Legacy of the Vikings

By Elaine Treharne
The main language of Britain is often called the Queen's English, and it has been greatly influenced by the speech of royal courtiers through the centuries. It owes just as much, however, to the Viking invaders of long ago.
Graffiti from a Viking ship 

Danelaw and the English

The 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' of 793 gives us a vivid picture of Britain under attack from Viking invaders.

'Terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed these signs; and a little after that, in the same year on 8 June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.'

This 'harrying of the heathen' refers to the first Viking attack on English soil. This was followed for two centuries by a series of regular incursions and wars that lead to the settlement of many Vikings in these islands. The English language (along with much else) would never be the same again.

In 878, King Alfred agreed a truce with Guthrum, the Viking king. It required Guthrum to be baptised and, essentially, the division of England into the Anglo-Saxon southern kingdom and the Danelaw. The Danelaw included counties north of an imaginary line running from London to Bedford and then up to Chester. This was disputed land throughout the tenth century.

'... the interaction between the Viking settlers and their English neighbours ... helped to create the melting pot of two languages.'

Towards the end of this period, after the second wave of Viking invaders arrived under Olaf Tryggvason, the amount of Viking settlement in any area varied considerably. This was, in fact, the original north-south divide, in many ways the precursor of the one surviving today.

As a result of all this activity, the impact of Old Norse on the Old English dialects being spoken by the native population was significant, and had far-reaching implications. It was the interaction between the Viking settlers and their English neighbours, their trading and farming activities and their eventual intermarriage and assimilation that helped to create the melting pot of two languages.

Their combination in the north and east Midlands dialects gradually filtered into the English spoken throughout the rest of the country. The east Midlands dialect, in particular, was later to emerge as a major contributor in the growth of modern English.

Tracing the Vikings

Image of Lindisfarne Stone
Fierce raiders, depicted on the Lindisfarne Stone
The impact of the Viking settlements in the Danelaw regions of Northumbria, the Five Boroughs (Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Stamford), the south-eastern Midlands, and East Anglia can be traced, very often, through place names. Place names are usually chosen because of such things as geographical or topographical features, or because of the people who founded a village or burh (a fortified dwelling). Scandinavian settlements can easily be detected through the use of the suffix -by (meaning 'homestead' or 'village').

Examples are easy to find, with names such as Grimsby ('Grim's homestead'), Thurnby (either 'homestead near a thorn-bush' or 'Thyrne's village'), and Derby ('village near deer') still very common. Grimsby, much as it is today, was likely to be a place of trade and fishing. Thurnby and Derby were probably agricultural villages, where the Vikings made a living for themselves in their new land.

Other common Scandinavian place names are those ending in -thorpe (meaning 'a new village'), as in Scunthorpe (meaning 'Skuma's village'), or -thwaite (meaning 'a meadow', 'a piece of land'), as in Lothwaite ('clearing on a hill'). These settlements were probably established by families from other Viking villages, moving to create new centres for farming and trading.

'Using place names, then, historians and linguists are able to determine the spread of Viking settlements ...'

Other place names suggest not just a straightforward Viking settlement, but perhaps the intermingling of Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, or the renaming of sites previously held by the English. Most of the place names beginning with sk-, for example, show Old Norse linguistic influence. Thus, Skeffington, meaning 'the dwelling of Sceaft's people' has a first element which is an Old English personal name, Sceaft, that was Scandinavianised when the settlers arrived. The ending part, -ton is from Old English -tun (meaning 'farming village'). It is possible that the farming settlers took over an Anglo-Saxon village, perhaps living on friendly terms with their English neighbours.

Using place names, then, historians and linguists are able to determine the spread of Viking settlements, finding that the further north one goes, the more obvious is the Scandinavian influence. The closer one gets to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the country, the less the Scandinavian impact.

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.

Viking and Norman words

Illustration of Anglo-Saxons dining
Many English words for food are of Viking or Norman origin
It is clear, then, that the kind of words that came into English from Scandinavian are generally words to do with common-and-garden relations. They are words shared between people who meet through trade (for example, 'take', 'get', 'gear'), farming ('scrape', 'skill', 'egg'), marriage ('sister', 'husband') and just getting on with life ('fellow', 'happy', 'ill', 'muck').

The basic nature of the borrowings, affecting language at every level, suggest that these words entered English gradually. This would be partly because of their similarity with already existent English words, and also because using the Scandinavian words would help eliminate any confusion when speaking.

This type of word borrowing is quite unlike that seen after the Norman Conquest, when the conquerors imposed their own language at the top levels of society. The native English continued to speak their own language, but gradually French words were used for new ideas, concepts and activities. French was regarded as the language of the élite, and this meant that those conscious of status tried to use French to appear more prestigious.

'This type of influence from other languages is partly why there are so many words for the same things in Modern English ...'

Thousands of French words entered the language in the medieval period. they appear in contexts to do with administration ('prison', 'castle', 'challenge'), government ('chancellor', 'court', 'royal'), religion ('grace', 'psalter', 'festival'), learning ('obedience', patience', 'authority'), and prestigious or élite activities ('tournament', 'courtesy', 'romance').

The influence of the French aristocratic language can be illustrated by the situation where the Anglo-Saxon cook in the kitchen of a French lord prepares the pig, the cow or the sheep - but when the dishes are taken upstairs they become pork, beef and mutton. This type of influence from other languages is partly why there are so many words for the same things in Modern English. 'Regal' is French in origin, 'kingly' is English. 'Paternal' is a Latin loan, 'fatherly' is English. 'Courteous' is French, 'friendly' is original English. It's clear that English has been greatly expanded by a large number of loanwords throughout the centuries.

Standard English

Illustration depicting William Shakespeare
The language of Shakespeare was enriched by Viking influences
During the 14th and 15th centuries, English began to be used more frequently for writing, having been used less than French and Latin over the previous two centuries. By the time it re-emerges, hundreds of Old English words have died out to be replaced by loan words from French, Scandinavian and many other languages.

The English we write and speak today owes its origins to a mix of the London and east Midlands dialects. East Midlands English was important because as a dialect from the centre of the country, bridging the gap between north and south, it was intelligible to the most people. Its geographical position was the most accessible in the country.

Great numbers of traders, pilgrims and others went about their business, passing through the various towns of the region - towns such as Leicester and Nottingham. During the 13th and 14th centuries, large numbers of east Midlanders migrated to London because of the opportunities the not-too-distant city offered. They seem to have often reached high positions in administration and government, and thus must have influenced the forms of language used in these areas of activity.

'... the impact of the Viking invasions remains very much with us today.'

Given that the East Midlands dialect itself was, in origin, a mixture of English and Scandinavian (with French thrown in for good measure), the impact of the Viking invasions remains very much with us today. We still speak a version of English that was born on the borders of Mercia and Danelaw. With this in mind it is fair to say that the Queen's English has its roots in the towns of the Midlands - just as much as in the palaces of Whitehall.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-17
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