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