Norse code: project aims to decipher sound of old languages

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Allstar/MGM/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar</span>
Photograph: Allstar/MGM/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Vikings are well known for helmets, swords and longboats, and they must have made a racket when raiding settlements, but history does not quite record what they sounded like. The centuries cast a hush over their conversations, poems, songs and music.

That may soon change because a pioneering research project aims to breathe life into the sounds of early medieval languages, including Old Norse and Early Irish.

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, and the composer Edmund Hunt are to lead an effort to fuse music and historic linguistics to examine the sonic footprints of Vikings and Celts.

The project, Augmented Vocality: Recomposing the Sounds of Early Irish and Old Norse, will apply new vocal processing and electronic music technology to turn surviving texts into sound.

“The question is can we bring back some of the performative power, the intimacy, of those voices? Can we bring them back to life?” Lamberto Coccioli, the project lead and associate principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, said

His team will collaborate with three European contemporary music ensembles and Cambridge University’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has just awarded £485,274 to the two-year project, which starts in November.

TV shows such as Vikings and The Last Kingdom, as well as JRR Tolkien’s fantasy world, populate the visual imagination, said Coccioli. “But what do we really know about the sounds accompanying all this imagery?”

The project was inspired in part by Hunt’s mix of specialties – a composer with a degree in linguistics and Anglo-Saxon literature. The goal is to produce musical compositions, public concerts, conference presentations, a digital audio database and a sample library.

Archaeologists have found evidence of musical instruments dating back to the Iron Age, including horns, panpipes, flutes and lyres, but Vikings and early Celts left scant written record of their tunes.

Scholars are confident they know what Vikings and Celts sounded like by tracing the evolution of language and pronunciation, said Coccioli. “The knowledge is there but it’s academic knowledge and not used in artistic practice. We thought we might be able to take the source material for new compositions, not just [recreate] the raw sounds.”

The modern versions of Old Irish and Old Norse face uncertain fates. Without radical action Scots Gaelic will be dead within a decade, according to a recent study. In Ireland, Irish language schools are popular in cities but only 1.7% of the population speak it daily. Icelandic, which has changed little since Viking times, is being eroded by tourism and TV.

Darach Ó Séaghdha, an Irish language activist, podcaster and author of Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language, welcomed the project as an innovative initiative that could fuel linguistic curiosity and enthusiasm.

Technology is boosting revival efforts, said Ó Séaghdha. He cited Kevin Scannell, an American academic who last year obtained a scholarship to develop an Irish-language Siri- or Alexa-style virtual assistant, and abair.ie, a project by the Phonetics and Speech Laboratory at Trinity College Dublin that develops synthetic voices for Irish.

“Various agencies and academics are doing great work – hyperlink dictionaries with audio pronunciation, grammar wizards, things that are now at your fingertips. And social media has helped Irish speakers find each other.”