Origins of the English Language: Invaders from the North

The eye-opening extent of Viking globe-trotting wikimedia.org

This is the second part in my series and it’s only taken me a year to write it! It look at the impact of the Vikings on England specifically though they did invade and settle in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and northern France.

The Vikings have a poor press. Conventionally portrayed as horn-helmeted barbarians who raped and pillaged their way across the land motivated only by their hatred for Christians. This is wrong on so many levels but is not what I want to talk about here – though to a certain extent I will look at the positives they had on England and still do to this day.

Aethelflaed (daughter of Alfred the Great), one of English history’s most un-sung women wikimedia.org

Eighth century England – there was no England – was divided into a few kingdoms. The largest of these were: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. In each case they had grown slowly to absorb smaller kingdoms and there was still a few of these left – most notably Essex, Kent and Sussex.

Around the 790s, disenfranchised nobles across the North Sea, squeezed out of expanding kingdoms in Denmark and Norway, set out in search of new lands. They found rich churches and undefended monasteries and trading towns. In 794 they finally arrived in England, sacking the Holy Island at Lindsifarne. This was the taste of what was to come for the next 80 years as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms not only fought them off, but hired them as mercenaries to fight their enemies.

Full-scale invasion began in 860 with Guthrum’s Great Army and over the years he successfully claimed most of northeast England, pushing Alfred’s Wessex back to a small patch of land in the Somerset Levels. Alfred fought back and the pair agreed the “Danelaw”. Roughly following the old Watling Street Roman Road, the border split Mercia in two between Saxon south and Viking north. Alfred married his daughter Aethelflaed to the Mercian heir meaning that any children they had would effectively unite the crowns… but that is another story.

What this meant though (until the inevitable war that would create England) is that the Vikings had a kingdom to rule, at least until the inevitable conflict that would create England.

Language

The Runic Alphabet is very similar to the Anglo-Saxon alphabet seen in my original post (here)

“Futarch” Norse alphabet. The top is the Danish 16-letter alphabet and below are the Swedish-Norwegian letters. archeurope.com

They probably developed out of the same far more ancient languages but they had become so different over those hundreds of years between Saxony, Denmark and Norway, that the differences were now marked – a bit like modern German and Dutch are today. The above runes were not used extensively until after the Viking world was largely Christian – something that puts neo-pagans on the back foot as rune stones are often used in their religious practices.

A lot of the harsh consonants we have in English actually come from the Old Norse language: G, K and Sk specifically. Any words with a harsh sound are likely to be Norse in origin thanks to these sounds. The word “egg” for example is Norse. Anglo-Saxons called eggs “eys” (this may have had a soft airy “h” sounds at the end  – a bit like “eight” but not pronouncing the “t” so therefore similar to “egg”). The pronouns “they”, “them” and “their” came directly from Old Norse too. Think about the basic pronunciation of those words and see if you can identify the letters in the Futhark above. The Anglo-Saxon equivalents for they, them, their were hie, hiera and him.

Wiki has an interesting list of words, some of which I was not aware of. Ombudsman is the most surprising. I always felt it sounded Norse but always thought it was quite modern. As you can see it is Swedish for “Commissioner” or “Steward”. The most interesting is “heathen”, a word often applied by the Saxons to the Vikings.

As with the previous article, there is no greater noticeable influence than that which we see in the place names.

Viking place name distribution in the British Isles mysociety.org

Place Names

The distribution of place names is startling in the map to the right. Outside of the Danelaw area, most of them are coastal – this is understandable as the Vikings were seafarers. There are a few in southern England away from the coasts, particularly Thruxton. I’m not entirely certain for why that is – I didn’t know it was Viking. It may be much later, long after the original meaning was lost (this was something we were warned about if we ever got involved in an etmyology project).

We see it in older cities. York is a good example of the Vikingisation of the place names. It was an important Anglo-Saxon trading settlement named Eoferwic. It is believed that the Viking tongue could not pronounce some of these complex Anglo-Saxon sounds and the city became Jorvik. There are many examples of places with changed names but the biggest impact is in the new settlements. We can usually see these through the following suffixes:

-thorpe

These denote villages, often of secondary importance to another nearby village. Scunthorpe is the most famous and largest example though it is no longer a village

-thwaite

These are most common in Yorkshire. It means a piece of land such as a meadow. It is believed that these were legally owned pieces of land, probably enclosed but certainly not wild terrain. Places with the -thwaite suffix are descriptive, sometimes named after people or sometimes in relation to somewhere else

-by

This means “homestead” or village and often named after the person who owned it. Examples include Tenby, Denby, Grimsby. Each of these places would have been established by men whose names began with Tenm Den and Grim.

