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The Name Skraeling

Q: I read your page on the Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland and was surprised to see that you translated Skraelings - a name the Vikings gave the natives of Vinland, probably the Beothuks - as "heathens". I've read somewhere that "Skraelings" means skinny people, while also holding the notian smallness of stature (and compared to the Vikings they may well have been skinny and smallish). In Dutch and my native tongue Frisian (which are related to the Scandinavian languages) the adjectives "schraal" (Dutch) and "skraal" (Frisian) do have the meaning of skinny & small - though these words are not usually used to describe people. Anyway, your translation of "heathens" can't be right since (most of) the Vikings were themselves still heathens at the time. By the way, it was my understanding that the Vikings used the term "Skraelings" for all the native peoples of the America's, including the Inuit they encountered in Greenland. I hope I've been of some help.

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A: Hello, and thanks for writing! I'm not actually sure where the information about Skraelings being "heathens" came from originally. It's possible that it was used that way in later years, since it seems like no one's completely sure what the word originally meant anymore. The idea you suggest is interesting, that it meant "skinny" or "scrawny" people. That might possibly have applied to the Beothuks, but the idea of anyone calling the Inuit skinny is somewhat hard to believe! As I look into this a bit I see that some people have proposed the word comes from an Old Icelandic word meaning "to scream" or "screamers." That also seems possible to me, since it seems that people often name strangers who don't speak their language something like "screamers" or "babblers" or "grunters" ("barbarian" has an etymology like that, and going in the other direction, the Dakota Sioux called English "the barking language!") In a modern Icelandic dictionary, "scream" is listed as "öskra," so perhaps that (or an older form of it) could have been the root of the word "skraeling."

Anyway, it certainly doesn't seem historically possible that the word could really have meant "heathen" in the early 11th century, so that _must_ be an error. I've removed that reference from our page. Thanks for the heads-up!

Native Languages of the Americas

Related Links

 Beothuk (Red Indians)
 Tribal names

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