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Learning Old Norse through digital technologies: using LARA to build an online Völuspá

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Proceedings (peer-reviewed)
Author BédiBranislav, BernharðssonHaraldur, ChuaCathy, RaynerManny,
Project A Crowdsourcing Platform for Spoken CALL Content
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Proceedings (peer-reviewed)

Title of proceedings Proc IASS 2020


Learning Old Norse has traditionally been a classroom-based activity where the structure of the language and its historical development are introduced by the teacher. Students acquire vocabulary and knowledge of Old Norse culture and mythology through the use of dictionaries, printed hand-outs and text books. Pronunciation is learned by listening to the teacher reading aloud. Although these traditional methods have much to recommend them, they mean that knowledge of Old Norse is limited to those who are able to attend such classes. In contrast, the goal of the project described here is to leverage modern digital technology and open up the world of Old Norse literature in the original to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. In this paper, we will describe how we used the open source Learning and Reading Assistant (LARA; to create an online version of Völuspá, the first and one of the best-known poems in the Poetic Edda. The result is posted at The project has significant conceptual overlap with the University of Kentucky’s Electronic Beowulf (, but, as well as the language and content, there are important differences in presentation and teaching approach. The Electronic Beowulf project’s main aim is to present the text of Beowulf in a comprehensive annotated form. Our aim in the LARA Völuspá is more oriented towards being able to treat the poem as a resource for becoming familiar with Old Norse as a literary language. The view of the text is more fine-grained and linguistic in nature; as well as being able to use the mouse to get translations of words and lines as in Electronic Beowulf, the student can click on a word to view a hyperlinked concordance showing all the places where it occurs in the text, listen to audio for any individual word or verse, and consult notes attached to words which explain the significance in the context of Old Norse mythology of the proper names occurring in the poem (gods, toponyms, etc.) The intention is that the reader, even if they have little prior exposure to Old Norse, can learn to appreciate the poem by first acquiring the sound and meaning of individual words and then piecing together a coherent language-based understanding of whole verses. At the level of text, the primary resource used was a manually annotated XML version of the Poetic Edda created by the second author. This associates each word in the text with part of speech and lemma information; by reformatting the data into LARA form, we obtained an online concordance which is indexed by lemma rather than surface word, making it correspondingly more general and thus more useful. For our English translations, due to copyright issues the primary resource used was the poetically attractive 1936 translation of the Edda by Bellows. The rather loose and nonliteral nature of Bellows’s translation, however, meant that we had to do considerable work consulting other sources to create the word-level translations. Audio was recorded by the first author, using an efficient online recording tool integrated into the LARA platform. While the audio is sufficient to demonstrate the functionality of the project, we hope it will be replaced by a high quality version if an Old Norse specialist can be brought in to assist. By using the digital technologies of today, our intention Is to make Old Norse texts available to a wider reading audience and in this way contribute to preserving the memory and culture of ancient languages in the modern world. We are testing this idea through a reading group for the Völuspá which we have organised on the popular Goodreads book reviewing site (90 million members). Using the LARA version as their starting point, people with widely varying abilities in Old Norse are reading the poem and discussing the poetic aspects and the structure of the language. We will report on the results of this ongoing experiment in the final paper.