27 February 2015

Vikings and Víkingar

Sö 197  Kolsundet
For many years now I have been thinking about the meanings of these words, and frequently trying to explain them to people. It's not a simple matter, so I get frustrated but am not surprised when I read incomprehensible, or even just wrong, statements like this one, from a press release issued by the Field Museum in Chicago, where a Viking exhibition opens today:
The word “Viking,” derives from Old Norse, and meant a trade ship or a raid.
I suppose in this case, something got lost in the translation, as the exhibition is actually one borrowed from Historiska Museet in Stockholm. But a glance at any book about Vikings will show a wide range of misunderstandings of what these words actually mean, and how best to use them.

As I said, it is a complex matter and I do not have a simple answer. I will be addressing this thorny question at some length in a forthcoming publication, and what follows is a shortened version of that, a taster if you like. Fuller discussion with further details and references will be in the publication.

There are three possible approaches to understanding the word which in modern English is ‘Viking’ (sometimes ‘viking’, without a capital letter), which unfortunately are often confused in both scholarly and popular discussions. These are (a) etymology, or the original meaning and derivation of the word, (b) historical usage, or what the word meant to those who used its earlier forms in the Viking and medieval periods and in the language(s) of the time, and (c) current usage, or what the word has come to mean in our modern world, in both English and other languages. In particular, many popular (and even some academic) works about the Vikings commit the etymological fallacy, by assuming that giving an etymology of the word is equivalent to defining it. But words change or develop in meaning, while also often crossing into other languages, and all three approaches are needed for a full understanding of how to use the word now.

There are actually two relevant words, those which appear in Old Norse as the nouns víkingr (m.), and víking (f.).  The former refers to a person, the latter to an activity. In terms of etymology, it has variously been suggested that víkingr derives from Old Norse vík  ‘bay, inlet’, or Vík  ‘the Oslofjord’, or is somehow related to Old English wīc and Latin vicus ‘dwelling place, camp’. These derivations thus posit that a víkingr is someone associated with one of these places or types of places, i.e. a pirate who lurks in bays waiting to sail out and rob passing ships, or a coastal seafarer from the Oslofjord, or a traveller making temporary camps. Other suggestions relate the term to various verbs meaning ‘withdraw, deviate, travel’, more or less plausibly related to what Vikings are thought to have done. The overall argument is complex and far from resolved. But it has to be remembered that etymology aims primarily to reconstruct the original meaning of a word. While this can shed light on possible later meanings, there is no guarantee that the original meaning still applied in the time when we actually have records of the word in use. These later meanings can only be derived from actual usage.

The actual usage of víking and víkingr  in the Viking Age and later shows that their meanings have moved on from whatever the original meanings were.  Víkingr appears in runic inscriptions from the Viking Age (as does víking), and also in skaldic poetry which is arguably from the Viking Age. Neither term is especially  common, and their connotations in context are often ambiguous. More common than either term, in memorial inscriptions on Viking Age rune-stones at least, is Víkingr used as a personal name (as in the picture above, from the splendid Kulturmiljöbild website of the Swedish National Heritage Board). Although the terms are ambiguous, what their Viking Age uses do tell us is that none of the possible etymological meanings is at the forefront of the word as it was used then. Instead, usage suggests that víkingr (pl. víkingar) refers to people (always in groups) who were engaged in some sort of military activity, often but not always piratical or sea-borne. These groups of people could be either the comrades or (more often) the opponents of the person whose point of view is represented in the text. There is no clear evidence for any ethnic or regional implication in the term. After the Viking Age, our sources in Old Norse increase and the meanings of the ‘Viking’ words are correspondingly broader. In the historical sagas of the Norwegian kings, for instance, the pejorative connotations of víkingr used of opponents are strong, while the activities described as víking are shown in a more positive light, since they generally take place in faraway lands, carried out by those very kings. Both words are most commonly used of fellow-Scandinavians. In both the kings’ sagas and other sagas, whether Vikings are viewed positively or negatively depends on context, both literary and geographical, rather than ethnicity.

The modern meanings of ‘Viking’, in English at least, begin in the early nineteenth century, with the earliest recorded instance from 1807.  This period is when the term acquires its basic modern meaning, as defined by the OED: ‘One of those Scandinavian adventurers who practised piracy at sea, and committed depredations on land, in northern and western Europe from the eighth to the eleventh century...’  The use of the word really picks up in the nineteenth century, along with a growing interest in all things Viking in the Victorian period.

The most common usage of ‘Viking’ in modern academic contexts is already broader than the OED definition – it is used to characterise peoples of Scandinavian origin who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outwith Scandinavia in a particular historical period, generally within the broad range of  750-1100.  Some scholars prefer to restrict the term to those who indulged in the ‘Viking’ activities of raiding and pillaging outside of Scandinavia, thus perpetuating the pejorative meaning of the word found already in the Viking Age. Other scholars use the term of all Scandinavians in Scandinavia and people of Scandinavian ancestry outside Scandinavia during the period in question, and most general books about ‘the Vikings’ use this more inclusive meaning. The inclusive meaning is useful because it acknowledges the complexities of the period and avoids reducing its history to one of just raiding and pillaging. In modern scholarly usage, therefore, the term ‘Viking’ is useful for a broader range of meanings than the purely military because it connotes the expansive, complex and multicultural activities of peoples who were still in touch with their Scandinavian origins, language and culture, but who were also exposed to new landscapes, new neighbours, and new ways of living.

And that is how I like to use it!