History of english language

Essay, 2018

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0



To what extent has language contact affected the English language? You should consider at least one language that has affected English, and at least three of the following areas: orthography, lexicon, phonology, morphology, syntax, place-names, semantics.

The English language as we know it today exists in the way it does due to various contacts with other languages of which most are still evident in specific elements of the modern language. Essentially, there are two kinds of forces driving language change: internal forces where “speakers themselves start to regularise the paradigms [or inefficient systems of their language]” (Graddol et al., 62) and external forces where “people adopt changes introduced by more powerful and prestigious groups” (ibid.). Two major external forces that have shaped the English language are the Viking Invasion in 787 during the late Old English Period and the Norman Conquest in 1066, inducing the Middle English Period. This essay seeks to point out in how far the external factor of language contact with Old Norse (ON)1 and Norman French has affected and contributed to the English language throughout its development. It will thus be explained when and why these languages came in contact with the earliest known form of English, namely Old English (OE) to serve as a basis for demonstrating to what extent lexicon, phonology, orthography, syntax and place-names of English have been influenced by which of the two languages.

Elements of Scandinavian languages, such as Old Norse, have made their way into the English language with the invasion of England by Viking settlers in 787 (cf. Knowles 34). Nevertheless, Old English and Old Norse both being of Germanic origin, are partly so similar that it is “difficult to decide whether a given word in Modern English is a native or a borrowed word” (Baugh and Cable, 95) and “it is not appropriate to contrast English and Norse as clearly defined and separate languages at this period” (Knowles, 37). The most secure way to differentiate borrowed words is thus, to trace them back to their sound origin, as North Germanic (from which Scandinavian languages emerged) and West Germanic (from which English emerged) have developed different sounds (cf. ibid., 96).

However, the closeness of both languages allowed for uncomplicated borrowing- process of importing words from other languages (cf. Culpeper, 44)— of Scandinavian words into English, extending the lexicon as several examples show. Many borrowings from Old Norse occurred only during the Middle English period, as most “manuscripts have come down to us in the dialect of Wessex” (Kisbye, 42) which did not belong to the Danelaw, the settlement of the Danes, because King Alfred of Wessex had defeated them (cf. Graddol et al. 59). Regardless, some loanwords can be traced back to the Old English Period. This includes early cultural borrowing of Scandinavian words for objects or concepts that did not exist in the Anglo-Saxon’s world that they tried to imitate, and were therefore not denoted in the language (cf. Kisbye, 42). Examples of early loanwords words are “e.g. OE barda ‘viking ship’” (ibid.), “for currency (oran, marc) and for warriors (dreng)” (Knowles, 40). However, later borrowings have entered the English language “through give and take of everyday life” (Baugh and Cable, 99) such as the nouns slaughter and window, the verbs call and thrive, and the adjectives awkward and sly (cf. ibid.). These are only some of hundreds of borrowings.

As mentioned before, the most uncomplicated way to prove Scandinavian influence on English language is to contrast West Germanic and North Germanic sound structures. Hence, it is no surprise Old Norse has had an impact on English phonology: Modern English nay can be traced back to its Scandinavian origin, since “Germanic *ai for instance became ä in OE, but remained unchanged in ON” (Kisbye, 43) and modern English no is thus of OE origin (cf. ibid.). Another example is the <sk>-sound which, in Old English (written sc) became palatalized to a <sh>-sound (cf. Baugh and Cable, 96). As the <sk>-sound was retained by speakers of ON, the Danelaw reintroduced the sound to speakers of OE (cf. ibid). This has also led to an extension of the lexicon, because it enabled a formation of neologisms from words that had been synonyms in the two languages: “The O.E. scyrte has become shirt, while the corresponding O.N. form skyrta gives us skirt’ (ibid.).

Not only has the Viking invasion evoked a change in vocabulary and phonology, but it has also introduced new forms of grammatical elements to the English language: The syntax of Modern English still contains Scandinavian grammatical borrowings such as the pronouns they, their, and them, while OE used hie, hiera, him (cf. ibid., 99). Furthermore, inflections such as “the -s of the third person singular, present indicative, of verbs and the participial ending -and (bindand), corresponding to -end and -ind in the Midlands and South, and now replaced by - ing’ (ibid., 102-103) are Scandinavian contributions to English grammar. Apart from that,— though not clear whether this feature developed in English and Danish simultaneously or it was adopted from Danish—both languages share the feature that for purposes of stress “prepositions can be used in final position: for example, the Danes that the English fought with” (Knowles, 43).

Another element that has been influenced by the contact with Old Norse is place-names which is most noticeable “north of the old Danelaw boundary with the heaviest concentration in Lincolnshire, [...] Yorkshire, and in Leicestershire, where in some areas up to 75% of the place-name inventory may be of Scandinavian extraction” (Kisbye, 44). Place-names ending with -by (ON for farm), such as Grimsby, Whitby, Derby, Rugby or Thoresby form the largest group with over 600 of them (cf. Baugh and Cable, 97). Another frequent Scandinavian ending for placenames, since over 300 places end with it, is -thorpe (thorp being ON for village) as in Gawthorpe. Other occurring endings are -thwaite (ON for an isolated piece of land) as in Applethwaite, -toft (ON for a piece of ground) as in Langtoft (cf. ibid) or “hybrids of the so- called ‘Grimston’-type, consisting of an ON personal name + the native place-name element - ton (OE tün) [...] [which] were probably Anglo-Saxon settlements taken over by the Vikings, who planted their names in them to indicate the change of ownership” (cf. Kisbye, 45).

In contrast to Old Norse, the influence of the French language only came in the course of the Norman conquest in 1066. As “[o]ne of the most important [...] consequences was the introduction of a new nobility” (Baugh and Cable, 111) French then established itself as the language of the upper class and later the court (cf. ibid., 113), while “English [remained] the speech of the mass of people” (ibid., 120). However, the knowledge of French has spread out to the middle class also, as “French came to be associated with social aspiration” (Graddol et al., 66) in order to rise in the social hierarchy (cf. ibid.).


1 The term Old Norse is often used as a blanket term for Old Norwegian and Old Danish by mentators (cf. Culpeper, 8), which is what it is used as throughout this essay.

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History of english language
Queen's University Belfast
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Anonymous, 2018, History of english language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/991074


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