienced Project Manager will tell you, rests on the checking tools and reference. It is not the first time I handle a translation into any of those languages. Our translators know that Pangeanic places a lot of importance on First-Time Right translations and they have to comply with a series of checks and send a Quality Assurance form with every job. Project Managers check the terminology and, coherence and compliance to terminology that has been established prior to the job. This may lead to any obvious errors being spotted, like terms which have not been followed according to instructions or typos. Then, obviously, another native speaker certifies the final work.
But I want to write about something else today. I deal and have met literally hundreds of translators, linguists and computational linguists since I began my career. I have studied languages, where they come from and I am curious about the relationship between many of them. But to know the origins of some of them is sometimes puzzling, a real tangle and a mystery. Certain families of languages seem to align very well together, others are not so clear. And in some cases, if you start looking into the history of a particular language, it seems like it’s just an endless stream of corridors and doors leading backwards century after century revealing older and older languages. Luckily, we only translate into modern, current languages that are spoken across the world nowadays! In the business of language translation it is not uncommon to forget just how quickly our knowledge of modern languages can get fuzzy.
The family of Nordic languages is a perfect example of this. Behind all Nordic languages we find an ancestor called Old Norse (read more in our Knowledge section about Swedish language), which is very well documented. But that common language seems to have existed between 800 and 1300, so what did the Vikings – or the people who would later become the Vikings – speak?
The answer is Proto-Norse, but as it happens with most languages with the word “proto”, we lack evidence or knowledge of Proto-Norse and in many cases can only infer through reconstruction.
Nordic Languages – a shared DNA
What we do know for sure is that Danish (6 million speakers), Swedish (9 million speakers), Norwegian (5 million speakers) and Icelandic (300,000 speakers), i.e the four Nordic Languages, share so much common vocabulary, and they behave in such a similar manner that they’re almost dialects of the same language – almost. A curious fact about Icelandic is that it was in contact with Basque very early on and that a pidgin mixture was spoken in the Western parts of Iceland until the 17th century. A manuscript dating from 987AD proves Basque presence in the area before the Vikings, as whaling was a very important activity for Basques. This may be connecting evidence for the Basque presence around the coasts of Greenland and Canada many centuries before Columbus.
But back to the Nordic languages: it is known that with some difficulty and imagination, speakers of any of these Nordic languages can understand another and that German speakers can recognize many old-fashioned words at airport signs. A Danish speaker and a Swede can probably conduct a conversation with just a little guessing, just like Italians and Spaniards can understand each other with some effort although their countries do not share any borders. For a long time, Denmark or Sweden had the upper hand in Scandinavian politics and ruled over each other, other Baltic countries and even Northern Germany. The Hanseatic league provided a common space for trade and exchange and Northern Germans and Swedes moved and settled freely in Finland and parts of Estonia, too.
Finnish is not a Nordic Language – it is a Scandinavian language
As clear as that. Look at the picture. Finnish is not even an Indo-European language. It shares roots with Hungarian (Hungarians moved to present-day Hungary in a massive migration) and other languages in the very north of Scandinavia. The vocabulary, grammar, and features are totally different. Despite being close neighbors, Finnish is as close to Nordic languages like Spanish is to the Arabic spoken in Northern Africa.
The Runes of Asgard
The Vikings were a very poetic people, believing poetry to be a gift from their gods, and they had a complex rune-based alphabet that they retained until they were converted to Christianity and adopted the Latin alphabet. This strong literary tradition not only belies their popular image as bloodthirsty conquerors, it explains how their language survived the convulsions of history to remain the parent tongue of more than twenty million modern-day speakers. And they say language history is boring!
The same process that turned Old Norse into the modern Nordic languages is still going on today, of course, and while it tends to move too slowly to be easily observed, you can catch hints of it every day just by paying attention. It’s one reason I’ve always found language to be so fascinating a subject.