According to wikipedia:

Between 1050 and 1350 Icelandic began to develop independently from other Scandinavian and Germanic languages;

When did it stop being mutuality intelligible with the Continental languages?

There's probably a different answer for Danish and Norwegian/Swedish, and maybe even for written vs spoken (I'm mainly interested in the spoken form). But is it possible to put approximate dates on this?

  • N.B. This thought occurred to me during this worldbuilding.se question. I'm trying to go full language nerd, but I don't have my facts straight.
    – Nathan
    Dec 19, 2016 at 12:15
  • Similar question here: Why did Icelandic begin to diverge from the Continental north Germanic languages between 1050 and 1350?. I thought it had more a historical side than a linguistic one. I think this one is more linguistic.
    – Nathan
    Dec 19, 2016 at 12:31
  • When a speech group splits into two geographically-separated groups, there will be divergence between their languages, due to the normal variation -- same as biological evolution (similar things happen to animal populations on islands). Consider how much contact each group would have had with each other after Iceland was settled and winter storms kept the travel volume low and seasonal. And when visitors were present, how much talking did they do? It's gradual and it's normal.
    – jlawler
    Dec 19, 2016 at 15:38
  • @jlawler I agree. What I'm asking, in terms of your anthology, is "Roughly when did the Icelandic foowolf and the Norwegian barhund diverge far enough that they stopped being able to produce viable offspring".
    – Nathan
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:02
  • Except that that question has to asked separately for every single word in the lexicon, every single fixed phrase, every single syntactic phenomenon, and every single phoneme in contact with every other phoneme. Separately. Linguistic ecologies are vastly more complex than mere biological ecologies, and every usage of a sound or word or construction counts as an individual, so generations go by pretty fast. And it isn't protein that's the limiting variable -- it's access to speech by different people that eventually decides mutual intelligibility.
    – jlawler
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:24

1 Answer 1


In the modern context, we can observe that Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible, but Danish is not. Lacking the technology to do the experiment with historical speakers, the only way to figure this out is to see what writers of the time thought. A lot of the records are oral, and written down later, so there is a fair amount of plus-and-minus to such date calculations. It is said that in the Heimskringla, ca. 1230, there is evidence of significant dialect divergence: stirt var honum norrœnt mál, ok kylfdi mᴊǫk til orðanna, ok hǫfðu margir menn þat mᴊǫk at spotti ("the Norse language was hard for him, and he often fumbled for words, which amused people greatly"). The Wiki opines that "From the late 13th century, Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian started to diverge more"; it also reports the Grágás (apparently written down around 1260) as saying that "Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Danes spoke the same language". Finally, "In the body of text that has come down to us from until c. 1300, Old West Norse had little dialect variation, and Old Icelandic does not diverge much more than the Old Norwegian dialects do from each other".

(This video demonstrates perils of trying to make guesses about "mutual intelligibility" (a Danish and a Swedish speaker try to pronounce phrases in each other's languages, and the Danish speaker does much better than the Swedish speaker at getting the other language -- is that because of the languages, or the individuals?)

  • 1
    Danes and Norwegians in general are usually better at understanding Swedes than vice versa. Partly this has to do with Swedish TV channels being more widely available in Denmark and Norway than Norwegian and Danish channels in Sweden. Similarly, Icelanders are usually better at understanding other Nordic languages than Swedes, Danes and Norwegians are at understanding Icelandic.
    – andejons
    Dec 20, 2016 at 9:58

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