The Germanic tribes who stayed in Scandinavia after the departure of the Goths gave rise to the North Germanic group of languages. The North Germanic tribes lived on the southern coast of the Scandinavian peninsula and in Denmark (since the 4th c.). Their speech showed little dialectal variation until the 9th c. and is regarded as a sort of common North Germanic parent–language called Old Norse or Old Scandinavian. It has come down to us in runic inscriptions dated from the 3rd to the 9th c. Runic inscriptions were carved on objects made of hard material in an alphabet known as the runic alphabet or the runes. The runes were used by North and West Germanic tribes.
The disintegration of Old Norse into separate dialects and languages began after the 9th c. when the Scandinavians started out on their sea voyages. The famous Viking Age (800 – 1050 AD) is the period of Scandinavian raids and expansion overseas.
The principal linguistic differentiation in Scandinavia corresponds to the political division into Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In this case the criteria of national identity and mutual intelligibility do not coincide, i.e. using just the intelligibility criterion, we may say that there are really only two Scandinavian languages: Continental (Swedish, Danish, and two standard varieties of Norwegian) and Insular (Icelandic and Faeroese). Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians can understand each other’s speech to a greater or lesser extent. But as soon as non-linguistic criteria (political, historical) are taken into account, we have to recognise at least five Scandinavian languages: Swedish/ˈswi:diʃ/, Danish/ˈdeiniʃ, Norwegian/nɔ:ˈwi:ʤiən/, Icelandic/aisˈlændik/, Faeroese/ˌfԑərəuˈi:z/.To be Swedish is to speak Swedish; to be Danish is to speak Danish, etc. In such cases, political and linguistic identity merge. And there are many other similar cases where political, ethnic, religious, literary, or other identities force a division where linguistically there is relatively little difference [Crystal 1997].
In addition to the three languages on the mainland, the North Germanic group includes two more languages (Icelandic and Faeroese) whose origin goes back to the Viking Age.
Beginning with the 8th-9th c. the Scandinavians undertook distant sea voyages and set up their colonies in many territories. The Scandinavian invaders, known as Northmen, overran Northern France and settled in Normandy (named after them). Crossing the North Sea they occupied a large part of England. They founded numerous settlements in the islands around the North Sea: the Shetlands, the Orkneys, Ireland and the Faeroe (Faroe) Islands; going still farther west they reached Iceland, Greenland and North America.
Linguistically, in most areas of their expansion, the Scandinavian settlers were assimilated by the native population: in France they adopted the French language; in Northern England, in Ireland and other islands the Scandinavian dialects were replaced by English. In the Faeroe Islands the West Norwegian dialects brought by the Scandinavians developed into a separate language called Faeroese. It is spoken nowadays by about 40,000 people.
In Iceland, the West Scandinavian dialects, at first identical with those of Norway, eventually grew into an independent language, Icelandic. As compared with other North Germanic languages, Icelandic has retained a more archaic lexical and grammatical system. Modern Icelandic is very much like Old Icelandic and Old Norse, for it has not participated in the linguistic changes which took place in the other Scandinavian languages, probably because of its geographical isolation. Despite seven centuries of Danish rule, lasting until 1918, Icelandic has remained virtually unchanged since the 12th c.
Early Icelandic literature is very rich and largely anonymous and seems to have originated in numerous Norse colonies in the North Sea islands (around 9th-10th c.). The two Eddas and several Sagas date from this period. At present Icelandic is spoken by over 250.000 people.