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Viking Words: The Old Norse Influence on English

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Take a look at how the Viking language of Old Norse played a major role in the development of the English language we know and use today.

They may have spent decades invading, but the Vikings and their descendants left their mark on the British Isles in more ways than one. The English language wouldn't be what it is today without the influence from the Norse people.

Viking language of the sword.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, