This work is a Dictionary of the Old Icelandic Language, or (as it may be called) the Classical Language of the Scandinavian race.
The history of the preservation of this language in its ancient form is remarkable.
The Icelandic language, in old writers also called the Norse or the Danish (Norrœna or Dönsk tunga), was spoken by the four great branches of the Scandinavian race who peopled the countries abutting on the Baltic, the Norsemen or Northmen, Swedes, Danes, and Goths (Norðmenn, Svíar, Danir, and Gautar), as well as by the inhabitants of those parts of Northern Russia which were then known by the name of Gardar*.
At the beginning of the 9th century the growing population of these countries, together with political changes and the naturally enterprising character of the people, caused a great outward movement of the race. Under the leading of their chieftains they set forth to seek for homes in other lands; and thus the 9th century came to be known by the name of the Age of the Vikings (Víkinga-Öld), The stream of emigration increased in volume, as tidings of the successes of the first adventurers reached the northern shores. The Swedes continued to press eastward into the countries beyond the Baltic, while the Danes and Norsemen steered boldly to the south and west, and chiefly to the shores of the British Isles.
Two main currents of this emigration by sea may be traced. First, the Danish, which directed its course to the north-east of England, and at length occupied that district so completely that it received the name of the Dena-lagu. The Saxon Chronicle is the chief authority for this part of the subject†; the only old Icelandic works which touch on it being the Egils Saga, which says that in the reign of Athelstan almost every family of note in Northern England was Danish by the father’s or the mother’s side; and the Ragnars Saga, which professes to give an historical account of the great Danish invasion, but is almost as mythical as the Iliad.
The second migration was Norse. These settlers gradually peopled the coasts of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Orkneys and Shetland, and the northern counties of Scotland, Ross, Moray, and especially Caithness. In the year 852 a.d. the Norse sea-king Olave the White reached Ireland with a large fleet, and founded a Norse principality at Dublin: the foremost man among the Norsemen in Scotland was Earl Sigurd, uncle of Göngu-Hrolf. It is probable that to this same emigration must be referred the conquest and occupation of Normandy.
With this stream of Norsemen the colonisation of Iceland also is closely connected. That island had already been discovered by a Viking named Naddodd, who called it Snowland (Snæland); it was next seen by Gardar, a Swede, after whom it was named Gardarsholm; and lastly, the Viking Flóki gave it the name of Iceland, from seeing the Isafjörd covered with polar ice. But the first settlers were Ingolf, son of Örn, and his foster-brother Leif, who set sail about a.d. 870, and reached Iceland; they soon however passed on to Ireland, whence after a few years they returned to Iceland, taking with them some Irish slaves. The year 874 is fixed by the chroniclers as the date of this final settlement. Leif was soon after murdered by his unwilling Irish colonists; Ingolf remained alone and is regarded as the first settler in the island. About the same time Harold Fair-hair had seized the throne of Norway, and, by the establishment of despotic power, had become unbearable to the high-spirited and independent chiefs; and therefore the newly-discovered island, bleak and desolate as it was, offered a welcome home to men who had hitherto lived in the possession of equal and undisputed rights. Again, the Norsemen in the British Isles became unsettled after the death of King Thorstein, Olave the White’s son (the Oistin Mac Amlabh of the Irish Annals), in the year 874 a.d.; and they seem from that time to have begun to migrate to Iceland. Conspicuous among these emigrants was Queen Auðr Djúpauðga, King Olave’s widow, who set forth with almost all her kinsfolk and followers. It is probable that the numberof Norsemen who sailed from Ireland to Iceland was about equal to that of those who had gone thither from Norway. They carried with them their families and such cultivation as they possessed. They spoke that form of the Scandinavian tongue which prevailed on the western coast of Norway; and as time went on, while new dialects formed themselves throughout Scandinavia, in Iceland the old tongue rose to the dignity of a literary language, and thereby retained its original form. It has thus been preserved to our days‡.
The first settlers formed an independent aristocracy, or republic, which continued for nearly four hundred years. Up to the end of the 10th century they held the heathen faith and practised the rites of heathen worship: Christianity was accepted as the faith of the island in the year 1000 a.d. Two centuries and a half after this change of faith (a.d. 1262) the Icelanders made willing submission to the king of Norway, that is, as has been said, about four hundred years after the first discovery of the island.
It was during this period that the Laws and Sagas of Iceland were written. Some idea of the extent and variety of this literature may be formed from the compendious account which is subjoined to this Preface. Tales of an historical and mythological character were committed to writing, being for the most part narratives of the feats of heroes abroad and at home, and belonging to the times before the year 1030 a.d., which may fairly be called the patriarchal age of Icelandic history; and in these tales, with poems, laws, and documents of various kinds, the old Scandinavian tongue, as spoken and written by the Icelanders in the period ranging from 900 to 1262 a.d., has been handed down to us in a form which may justly be called classical. In Sweden and Norway the old Scandinavian tongue is preserved in writing only on the scanty Runic monuments. The earliest Danish and Swedish written laws are believed not to be earlier than the middle and end of the 13th century, by which time the common language in these lands had already undergone great changes, although the modern Danish and Swedish were not yet formed. In Norway, however, a considerable literature of the 13th century survives; and the old language lasted longer there than in the sister countries. This literature consists of laws, diplomas, homilies, and translations of French romances; and these works are quoted in this Dictionary together with the Icelandic. These documents belong to the period embraced by the reign of King Hakon, a.d. 1216-1263; but, though valuable, they do not make an original literature. Only in Iceland did a living literature spring up and flourish; there alone the language has been handed down to us with unbroken tradition and monuments, from the first settlement of the island to the present day.
It is believed that the present Dictionary will furnish not only a complete glossary of the words used in this old classical literature, but also a full account of the forms and inflexions of the verbs, with copious citations of passages in which each word occurs, with references carefully verified, and explanations given whenever they seem to be required; and, at the same time, though the Dictionary is mainly intended for the old authors, both in prose and poetry, it endeavours to embrace an account of the whole language, old and new.
A few words must be added to explain the origin and history of the work.
Many years ago, Richard Cleasby projected a General Dictionary of the Old Scandinavian Language; and in 1840 he left England to settle in Copenhagen, the chief seat and centre of Scandinavian learning and the home of the best collection of Icelandic MSS., for the purpose of preparing himself for his work and of obtaining the assistance of Icelandic students in collecting materials; among these Mr. Konrad Gislason’s name ought especially to be mentioned. Mr. Cleasby was a man of independent means, an excellent scholar, held in high esteem by foreign scholars, devoted to his work, and shunning no labour to make it perfect. He reserved for himself the old prose literature; while Dr. Egilsson was engaged on the poetical vocabulary, towards the expenses of which Mr. Cleasby promised to contribute, so that he may be said to have been the chief promoter of that work also. The MS. of the Poetical Dictionary was ready for publication in the year 1846. In the following year Mr. Cleasby caused five words—bragð, búa, at (conjunction), af (preposition), and ok (conjunction)—to be set up in type as specimens of the projected Prose Dictionary. These he sent to several foreign friends, and among others to Jacob Grimm, who returned a most kind and friendly answer, warmly approving of the plan as indicated in the specimens, and adding many good wishes that Mr. Cleasby might have health and life to complete the work. Unhappily these wishes were not to be realised. In the autumn of the same year he was taken ill, but was in a fair way to recovery, when, by resuming work too soon, he suffered a relapse. His illness took the form of typhus fever, and he died insensible, without being able to make arrangements respecting his papers and collections.
Desirous to continue the work which he had begun, and in which he was so deeply interested, Cleasby’s heirs decided to bear the expense of continuing it. The task of doing this was entrusted to Konrad Gislason, a son of Gisli Konradsson who for half a century was a prolific and popular Icelandic author. Konrad had assisted Cleasby in his study of Icelandic from November 1839, and had, along with other Icelanders, been employed on the dictionary from April 1840. From 1846 onwards he made many important contributions to Icelandic studies, and was professor of Icelandic in the University of Copenhagen from 1853 to 1886. With so eminent a scholar, whose special studies were in the early Icelandic language and literature, the dictionary was in good hands, all the more as he also had capable assistants, among whom were Gisli Magnusson, Benedikt Gröndal, Eirikur Jonsson, and Gunnlaugur Þordarson. By their combined work the material collected for the dictionary had been so far dealt with that by 1854 it had been put into dictionary form for the whole alphabet and made available for general use by the meaning of the words being correctly rendered in English, although for the editor and his colleagues this was an acquired language. At this stage, however, Cleasby’s heirs had misgivings as to the time that might still be required to complete the work, and decided to have the manuscript immediately sent to England, where it was placed at the disposal of Mr. (afterwards Sir) G. Webbe Dasent, who had shown his interest in, and knowledge of, Icelandic by his translations of the Prose Edda (1842) and Rask’s grammar (1843).
In the year 1855 Dasent proposed to the Delegates of the Clarendon Press to undertake the publication of the dictionary. The matter, however, remained in abeyance till 1864, when Dasent again brought it before the Delegates. They were persuaded to renew their engagement with him to undertake the publication of the work. He stated, however, to the Delegates that the papers were left in an imperfect state, and asked them to grant a sum of money for the purpose of securing the services of an Icelandic scholar in completing the work. This was also agreed to; and Dasent, in the course of the same year, secured the services of Gudbrand Vigfusson, an Icelander born, already well known for his learning, and for his labours in the field of his native literature.
Vigfusson, like Gislason, had been a student in Copenhagen, and from 1860 onwards had established his reputation as an Icelandic scholar by editing some important sagas and other works as well as by his articles on various subjects. In entering the field of lexicography he was undertaking something new, for which, however, the way had already been prepared for him. The manuscript dictionary compiled in Copenhagen has fortunately been preserved, so that Vigfusson’s share in producing the printed work can readily be made out. For many of the words it was only necessary to make minor changes, occasionally of definitions, but more frequently of references, these being usefully altered to apply to a printed text in place of the manuscript from which they had originally been copied. In many entries, usually of minor importance, the quotations given in the manuscript dictionary were omitted, in order no doubt to save space, as the entry was thus reduced to one line instead of two or three. On the other hand, the space given to words of some importance or interest, especially those relating to Icelandic culture or history, was frequently enlarged and the article made more informative. The model for the elaborate treatment of the commonest verbs had already been set by Gislason, whose articles on these also supplied the bulk of the numerous quotations.
While thus to a great extent making use of, and at the same time improving, the material ready to his hand, Vigfusson made various additions to it, mainly from Old Icelandic texts not previously printed, or from the Norse-Danish dictionary of Johan Fritzner published in 1867. A further addition to the vocabulary was the inclusion of a number of words not recorded in the older literature, but making their appearance at any time during or after the fifteenth century. As no systematic collection of these had ever been made, it was only to a few of them that it was possible to supply a date or a reference, and Vigfusson cited most of them simply as ‘modern’ or ‘modern word’ or ‘now freq.’, thus unfortunately helping to confirm the idea that there is a definite breach between ‘old’ and ‘modern’ Icelandic. For quite a number of such words dates could readily have been found in texts with which Vigfusson was familiar, or in the early dictionaries by Runolfur Jonsson (1651) and Gudmundur Andrésson (a 1654). Even those which are included in the supplement to this edition of the dictionary are no more than an imperfect attempt to fill the gap still existing between the records of the two main periods of Icelandic literature.
This Preface, as far as the fourth line of p. vi, is reprinted from that written by Dean Liddell for the first part of the dictionary, which was published in 1869. The short paragraph on the same page is partly abridged from the same source; otherwise the matter on pages vi and vii either has been rewritten or, for the most part, is entirely new. The Introduction, the life of Richard Cleasby, and the Specimens, occupying sixty-four pages in the first edition, are omitted in this one and the space added to the more essential supplement.
W. A. C.