So you want to pronounce Old Norse names…
If you’re anything like me, or really the majority of primarily English speaking Heathens, figuring out the correct spelling and pronunciation for some of those Old Norse names can be tricky at the best of times. This problem becomes even more frustrating when some of us begin to study the language of the Lore and discover exactly how different most anglicized spellings and pronunciations really are from the way they’re written in the Eddas and the Sagas. Many of these words and names were given their English equivalents centuries ago, and are based more on Old English than Old Norse.
This entire issue is compounded by the seemingly arbitrary spellings differences which people like to switch around at random. Hel, Hela, and Hella are all the same person, as are Frigg and Frigga, or Freya and Freyja. That’s not even including those utterly baffling “R’s” that are sometimes stuck on the end of names, which Heathens love to tack on willy-nilly in an attempt to sound more authentic. So with all of this confusion, what’s a Heathen to do? How are we supposed to know if we’re even pronouncing the names of the gods correctly? Well, here’s a handy guide to help you do just that!
Five Important Old Norse Names You’ve Probably Been Saying Wrong
(and how to pronounce them according to Old Icelandic)
How most people say it: (OH-DIN)
How it’s actually pronounced in Old Norse: (OATH-INN)
If you look at the Eddas and the Sagas, when the name Odin is written, it usually looks like “Oðinn”. The only problem is it’s not a D, and sounds nothing at all like a D. It’s called an “Eth” and it’s a letter that exists in Icelandic, but not Modern English. The sound it makes is a ‘TH’ as is “This” or “That” but not “Think” or “Thought”. So what is usually written in English as Odin, is actually “Othinn”!
How most people say it: (SKAH-DEE)
How it’s actually pronounced in Old Norse: (SKATH-EE)
Another great example of the same issue mentioned above, the “eth” in “Skaði” is commonly misread as a D.
How most people say it: (HOD, rhymes with SOD)
How it’s actually pronounced in Old Norse: (HOTH-ER, like the ice planet in Star Wars with an ‘ER’ on the end. Alternatively, you could say it’s similar in sound to the word ‘brother’ in that it uses the same ‘th’ sound.)
Things get even more complex when you get into non-English vowels like “ö”, which made a sound similar to the ‘au’ in “caught”. That’s how you end up with a name like Hod when the Old Norse is “Höðr”. These shifts can often seem small, but occasionally they can really throw you for a loop, like in our next example.
How most people say it: (KNEE-OH-ERD)
How it’s actually pronounced in Old Norse: (NYOR-THR)
The god of the seas is probably one of the most commonly and drastically mispronounced names among English-speaking Heathens. Which is not really surprising considering the only letter in the name “Njörðr” that functions in a way modern English speakers will immediately recognize is the R.
How most people say it: (AY-SEAR)
How it’s actually pronounced in Old Norse: (AH-SEAR or ASS-EAR)
This one isn’t so much a matter of poor transliteration as it is English based assumptions regarding vowel sounds. English sees an E following a vowel and instinctively makes that vowel long, so many Heathens read Æ and pronounce it like the ‘ay’ at the end of “Play”, resulting in something like AY-SEER. In modern Icelandic, the Æ actually makes an “I/EYE” sound, resulting in ICE-EAR. In Old Norse, that same Æ was actually closer to the ‘a’ in “cAt”. Yes, strange as it may look to the modern reader, Æsir was actually read ASS-EAR.
So What About Those Funky ‘R’ Endings?
Okay, so what is up with the R at the end of names like Freyr, or Njörðr? Why are they there sometimes and then they get dropped, seemingly at random? Believe it or not, the answer is more straightforward than you’d think. In Old Norse, adding an R to the end of a noun was a common way to indicate that the object or person in question was the subject of the sentence. (For those of you who enjoy the study of language or grammar, it referred to the Nominative case of strong masculine nouns.) To go into the entire usage in an in-depth way would require a lot more than a single article, but there are a few relatively easy rules you can use to remember how it works with proper nouns in particular.
1- The R most often identifies the subject of the sentence. “Loptr saw Frey” “Freyr saw Lopt”
2- In most cases, if a proper noun ended in an R already, this would just add a second R. “Olafr saw Þór” “Þórr saw Olaf”.
3- Depending on the last letter of the root name, sometimes the R is replaced with another letter. As a general rule: nr, lr, and sr usually get replaced by nn, ll, and ss, respectively. This is why you have Oðinn, rather than Oðinr.
4- If you’re writing the name by itself, outside of the context of a sentence or in a one-word sentence, include the nominative ending.
Again, these are general rules to which there are always exceptions, which would take BOOKS to fully investigate. However, as a quick and dirty guide to reading and writing Old Norse names as they are written in the Sagas and the Eddas, these simplified guidelines should get you through the majority of names with relative accuracy!
To learn more about the Old Norse language, CLICK HERE
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