Monday, April 13th, 2020...6:14 pm

The Day the Vikings Came: Old Norse and its Impact on the English Language

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Ashley Sharp

Photo by PxHere: Viking wood carving.

The Viking presence within England had a great impact on the English language from the year 800 to the year 1100. This impact can be seen on the lexicon and the loss of inflection. English has had a great number of lexical borrowings from other languages such as French and Latin but often overlooked is the impact of Old Norse on the language. Old Norse has arguably had one of the greatest impacts on English. Being a Germanic language, Old Norse is very similar to Old English. ON is a North Germanic language whereas OE is a West Germanic language that are both within the Proto-Germanic family (Liu D.20). Although many words of both languages are seemingly identical to one another, the inflection and pronunciation of the language differed slightly (Gramley 51). It is most likely that speakers from both would have roughly understood one another.

Language contact of ON with OE led to a certain level of bilingualism between the two groups and with this bilingualism comes a certain degree of grammatical confusion. Both languages were highly inflected but slightly varied. Being Germanic languages, both would stress the first syllable of the root ( Liu D.24) and so in communicating with one another, inflectional endings would most likely have been dropped. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Today, amateur speakers of a language, when trying to communicate in that language, focus less on proper grammatical rules and more on what is actually being spoken and syntax. Word order begins to matter more than inflectional endings. It is much easier to learn words rather than grammar when trying to speak a new language. Alfred, the King of Wessex 871-899, allowed Scandinavian settlement in Northern and Eastern England and with this settlement was close contact with the English and therefore language mixing (Liu D.22). There most likely would have been intermarriage between Norse speakers and English speakers (Gramley 51) and the language would have been constantly evolving with every generation. Although it is hard to fully determine whether or not ON was a main cause of inflectional loss on English, it was most definitely a factor. Stephen Gramley states: “the North showed large numbers of Norse borrowings and grammatical influence while the South was a more or less broken continuation of OE” (54). The Northern and Eastern parts of England show the most influence of Scandinavian contact.

Much of the ON lexicon was borrowed by OE speakers, around 400 words to be more exact (Gramley 51). Many place names ending in -holm, -by (Whitby), and others, along with the family names ending in -son or -sen (Jensen or Christensen) have been borrowed from ON (52) and are still visible today. Many of these loanwords are common everyday words and a great number of them also relate to law and the administrative system; words such as lagu or law (Gramley 52) and byrlaw or bylaw (OED). ON also contributed words such as they, them, get, give, take, and call to the lexicon. Many of these loanwords and borrowings were function words (pronouns, prepositions, nouns, verbs) and show that Old Norse had major influence on English (Liu D.24). There are also many common words of ON origin that can used today. Words such as husband, flat, die, and cast (OED). The Survey of English dialects was a survey of vernacular speech within England and its main goal was to “capture the most conservative forms of folk-speech” and its informants were mostly farm labourers (British Library). It was discovered that thirteen of the dialectal loanwords recorded from Norse in this survey occurred the highest in the North because that part of the country was more exposed to Scandinavian influence and the second-highest most frequent usage of Scandinavian loanwords are the East Midlands (Bator). The only reason that it is hard to show evidence is because most of ON impact on the English language was through speech and it was not written down until later (Bator).

These are only a few examples of the impact Old Norse had on English but let it be known that lexical borrowings and diminished usage of inflections have extensively influenced English. Even with the limited evidence, due to lack of written records, it is not difficult to see the extent to which Old Norse affected the English language.

Works Cited

Bator, Magdalena. “Scandinavian loanwords in English in the 15th century.” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: International Review of English Studies. Vol. 42, No. 1, 2006, pp. 285-299. Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

British Library. “Survey of English Dialects.” Accessed 26 Feb. 2020.

Gramley, Stephen. “Old English: The Viking Invasions and their Consequences (700-1066/1100).” The History of English: An Introduction. Routledge, 2012.

Liu, Yin. “Describing the History of English”. Eng 290: English in Time, U of Saskatchewan Bookstore, Fall 2019.

(OED.) Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.                       Accessed 11 Apr 2020.

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