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Old English is actually made up of over 100 Norse words

Ian Harvey

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It’s safe to say that the English language has taken words from many different forms of languages and adopted them as its own. One of those foreign languages would be Norse, as over 100 Norse words have been adopted into the English language.

When one thinks of Old English, they probably think of Shakespeare’s plays or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. However, when it comes the real Old English, it is actually the language that the first Germanic tribes spoke. Old English is also known Anglo-Saxon, which is what the Angles and Saxons spoke when they settled on the British Isles.

Many Welsh or Gaelic speakers will try to tell people that their ancestors were the first inhabitants on the isles. However, the language they spoke formed the basis of the somewhat Angle language we still speak today. It is strange that we cannot understand Old English when it is written. That is because when it is written, the vocabulary resembles the Dutch or German languages more than English.

The reason that the language has changed is because of the Norman invasion. In 1066, the invasion brought French speakers to the isles. French ended up being the main language there for the next 300 years, resulting in the peasants and merchants catching on to certain French words as they went about their daily chores.

For example, the Anglo-Saxons had words of their own for sheep and cows, but the Norman aristocracy had their own words for them due to the fact that they had only seen the meats of the animals as they were brought in for food. This resulted in the aristocracy calling sheep mutton and beef boeuf. Even today, nearly 30% of English words came from French.

Modern English today is mostly thought of as West Germanic with bits of French and Latin influence. However, there still hasn’t been the discussion as to how the language of the Vikings, otherwise known as Old Norse, comes into play.

The word Viking was first used to describe an overseas expedition. When someone went on an expedition such as this they were known as a vikingr. One could say that a Viking was almost like a pirate coming from the fjords of Denmark and Norway. The people on those expeditions raped, pillaged, murdered, and razed villages before heading back to the North Sea with whatever they managed to loot from the villages.

There is a slight difference, though, when it comes to the Vikings’ purpose. When the Vikings first started up in England, their forays did not consist of raids. This would have been in the 9th century, but by the time it reached the 1870s the Danes traded swords for plows and ended up settling across North England. These regions they settled were governed by the Danelaw treaties.

England actually had Danish kings from the years 1018 to 1042. Sadly, when the Norman conquest of 1066 took place, it was so successful that the Viking era and Danish influence disappeared. The only thing that stayed behind was the effect on the development of the English language.

Here are a list of words and phrases that have been slightly altered throughout the years, but their meanings are still the same as when they were first used:

  1. The names of the weeks

One day of the week in particular would be Þorsdagr which translates to “Thor’s Day.” Anyone can see that the translation would be what we know today as Thursday.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday are believed to have been attributed to the Norse gods known as Tyr, Odin, and Freya. However, the days are actually named after the Anglo-Saxon gods Tiw, Wodan, and Friga. Both languages have similarities with the Germanic tribes and northern Europe.

  1. Vocabulary words that revolve around death…..
    1. Map showing area of Norse settlements during the 8th to 11th centuries (the Viking Age), including Norman conquests, some extending after this period (yellow). Trade and raid routes, often inseparable, are marked. source

Map showing area of Norse settlements during the 8th to 11th centuries (the Viking Age), including Norman conquests, some extending after this period (yellow). Trade and raid routes, often inseparable, are marked.

 

  1. Vocabulary words that revolve around death.

Many know that the Vikings were known for their savagery, which often resulted in death. With the deaths came new vocabulary words.

Wrong = rangr               thrust = þrysta               knife = knifr                     skull = skulle

berserk/berserker meant bear shirt (this word derived from when a Viking warrior entered battle wearing nothing but an animal skin armor and acting crazy). Today, we use the word berserk to describe a crazy person, not far from the original derivation.

Club= Klubba (Oddly, the weapon did not get the name until the Danes had started using it to bash the English people’s heads in)

Ransack = rannsaka       scathe = skaða           slaughter = slatra

What many people do not know is that a common female Viking name was Gunnhildr which translated into “war battle”. This is where the word gun comes from.

  1. Common cultural words

bylaw = bylög       sale = sala       heathen = heiðinn       skill = skil       steak = steik

husband = hús plus the word bóndi = húsbóndi (the word hus means house and bondi means occupier)

thrall = þræll     law = lag         thrift = þrift         litmus = litr plus the word mosi (lichen; moss)

tidings = tíðindi         loan = lán       troll = saga       yule = jol

The word hell derived from Norse mythology – Loki’s daughter Hel ruled the underworld.

  1. Animals

A majority of the animal names keep some of the Anglo-Saxon roots, however, the Vikings did have several new animal names that the Anglo-Saxons adopted.

bug = búkr     bull = boli     reindeer = hreindyri   skate = skata (fish)   wing = vængr

 

  1. Nature and landscapes

In the Norse language, there were a lot of words that described the dirty swamps and plains in northern England where the Vikings came from.

Rugged = flatr or rogg   fog = fok              gust = gustr       low = lagr           clouds = sky

dirt = drit       dregs = dregg          mire = myrr       muck = myki      rotten = rotinn

English is closer to the Scandinavian language, however when the Norman Conquest happened French was there to stay. By that time, Old English was not recognized with the Ango-Saxon roots. Modern English today is actually now closer to Scandinavian than to Old English.

The Norse language did not just introduce new words, it actually introduced the way sentences were formed. Some linguists believe that English should be classified as North Germanic instead of West Germanic. The difference between the two would be that North Germanic is a grouping of Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Swedish languages. West Germanic is a combination of Dutch and German languages.