Echoes of the Viking Raiders:  The Old Norse Imprint on English


            Beginning in the mid-8th century, the settled, Christianized lands of Continental Europe, Britain, and Ireland were confronted with the scourge of skilled pagan raiders, soldiers, and settlers from Scandinavia:  the Vikings.  The Vikings in this case were in many ways akin to the migrating Germans of three centuries before; indeed, the Viking invasions effectively constituted a second-wave German Volkerwanderung, carrying Teutonic tribes from Scandinavia proper to France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy, and even Russia and the Byzantine Empire (where the Vikings became renowned as the formidable Varangian Guard force protecting the Emperor).  The Vikings in England very nearly threatened the entire Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy—the seven warring Germanic kingdoms established since the 5th century—before finally being defeated by King Alfred the Great in the 800s, who regained lost regions and finally unified the territory not under Danish control, which would become the nucleus of the English state.  The Rus from Sweden (from a district referred to today as Rosland) fared east and established their own state, the Kievan Rus (hence Russia), on the riverways of Eastern Europe.  However, after donating Scandinavian names and some words and customs to the Slavic languages in the region, they were rapidly assimilated like their cousins to the west.  The Vikings in France, under their leader Rollo (Hrolf), intermarried with the neighboring Frankish population and adopted the French language and culture (which the Frankish and Burgundian Teutonic tribes had themselves done by the 7th century).  Thus the Normans, as the Gallicized Viking settlers were called, would carry predominantly French, not Norse, culture to Britain in the 11th century A.D. 

            Nevertheless, the Vikings in England proper (referred to as Danes, since most of them apparently stemmed from Denmark) did retain their distinctive culture and language, which had a crucial influence on English itself.  Old Norse, the Viking language, was similar to Anglo-Saxon and Old English, and in attempting to understand each other’s speech, the Anglo-Saxon and Danish communities apparently ventured to simplify their languages’ respective grammar to avoid confusion.  (The Scandinavian tongues today have the simplest grammar among Indo-European languages, with only a single case for each verb that does not depend on whether the subject is first-, second-, or third-person singular or plural.)  English lost much of its inflectional character and case structure, and its pronunciation seems to have shifted further, especially in locales where Anglo-Saxon and Danish culture were adjoining.  (The loss of gutturals and the case system for which modern German is famous were unequivocally not, as many people mistakenly assume, a product of the Norman Conquest.  These changes in the English tongue preceded the Norman arrival.)  The Viking tongue also greatly impacted the English language’s vocabulary, as speakers at the border regions between Saxons and Danes interchanged each other’s languages in the interest of common discourse.

            Old Norse contributed a number of short, pithy, monosyllabic words for concrete objects and actions that are basic to everyday speech.  The third-person plural pronoun of English, they, and its object form them, was imported from Old Norse and replaced its Anglo-Saxon predecessor.  (Compare German sie and Dutch zij.)  Anglo-Saxon niman, akin to modern Dutch nemen and German nehmen, became replaced by the Old Norse taka, modern take. (Compare Swedish tar, ta, tager, Danish tage.)  An open-aired or glass carving into a wall became known as a wind’s eye from the Danish words for these concepts, modern Danish vindue and English window.  Words like husband and fellow streamed in from Scandinavian social practices of the time, while sister, of Old Norse derivation, supplanted the native Anglo-Saxon (yet closely similar) term meaning the same.  A few other Old Norse words adopted upon the Viking migrations closely resembled the Anglo-Saxon counterparts which they replaced:  loose, booth, egg, give,  both, guest, seat.  In most cases however, the Old Norse term was not present at all in Anglo-Saxon (or had a cognate signifying a completely different concept):


glitter, skill, ugly, leg, lift, loft, bag, skin, wing, thrive, steak, race (footrace), happen, happy, root, hit, guess, die, thrust, thrive, crash, low, raise, raft, log, skull, scab, sky, score, get, take, log, loose, link, call, slaughter, guest, knife, ill, hurry, crazy, anger, bait, blunder, bulk, gap, blend, scold, raise, smile, want, thwart, ban, dirt, skein, sister, wrong, worry, weak, leak, rug, rag, sag, scare, trust, lag, law, ransack, gear, kid, mire, skip, loan, clip, stack


As a result of the Old Norse infusion (as well as of later imbibings of Dutch, Low German, and High German vocabulary), English has a richness in its Germanic wordstock that is unparalleled in the other Teutonic languages.  Indeed in some cases the Old Norse word has been lost in most other modern Germanic tongues (with the exception of Icelandic, which has preserved its ancient Old Norse character so well that modern Icelanders can read the old Viking sagas without translation).  For example the roots of ugly, get, happen, happy, get, want, ill, wrong, and rag have been lost or rendered nearly archaic in modern Danish and Swedish (though, again, they can be found in Icelandic).  Other words have shifted in their meanings over time.  For example Danish anger signifies “repentance” while Danish læg means the “calf” muscle, not the leg itself.  However, in most cases modern Scandinavia tongues retain equivalents for these ancient loanwords into English, which can of course be applied to advantage for anyone aiming to speak them from an English background.


-- Wes Ulm


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