Old Norse vs. Old English

This month I will be writing about the battle between these two languages during the time of the Viking occupation of England, and the centuries afterwards. This topic has interested me for some time, I even wrote my dissertation on it, and hopefully I won’t be plagiarising myself! After the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons seemed to come to some sort of agreement c.878 when King Alfred defeated Guthrum, the leader of the Great Army. The two cultures settled in some semblance of peace, which resulted in a clear divide across the country. Several historians have researched the relationship between Old Norse and Old English, to see how the two languages were linked and the exchanges between them.

Obviously the places that had the most impact were those places controlled by the Vikings, such as York and other places in the Danelaw. Due to the language barrier between the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians some historians have theorised on how the two cultures communicated with each other, did they learn each other’s languages or was there some level of mutual intelligibility? Through the study of particular word studies I was able to find that while it may not be easy to find a definitive answer to this question it is obvious that the speakers of Old English absorbed some words from the Viking language.

So what does this mean? Does this mean that Old Norse was slowly taking over Old English? Or does this mean that the two languages, and therefore the two cultures, were learning to co-exist? While it may never be possible to figure out what was really going on, it is fun trying to figure it out. There are certain types of words in Modern English that originate from Old Norse, such as legal and naval terms. Also taken from Old Norse are various parts of our grammar system. If you think the whole ‘their/there/they’re’ thing is confusing, you should try to learn the system we used before the Vikings invaded! I have included a table of the Old English system of third person pronouns below.

Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hit hēo hiē hēo
Accusative hine hit hīe hiē hīo
Genitive his his hire hiera heora
Dative him him hire him him

(Table taken from Wikipedia)

I think the types of words taken from the Old Norse language shows the type of relationship the two cultures had, especially what the most prominent aspects of their conversations were. Now my research only consisted of legal documents, which are some of the most prominent primary sources existing from this time period, so it is quite likely that other types of words were shared between the two cultures, but there is no written evidence of this. If anyone wanted to read up on this topic any further then I would recommend reading Patrick Wormald’s The making of English law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, Vol.1, Legislation and its limits, and Matthew Townend’s Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English.

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4 thoughts on “Old Norse vs. Old English

    1. Thanks 🙂 I do find the subject quite interesting, I was hoping someone else would feel the same.

      1. For sure. I believe that man without language is rather nothing and, therefore, it is a very fascinating matter to research and remember the ways and means it developed.

        Very best regards from Germany,
        Salva 🙂

  1. I find all of your writings to be interesting as is the topic in general. It sort of dawned on me while watching Vikings that there did not seem to be a language issue, at least on the show. Given how mutually intelligible the Romance languages were during this period, it seems as though the Germanic tongues would have maintained dialect status for a long time. Even today, Spanish speakers can take care of most basic tasks in Brazil using Spanish. English no longer has such a language brother; pretty much all foreign languages require study, but French shares a huge amount of vocabulary with English, which is apparent in writing more so than in the spoken tongue, as well as certain grammatical features such as using the present subjunctive with a past meaning: It was urgent that Jean arrive on time. Cf. il etait urgent que Jean arrive a l’heure. Anyway, please keep writing on this topic of Scandinavian influence on English. You have plenty of interested readers who may not always comment.

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