How Vikings Dialect Coach Brings Old Norse Back to Life
“Speaking Old Norse is definitely a challenge,” says Vikings‘ Katheryn Winnick, who plays warrior Lagertha on the A&E drama. Luckily, Poll Moussoulides is on set to help the cast nail what Winnick calls “the guttural and primal” ancient tongue. Moussoulides, whose TV résumé includes Reign and The Tudors, tells us how it’s done.
Are the characters really speaking the ancient languages Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon?
We use linguistic historians around the world to make sure we’re authentic. There is enormous documentation about Anglo-Saxon; it’s the root of many of the words that we use in English today. We know that Old Norse is very close to Old Icelandic. The Parisian [characters’] language, Old Low Franconian, is based on words collected from old psalms and poems. It’s the first time the language has been heard in 1,000 years.
How do you work with the actors?
The historians translate [writer and executive producer] Michael Hirst’s lines and send them to me, sometimes with audio, sometimes without. I print them out for the actors and then spend time making sure they’re comfortable speaking them. We give them up to a week to learn the lines, and there are no last-minute rewrites!
How are they doing?
We’ve gotten very good feedback from experts who say it’s wonderful to hear an ancient language come alive.
Which actors have the best ear for ancient languages?
My favorite scene was when Athelstan [George Blagden] had to translate between Anglo-Saxon-speaking King Ecbert [Linus Roache] and the Old Norse-speaking Lagertha [Winnick], who fancied each other. It was very complicated and intricate, but the three of them did really well!
—With additional reporting by Kate Hahn