How to Insult Your Friends Like a Viking!

One of the criticisms I’ve received about Seidman is that the dialog between Kol and Thorbrand felt a little too “modern.”  This is a perfectly valid criticism, if it brings the reader out of the story.  But it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part, so I’d like to explain my reasoning.

I’ve read a bunch of books on Vikings, in which everyone speaks like Conan the Barbarian or a character from The Lord of the Rings — rather stilted and formal, and using the exclamation “Fool!” quite a bit.  Now, I’m a big fan of Conan and LOTR, but I don’t think people ever really talked that way.  Like the fact that all films about Vikings are scored with heavy kettle drums, low brass that didn’t even exist before the Renaissance and chorsuses of men shouting, “Huh!”, this is simply a modern shorthand for historical dialog.

I suspect the thing that seems the most jarring to some readers are the insults Kol and Thorbrand toss around.  In several places, they use the word, “dummy” or “stupid” and these can break the illusion of the book being a historical novel.  Perhaps words like “dullard” or “fool” or “simpleton” would be more in keeping with the tone of a historical.  (And in fact the adult characters in Seidman do tend to talk a bit more like that.)

But in reality, Kol would not say “dullard” or “fool” or “dummy” in any context.  He doesn’t speak English.  He would say fífl, which translates to…wait for it…”dullard” or “simpleton” or “dummy”.  Maybe “idiot.”  But to Kol and Thorbrand, the way they speak to one another would be perfectly natural and easy to their ears.  Teenagers, no matter what the time period, don’t speak formally to one another.  (Well, unless they’re raised in high society, perhaps.)  So why translate it formally?  Why not just make it colloquial and informal, as it would sound to them?  That was my reasoning for making Kol and Thorbrand talk the way they do in the novel.

But at this point you may be wondering, just how did the Norse insult each other?  This is important to know, if you ever find yourself sucked back through a time portal.  So, leaving out some inappropriately vulgar ones, here are a few common insults in Old Icelandic:

dunga (DOON-gah) — a useless fellow
eldhúsfífl (EHLD-hoos-feef-uhl) — “hearthfire idiot”, an idiot who sits by the fire all day, a good-for-nothing
fífl (FEEF-uhl) — fool, idiot
gløggvingr (GLOHG-ving-uhr) — stingy person
hraumi (HROWM-ee) — braggart
níðingr (NEETH-ing-uhr) — villain, vile person
slápr (SLAHP-uhr) — a good-for-nothing, lazy person
vámr (VAHM-uhr) — loathsome person
vargdropi (VAHRG-drohp-ee) — son of an outlaw* 
veslingr (VEHS-ling-uhr) — puny wretch

*NOTE: vagr (“outlaw”) also means “wolf”.  The Norse weren’t fond of wolves.

It was also popular to call people after various animals, such as dogs or sows, or to say that they were the sons or daughters of these animals.

But beware!  If you start throwing these insults around in Viking Age Scandinavia, you’d better hope the button on your time portal wristband isn’t broken!

(My gratitude to the members of the Old Norse Yahoo! group norse_course for their posts on this subject.)