The Scandinavian influence on the English language

Term Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 71 von 80


Table of contents

0 Introduction

1 Historical background

2 The general influences

3 Specific influences
3.1 Place names
3.2 Borrowing
3.3 The loss of inflections
3.4 The influence on closed class words

4 Conclusion


0 Introduction

In the history of English, the language came into contact with different speech communities. Influences of Celtic, Latin, Scandinavian and French left their mark from the beginning in Anglo-Saxon times onwards, and the colonial expansion of the British Empire in the last three centuries resulted in the contact with even more speech communities.

Through these language contacts, English changed a lot – it showed the tendency to incorporate foreign influences, especially lexical ones, more likely in the first place; its grammar changed from being and analytic one towards being synthetic; and in terms of the lexicon, it changed from being a Germanic to a partly Romanic influenced language.

In this essay, I want to examine the influence of the Scandinavian language on English and to what extent it was responsible for the general changes mentioned above. 45 per cent of the commoner words and 25 per cent of the general lexis[1] in the present day English lexicon are a result of the language contact between Old English and Old Norse during the period of Scandinavian invasions and settlement in the eighth and ninth century – but the lexical influences are only one result of the language contact and I will try to show the other effects the Scandinavian influence had on English as well.


The Abbreviations I will use in this paper are “EME” for Early Middle English, “ModE” for Modern English, “ON” for Old Norse, “OE” for Old English and “PDE” for Present Day English.

1 Historical background

The Germanic tribes of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons formed the basis of English when they came to England in the fifth and sixth century. In the first seven hundred years of the language’s existence, three major influences on its development can be made out: English got first into contact with Celtic, then with the Roman and eventually the Scandinavian language.[2]

The Scandinavians, originating from Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula, were once neighbours of the Anglo-Saxons and the same ancestors, thus being closely related to them in language and culture. They started to leave their homeland in the eighth century for adventurous enterprises. Known as the Vikings, they gave the period from the middle of the eight up to beginning of the eleventh century its name Viking Age.[3] As Farmers, the Scandinavians were interested in land, and as merchants, they were interested in access to new trading centres. The Norwegian Vikings colonised Ireland, the Scottish Islands, the Isle of Man and parts of England’s north-west; the Danes settle densely in the north and east of England.[4]

But at the very beginning, the Vikings came to plunder and therefore chose easy targets on the coast. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first three Danish vessels landed 787 in Portland. They were “[…] involved in a confused incident […], in which the representative of the West Saxon King was murdered.” Six years later, Danish Vikings raided the monastery of Lindisfarne, which started a whole series of raids on targets on the east coast of England. In 866, the first major invasion with a huge army led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan initiated a period of large scale plundering, but also of Danish settlement.[5] The West Saxon king Alfred (871-899), was occupied during the first seven years of his reign to fight the Vikings, which threatened to conquer Wessex as well. After years of battles, often on the brink of defeat, Alfred finally beat the Danes under Guthrum at Ethandun (Edington) in 878.[6] In the same year, the Danish presence was officially acknowledged by Alfred in the treaty of Wedmore. The king handed over all land north of the Thames and east of Watling Street (an old Roman road running from London to Chester) to the Danes under their leader Guthrum.[7] While keeping them out of Wessex, thus preventing any Danish influences on culture and language in this area, the treaty established the territory known as the Danelaw, which had the Danish legal system. This area was under heavy Scandinavian influence, which would later spread all over England. A crucial point in the agreements between Wessex and the Scandinavians was that the Danes converted to Christianity and Guthrum got baptized. The conversion was not only a means of controlling the fulfilment of the treaty, but also gave way to the intermingling of the Anglo-Saxon and the Danish population of the area.[8]

However, the fighting was not over yet. Alfred and his son Edward the Elder (900-925) and his grandson Athelstan (925-939) started to win the Danelaw back, so that in 954, most of Danelaw was under English the rule of English kings again, although strongly Danish in terms of population and customs.[9]

New invasions were still started from Scandinavia: The Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason began a series of raids in 991 which often ended in letting the English pay huge sums of bribes in order to prevent large cities like London being plundered. The truces were always temporary and the Scandinavians always came back to demand larger bribes. In 994, Olaf was joined by Svein, the king of Denmark, whose attacks were so effective that he was able to drive out the English king Ethelred and seizing the throne for himself. Svein died the same year, but his son Cnut was able to consolidate his position, being on the throne from 1017-1035. The period in which Danish kings ruled in England lasted 25 years.[10]

Any generalisations about the Scandinavian settlements are risky. First of all, the settlement was not a product of one large invasion (like the Norman Conquest in 1066), but of different waves of invasions and settlement. The relations of the English population to the new neighbours was different according to the circumstances of the settlement: Intermarrying and intermingling was much more likely when the lands was bought by the Vikings or otherwise legally acquired, contact was less likely to happen where the newcomers had violently taken it.[11]

Most of the newcomers were Danish farmers who settled in the area of the Danelaw, but Norwegian settlers were also found in the north-west and north of England. Where the contact was peaceful, the English and Scandinavian populations mixed, leading to an exchange of language and customs.[12] Two factors had a positive effect on cultural contact, the first being the conversion to Christianity of the former Viking pagans. The second factor was the common origin of the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon languages, the former being North-Germanic, the latter being West-Germanic. This was also a main reason for the way in which Norse affected the English language.[13]

The newcomers were not representing a wholly alien way of life or alien culture. Through previous enterprises, the Scandinavians had become a cosmopolitan people which were easy to adopt in a new environment. Important was also that “[t]he policy of the English kings in the period when they were re-establishing their control over the Danelaw was to accept as an established fact the mixed population of the district and to devise a modus vivendi for its component elements.”[14]


[1] Norman Blake (ed.) (1992). The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 6 vols., 415

[2] Albert C. Baugh (1959). A History of the English Language. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 83

[3] Baugh, 107

[4] Dick Leith (1997). A Social History of English. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 22

[5] Blake, 416

[6] Baugh, 108-109

[7] Blake, 416

[8] Baugh, 109

[9] Baugh, 109

[10] Baugh, 110

[11] Blake, 416-417

[12] Baugh, 111

[13] Baugh, 112

[14] Baugh, 112

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Scandinavian influence on the English language
University of Manchester  (School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures)
Introduction to Middle English Language
71 von 80
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
487 KB
Scandinavian, English, Introduction, Middle, English, Language
Quote paper
Johannes Huhmann (Author), 2005, The Scandinavian influence on the English language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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