Old English and Old Norse

Term Paper, 2012

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Otto Möller (Author)


Index of contents

2. Introduction

3. Scandinavian intrusion and incursion from the eigth to the eleventh century and their final settlement

4. The relation of Old Norse and Old English
4.1 Palatalization
4.2 Grammatical influence

5. Scandinavian loanwords and their character

6.Why did these changes occur?

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

2. Introduction

The following paper intends to give an insight into the processes that formed Old English under the influence of Old Norse. Noticeably, languages are constantly changing, but in the case of Old English the situation has been particular difference from that of other languages. Old English came only into contact with other languages via invasion, raids or traders by ships that sailed to England. Furthermore, due to that fact that some of the Scandinavians finally settled on the island a long lasting language exchange was made possible. In addition to that this it is interesting to state that, again due to the isolation of the island the impact of Old Norse could remain until to day.

The paper tries to answer the question: To which extent did Old Norse influence Old English? It provides information on the historical aspects: How did the two languages encounter and what syntactical, semantic, lexical, and loanword changes were introduced. The paper deals with the very rare topic of one language, changing another one’s grammar by language contact.

Additionally,it tries to explain why certain words where introduced to English language and how the loss of inflection came about.

Furthermore, it provides information on the particular circumstance in the case of Old English and Old Norse supported a vivid language contact.

3. Scandinavian intrusion and incursion from the eigth to the eleventh century and their final settlement

After a longer peaceful period in their northern territories, the Scandinavians started to leave their land and sail along the coasts of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea in the eighth century. Possible reason could be either change of climate, politically or economically unfavourable conditions.

They plundered and burnt settlements along the coasts, founded the Dukedom of Normandy and invaded and conquered England. Finally Cnut King of Denmark obtained the English throne in the beginning of the eleventh century. The strong standing of the Scandinavians from the middle of the eighth century to the beginning of the eleventh century is reflected in the title “Viking Age”. (Cable 2002; 92)

Three phases of encounters between Vikings and Anglo-Saxons can be distinguished.

First there were rather isolated raids and plundering along the coast. The aims of those pirate-attacks were monasteries, villages and cities near the coast. (Cable 2002; 93)

In the second phase after those more individual raids large armies took up the work of invasion. It started in 850 when armies were sailing along in 350 boats. A more widespread battle over the political power between the Danes and the English Kings began. The East Anglian King Edmund had to hand his crown over to the invader who then controlled the eastern part of England. Their next aim was to conquer Wessex where they fought against King Alfred of Wessex ´s army several times. The Danes were finally defeated in 878. The Danish King Guthrum and King Alfred signed the treaty of Wedmore which marked a point of mutual recognition and the first step to a settled and legalized co-existence. The Danes had to leave Wessex but they did not have to leave England. They were allotted an area east of a line running between London and Chester, which they had not to pass westwards. This territory was subject to Danish law. A very important provision in the treaty was that the Danes had to accept Christian faith and their King Guthrum had to be baptized. This should probably give the treaty more reliability and marked a possible bridge between the two peoples and facilitated mingling of the individuals. (Cable 2002; 94 )

The third phase of Scandinavian invasion lasted from 878 – 1042.

More and new fleets sailed and sacked the coasts. In 991 many Viking boats come the river Blackwater and defeated the brave East Saxon Earl Byrthnorth. Moreover in 994 Olaf, the future King of Norway and Svein, King of Denmark joined to attack London anew. This finally led to the Danish Cnut seizing the English throne. The reign of Danish Kings in London lasted for 25 years. (Cable 2002; 92-96)

After their incursion many of the raiders stayed in the country. About 1400 places in the northern and eastern parts of England still bear Scandinavian names. This gives strong evidence, that they after initial violent appearance they stayed and made themselves feel at home in choosing familiar names for their new settlements. Many of the former pirates and soldiers became farmers, came into contact and intermarried with the original English population and thus facilitated a strong influence of the Old Norse on the Old English. (Cable 2002;92)

4. The relation of Old Norse and Old English

When trying to evaluated the interaction of the two languages it is important to note that both have many very basic words in common such as: man, wife, folk, foot, winter, summer, night.

