Scandinavian Influence on English Language

As a result of the contacts with the Vikings (Scandinavian invaders are known as Vikings; Scandinavia is today’s Norway, Sweden and Denmark), the Old English language underwent Scandinavian influence towards the end of the Old English period. Originally, on the continent, the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians were intimately related in a common racial and linguistic bond. This explains why the first English epic Beowulf, had for its setting one of the Scandinavian countries; even the main characters in the poem are Scandinavian. But when the Vikings began to attack and plunder England, the relationship between the Germanic races worsened. Ultimately, many Scandinavians settled down in different parts of England, and as a result of this co-existence, the language of the Anglo-Saxons was considerably influenced by the language of the invaders.

Since the two peoples lived very intimately, and the similarity between old English and the language of the Scandinavian invaders makes it at times very difficult to decide whether a given word in Modern English is a native or a borrowed word. Enormous similarity is found between these two languages in nouns like ‘man’, ‘wife’, ‘father’, ‘folk’, ‘mother’, ‘house’, ‘life’, ‘winter’, ‘summer’; verbs like ‘will’, ‘can’, ‘meet’, ‘come’, ‘bring’, ‘hear’, ‘see’, ‘think’, ‘smile’, ‘ride’, ‘spin’; and adjectives and adverbs like ‘full’, ‘wise’, ‘better’, ‘best’, ‘mine’, ‘over’ and ‘under’.

 Some words, however, can be identified as of Scandinavian origin. Thus the word ‘awe’ is certainly of Scandinavian origin; so is the modern word, ‘egg’. Often, a word of Scandinavian origin can be identified by the fact that it does not occur in Old English, but does occur in Scandinavian. An example is the verb, “to take”, which is Scandinavian ‘taka’. When we work with Scandinavian loan words, the word ‘loan’ itself seems to declare its descent from the Scandinavian.

Scandinavian influence gave a fresh lease of life to obsolete native words. For instance, the preposition ‘till’ is found only once or twice in Old English texts belonging to the pre Scandinavian Period, but after that, it becomes common in Old English. Further, some native words lost their original meaning the moment they encountered their Scandinavian counterpart. For example, the word ‘dream’ originally meaning joy changes its meaning into ‘an experience of viewing images in sleep’, the meaning is derived from Scandinavian sources. Similarly, ‘bread’ changes its meaning from ‘fragment’ to ‘an item of food’.

There exist a large number of places that bear Scandinavian names. More than 600 places in English have names ending in - by which is a clear evidence of Scandinavian influence. Numerous examples can be cited: Grimsby, Whitby, Derby, Rugby etc. (the Danish word –‘by’ means town or farm) Names like Althorp, Bishopsthorpe, Linthrope contain the Scandinavian word ‘thorp’ which means village. Similarly we have Applethwaite, Braithwaite, Langthwaite, ‘thwaite’ meaning an isolated piece of land; while Brimtoft, Eastoft, and Nortoft ending in ‘toft’meaning a piece of ground. Such examples can easily be multiplied. A similar high percentage of Scandinavian personal names is found in English. Names ending in -son, like Stevenson or Johnson, conform to a characteristic Scandinavian custom.

In the earlier period of borrowing, the number of Scandinavian words that appear in Old English is small due to the hostile relations of the invaders with the English people. Gradually, with the cease of tension, we find a number of words relating to law or social and administrative system entering in the English language. The ‘law’ itself is of Scandinavian origin. Many such words were later on replaced by French words after the Norman Conquest.

The English and the Scandinavian were accustomed to much the same kind of rural life and the fusion of the two peoples was a very close one. Many of the words taken over in consequence were homely and everyday ones. Thus the word ‘sister’ is taken from Scandinavian. So are the names of parts of the body— ‘leg’ and ‘neck’. Other common names include ‘window’, ‘sky’, ‘knife’, ‘skin’, ‘dirt’, ‘skill’, ‘bag’, ‘cake’ and ‘fellow’. Everyday adjectives include ‘wrong’, ‘low’, ‘loose’, ‘odd, ‘flat’ and ‘ugly’’. Among the everyday verbs are ‘get, ‘give’, ‘call’, ‘want’, ‘take’, ‘drag’, ‘smile’, ‘thrive’, ‘die’ etc. the conjunction ‘though’ is also from Scandinavian.

In the case of grammar, many of the pronominal forms like ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ etc are of the Scandinavian origin. The use of ‘shall’ ,’will’ , prepositional use of ‘to’ ‘fro’, use of relative clause without any pronoun are due to Scandinavian influence.

As we have seen, the Scandinavian legacy left in Britain by the Vikings is still evident today.

The borrowing and assimilation of language was continuous throughout the Viking period, and the character of the Scandinavian words implies that the invading Norse peoples interacted with and married Anglo-Saxons. The new vocabulary was more general than anything else, and many of the most common English words of today are often derived from Old Norse.