-gate

Appearing in towns and cities, we use “gate” today to refer something that we close to deny access and through the medieval period, that’s exactly what it meant. Yet the Vikings used it to denote streets – there may have been a gateway or gatehouse at the end, but the gate itself was the road

The English language was just starting to take shape but there was one major influence left and it would come from a French-speaking Viking descendant, a short-tempered alpha male of a Duke living on the north-west coast of modern day France. Until next time…

Further Reading

Linguistics Girl has a rather more extensive look at the Norse influence on the English language including some academic sources.

My Little Norway explains how language structure changed

Finally, The British Museum has an exhibition running until the end of June. Why not visit and learn more about this fascinating period of our history!

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5 thoughts on “Origins of the English Language: Invaders from the North

  1. Great post! My only niggle is those futharks you posted… I’ve no idea who drew them but I think they got Ur(uz) wrong in both cases. According to my research, the top one should look more like a lower case n only angular and the bottom should look more like a lower case r- what they have drawn is more like the simplified lower rhine Ur which had a vertical strike on one side or the other… admittedly most verticals in actual runic were slanted, rather like those of our alphabet in the direction of reading, so I guess you might see this, but everything else would have to be slanted too… Basically I’ve never seen Ur drawn like this before… the only thing it looks like to me is the Tolkein Dwarvish O. Sorry, it just bugged me and I had to share, you know? Feel free to moderate me away…

    1. No, not at all, you seem to know what you are talking about – it’s not something I looked at a lot. Runes covered such a tiny part of my degrees, and there was no learning to read the runes as it wasn’t important to what we were studying.

      The site is run by a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Viking history and archaeology. This is the page it came from. Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite his own source. It’ll be good to know which is correct though.

      Did you see my other post from last year? It’s here and I also show a list of Anglo-Saxon runes

      1. Aha THAT Uruz looks correct! I did read it at the time and enjoyed it.

        I did hunt around trying to find where he’d got them from, but as you say no sources, but I’ve never seen Ur like that. My oldest source for Danish Futhark with the n shape is a reprint of the 1851 Iconographic Encyclopaedia of Science, Literature and Art, which predates all the Gardenarian Neo-pagan stuff, but also may miss out on some more recent findings (but on the internet that was the only page I could find with those versions).

        My hobbyist knowledge of runes comes from finding out I had a Norwegian Great-Grandfather around the same time as reading the Hobbit. That got me to reading Norse myths, although I never actually got around to learning any Norse, not much call for it in a Physics degree 😉
        Then a few years ago I ran a Spycraft-Call of Cthulhu RPG that used each rune as the theme of each story. That taught me a lot more as I researched the changes in the Futharks (and earlier Ur-runes) as they migrated South to Germany and back up, (I like to be thorough in my research) but still I never got beyond studying each rune in seclusion and since I was mainly looking for inspiration I used the meanings of each rune (Ur is Aurochs, and so symbolically linked to strength), which is much more the domain of the Neo-pagan stuff. So I would willing (but surprisedly) bow to a cited source.

        Reminds me actually, I should do something with those game notes…

      2. I did an image search too and couldn’t find it. I can only conclude he drew them himself. More and more stones have been found in Norway, Sweden and Denmark so it’s possible that some recent discoveries have shown different variations on it.

        Wow, a Norwegian G-Grandfather? We think we might have German blood, who would be my G-G-Grandmother. It was always believed she was a Jew who left Germany before Hitler came to power but we’re not entirely sure about that bit. That might explain my love of stollen and gluhwein though 😉

        What are you planning on doing with your notes?

      3. I think short episodic stories is the way to go, like the old magazine style, collected into a book. I’m really enjoying that for Ironmaster so I may continue it. Then again I do tend to waffle on so a Novel may be better, a sort of Spy-Edda?!

        My mum’s grandad was a Norwegian sailor who married an Irishwoman (lumbering her with the Anglicised Surname Burke) and settled in Liverpool. That is pretty much the sanest fact in my family tree… 🙂

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