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18 September 2014
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Legacy of the Vikings

By Elaine Treharne
Words and dialects

Image showing Anglo-Saxon manuscript
Detail of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript ©
The Old Norse spoken by the Vikings was, in many ways, very similar to the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Both languages are from the same Germanic family and could be considered as distant but related dialects. The myth is that, rather like the Breton onion seller and the Welsh customer, an Anglo-Saxon could basically understand a Viking when the two met.

This closeness of language makes the identification of Scandinavian elements in English a difficult task, but there are areas where the Vikings certainly had an impact on English. Some of these are quite surprising because they are words that we take for granted nowadays.

Perhaps the best known words that often come from Old Norse are those which, like place names, begin with sk-, such as 'sky' and 'skin'. Other words from Old Norse are to do with law and legal proceedings, such as 'hustings', 'wrong' and the word 'law' itself (Old Norse lagu, Old English æ).

These types of words illustrate the influence that the Vikings had in the setting up of a legal system in the Danelaw. The way that these words gradually filtered into English shows the importance of this aspect of the Viking settlements.

'The relationship between the English and the Vikings must ... have involved frequent contact ...'

By the 13th and 14th centuries, when literature and documents from all regions of England increase, we can trace the impact of Old Norse on English. This is particularly evident in everyday, common words. 'Give', 'window' and 'dream' also owe their modern meanings to the Viking settlers. The relationship between the English and the Vikings must, then, have involved frequent contact, presumably more friendly as time went on and old wounds were forgotten.

Because the words that survive from Old Norse are often quite close to Old English but replace the native words, the relationship between the two peoples must themselves have been close. It was also in very many ways, quite ordinary, centring on family relationships, normal activities and forms of administration and law.

Published: 2004-11-17

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