A Scandinavian influence: Old Norse affects on the English language

Cover image – Minna Sundberg (http://www.sssscomic.com)

The Scandinavian traders and raiders of the 9th and 10th centuries are known for blonde hair, longships and axes but maybe not for freknur (freckles) and being Happ (happy) but these are just two examples of words we use everyday that have their roots in ‘Old Norse’ or similar languages spoke by those pesky Vikingr (Vikings). Outside of the obvious names, Harold, Freya, Eric and Corey, there are many, many words that you might be unknowingly using ever day with roots in the icy north.

From Lindisfarne to living off the land

Many contemporary Anglo-Saxons and modern day readers of history see the so-called ‘Viking Age’ (c.800-1066) as a dark time, filled with violence, destruction and pillage and to some degree, that is correct. The medieval world was a brutal place, full of dangers but that isn’t the complete story. 

From the moment a Scandinavian band attacked the monastery on Lindisfarne in 793, Britain would remain under sporadic threat of Viking attack for the next 3 centuries, but after a generation or two, the one time raiders saw the rich lands of England as an opportunity to settle rather than to steal. Whether through some initial force or, some kind of agreement, Scandinavian families soon began to settle in northern and eastern England, an area that would later sometimes be referred to as the ‘Danelaw’, a loose region where Norse and Danish law and language would flourish. The settlers were able to quickly integrate themselves into the existing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms due to the similarities between their languages. As both Old English and Old Norse both came from Germanic languages, there were many similarities that allowed for easy communication.

Hundreds of words we use today find their roots in this cross pollination of languages, from hreindyri (reindeer) and boli (bull) to the more sinister slatra (slaughter) and rannsaka (ransack) these Scandinavian loan words were used to describe objects and actions that hitherto could not, or had not needed to be described by a single world, making what would becoming the English we known today, a rich and at times complicated language. 

You leckin’ out pal?

At first glance, the Yorkshire accent may not sound at all Scandinavian but in actual fact, many of the dialect words specific to this region of northern England come directly from the Norse and Danish settlers of the the past. Lecking (the -g is optional in Yorkshire) comes from the word leika which loosely means to play and even today, to leck out still means to play out. If you have ever found yourself in Yorkshire or had the good fortune of meeting someone from the Lovley region, you may have heard the greeting ‘hey up’ (pronounced ay-up) which also has its roots in medieval Scandinavia. Although the etymology of this phrase is harder to pin down, the phrase sey upp (modern Swedish slå upp) roughly meaning to look up or be careful and is thought to be the reason why many a northerner will greet you with a friendly ‘hey up’, not as a warning as it may have originally been intended but, yet another callback to that period of immense linguistic fusion. 

The gift of þ (thorn)

The th- sound that started this and billions of other sentences, is yet another thing to thank the vikings for. Although it may have been inherited from the Old German that predates Old English, the letter þ or thorn (pronounced like the th- sound in throw) is crucial to countless words and is inescapable for English speakers. As everything in the medieval world had to be written down, the þ was often confused for the letter P but most famously, it became almost indistinguishable from the letter Y, and this is the reason we have so many ‘ye olde shoppes’ all over the world but rather than pronouncing it like yee, it should be pronounced like the which if you think about it, makes a lot more sense. 

Ultimately, it is almost impossible to say a sentence in English without using something that the former Scandinavian forebears, even if it just a sound.

A place to call home

Another example of Scandinavian influence can be found in place names. From Skipton to Skelmanthrope (K sounds and the suffix -thorpe were both very common in settlements set up by Scandinavians) and Grimsby (-by is by far the most common suffix used) to micklethwaite (mickle meaning great and thwaite meaning settlement) there are countless towns and villages dotted all over northern England and the midlands, all with a history back further than the Norman Conquest of 1066. 

Without an old Norse influence on the English language, you wouldn’t be able to make your húsbóndi (husband) steik (steak) and eggs or, gefa (give) an uggligr (ugly) ladd (lad) a kaka (cake) meaning we actually have a lot to thank the vikings for. The next time you find yourself in Derby (one of the Five Boroughs of the Dane Law that also included Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford) or using a knifr (knife) and fork, you can thank the Vikings and their families that sailed across the North Sea and set up shop (sometimes literally) in England. 

One very important thing to remember when discussing old English, old norse or any of the ‘old’ German languages of yesteryear, is that they are so interwound, similarities, loan words, and outright adoptions are hard to pin down due to the lack of written sources but if anything, this makes it even more interesting.

Note: I use the word ‘viking’ as a catch-all for simplicity. The words origin and meaning is relatively unknown with most scholars thinking that Vikingr meant to go exploring, likely by sea. Viking does not describe all of or even most of the people of medieval Scandinavia.

You can find Chris on Instagram @chrisrileyhistory, and on Twitter @chrisrihistory. To read more of what he has written head to thehistorycorner.org and thehistoriansmagazine.com 

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