Looking at the affect of the Scandinavians on the English language it is important that both the vocabulary and the Grammar of Old English were influenced.

In most cases of two words with the same meaning one is more frequently used and thereby extinguishes the other one. In the case of Egg, sky, skin, skill the Scandinavian form is still in use. Shall and fish are Old English remains. With shirt and skirt both forms are still in use, although naming clothing in a more specialized meaning. (Van Gelderen 2006;96)

4.1 Palatalization

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Van Gelderen 2006; 97)

Due to the fact that the pronunciation of O.N differs clearly from the O.E one it is possible to indicate words of O.N origin. O.N words often have /sk/,/g/ and /k/ as initial sounds. Nevertheless this method can be misleading the OE spelling, e.g giefan 'give' which could indicate a pronunciation with / g / or / j /. These words do not come from O.N. If both O.N and O.E words have a similar spelling it often helps to figure out to which specialized register they belong.

In most case of if there two words for denoting the same thing one word 'wins' in the case of egg, sky, skin, and skill the Scandinavian form ends up being used, and in the case of shall and fish, the Old English one . In the case of shirt / skirt, however, both forms are used, but with more specialized, narrow meanings. (Van Gelderen 2006;96)

The vowel of a word can provide a clear proof of borrowing. For instance the diphthong ai which is of Germanic origin becomes á in its Old English equivalent (and has become ó Modern English) but in Old Norse it became ei or é. Reindeer and Swain are Middle English words and are although still used nowadays in English dialects those words have been borrowed like many others as already mentioned before. (Cable 2006:97) In addition to that, a semantic shift of a number of words took as well place. The Modern English word bloom ( flower) could easy be mistraced as being evolved from the Old English word blōma or Scandinavian blóm. However the meaning of the Old English word was ' ingot of iron ' where as it meant ' flower, bloom' in Old Norse. The Old English word has today a very specific meaning it became a term in metallurgy, but the Old English form has come down in ordinary use. The Scandinavian inital g made its way into Old English in the word gift meaning price of a wife and in the plural form ' marriage ' (gifts). Whereas the Old Norse gift word meant more generally 'gift, present'

This again shows how personal contacts shaped the development of language.

Nevertheless I am in doubt about this passage because the modern Danish version of giftes sig means 'to marry each other'.

4.2 Grammatical influence

The foreign Scandinavian influence did not only affect the vocabulary of Old English, but although the grammar. This is a crucial difference between the impact Old Norse had on Old English in comparison to the language contacts Old English had with Celtic and Latin.

Unlike Celtic and Latin, Scandinavian affected Old English grammar, not just its vocabulary.

The third person plural they,them, and there originates form the encounter of Old Norse and Old English. Hi, hie, hiera, hem,them are the third personal pronouns in Old English “with an initial the” Uncharacteristically are pronouns and prepositions change in language history, normally are they very stable. Even today this development is unexpected.

“For instance, the appearance of the third person plural they, them and there is due to Scandinavian contact. In Old English, the third person pronouns are hi, hie, hiera, hem,them with an initial th-. Grammatical words such as pronouns and prepositions are typically very stable in language history and this development is therefore unexpected.”(Van Gelderen 2006; 98)

The most significant adoption is the present plural “are” of the infinitive to be. The Old English form of the north was we aron, while syndon ( cf. German sind) was the West Saxon plural and the Danes influence reflects undoubtedly on the Modern English form are.

The present plural are of the verb to be is a most significant adoption. While we aron was Old English form of the north, the West Saxons plural was syndon (cf. German sind) and the form are in Modern English undoubtedly owes its extension to the influence of the Danes.

When we call to remembrance that both parts of the expression they are, pronoun and as well the verb are of Scandinavian origin we unavoidably realize once again how deeply the language of the invaders entered and shaped into English.

When we remember that in the expression they are both the pronoun and the verb are Scandinavian we realize once more how intimately the languages of the invaders has entered into English. (Cable 2002;102)


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Old English and Old Norse
Free University of Berlin
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ISBN (Book)
Old Norse, Old English, Language Chance
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Otto Möller (Author), 2012, Old English and Old Norse, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/459775


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