Viking Age Iceland: Language and the Term “Viking”

A picture of Leif Eirksson's statue in Reykjavík, Iceland

This is Part 6 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.

The language of the settlers was called the Danish tongue, dönsk tunga. This was the common Old Norse language spoken by Viking Age Scandinavians at the time of Iceland’s ninth-century settlement, but no one is quite sure why Scandinavians referred to their language as the Danish tongue.[i] Throughout the Viking Age and into the following centuries, Old Norse speakers could easily understand each other despite the increased growth of dialects after the eleventh century. Old Norse was related to but different from the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England. With some practice, however, Old Norse and Old English speakers could understand each other, a factor that significantly broadened the cultural contacts of Viking Age Scandinavians, including Icelanders.

Almost all written sources for the study of early Iceland, including the sagas and the majority of church writings, are in what is termed Old Icelandic. This was a branch of Old West Norse, the vernacular tongue shared by Iceland and Norway from the eleventh to the mid-fourteenth century. With relatively few changes, the original Old Norse of the ninth-century colonists remains the basis of modern Icelandic. Old Norse is also the root language of modern Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, but the connection is far more distant than with modern Icelandic.

The word “Viking” is used frequently in this book. The early Icelanders themselves used the term, although they did not, as is popularly done today, employ it in an ethnic sense. Almost surely, they would have understood the concept of a Viking Age, but to them the idea that Scandinavian society was a “Viking society” would have been a misnomer. Throughout medieval Scandinavia, a víkingr (pl. víkingar) meant a pirate or freebooter, and víkingar were men who grouped together in bands to raid from boats. The term applied both to those who honourably (in Norse eyes) sailed across the sea to steal and to those who robbed neighbours closer to home.

Although the meaning of the term víkingr is clear, its origin is uncertain. Probably it has something to do with the word vík, meaning an “inlet” or a “bay” – places where víkingar lived and lay in wait. The Icelanders did not, except in rare instances, raid each other from the coast. When they went abroad, however, especially to Norway, Icelandic men are frequently referred to in the written sources as having become Vikings for a time or having fought against Vikings. The description hann var víkingr, meaning “he was a Viking”, is not unusual. Sea-raiding voyages had their own term. They were called víking, and it was said that many Icelanders, while abroad or before settling down in Iceland, “went raiding” (fór í víking).


[i] It may be because Denmark was one of the first of the Scandinavian lands to become a powerful, centralized kingdom, and the speech of the influential Danish court became for a time the accepted standard.

— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland

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