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View Full Version : Compass point words in the Viking Age



paddismac
09-29-2015, 05:46 PM
I can't believe how pedantic I've become over the possibility of anachronisms. Even the most mundane words are getting the side-eye from me because I'm just not sure.

Case in point: North, South, East, West.

Every source I come across tells me that the words were "in use" before AD900. But does "in use" mean wide, common usage, as in everybody knows/uses the word?

My usage involves a character who is sailing with Ivar Ragnarsson and the Great Heathen Army from Denmark to East Anglia in AD865. Would he say "We sail west", or would it be more correct to say "We sail toward the setting sun"? (Yes, I know it was more of a south-west jaunt, but my character only knows that it's across the sea "that way".)

The odd part of this obsession of mine is the fact that I write humorous MG novels, and I doubt anyone reading would even notice a word like "west". And I make deliberate use of anachronisms (in dialogue) for comedic effect, but I really don't want any to show up because of STUPID!

So which would it have been in AD865? West, or something descriptive?

Weirdmage
09-29-2015, 09:34 PM
The Danes at that time would be aware of the name of where they were heading. The easiest thing to do would be just say "We sail for East Anglia".

The Vikings would however certainly have had words for North, South, East, West*. We are talking about the people with the most advanced maritime technology at the time. They are only described as barbarians by their contemporaries because they were not Christian/Muslim, so unless you are writing an anti-Viking story there is no need to make them look primitive.

*I am going out on a limb here and assuming you are not writing this in old-Norse, so you will be translating anyway.

paddismac
09-29-2015, 09:56 PM
<snip>*I am going out on a limb here and assuming you are not writing this in old-Norse, so you will be translating anyway.

Heh, NO! I'm not, but along those lines, I'm intrigued by the fact that modern Danish has moved so far away from Old Norse, yet Icelandic has remained "pure enough" that an Old Norse speaker (if one were to exist) would possibly be able to communicate quite easily there. Languages are fascinating beasts!

Weirdmage
09-30-2015, 02:43 AM
Heh, NO! I'm not, but along those lines, I'm intrigued by the fact that modern Danish has moved so far away from Old Norse, yet Icelandic has remained "pure enough" that an Old Norse speaker (if one were to exist) would possibly be able to communicate quite easily there. Languages are fascinating beasts!

I'm actually Norwegian myself (, just live in the UK). So, I know quite a lot about Scandinavian language. For instance, Norwegian has developed from Danish. -I think Iceland is in a special position for several reasons, two of them is geography (, i.e. location,) and population -Iceland only has about 300,000 inhabitants today.
I used to know the Futhark runic alphabet about 20 years ago, but I have never been able to read Norse (, even when written with modern letters, ) apart from understanding a few words and meanings. I am however able to read and understand Swedish and Danish, and can speak both languages pretty well. Trying to explain the relationship between those three languages to non-Scandinavian speakers is however very difficult.

Jack Judah
09-30-2015, 02:45 AM
You can definitely get away with it. So long as the concept existed, it's not really an anachronism if you merely use modern terminology. The cardinal directions are pretty basic stuff, and in one form or another, have existed since our ancestors first figured out that the sun rose in a different place than it set. If it makes you feel better, I've used the modern compass points in an Ancient Egyptian setting.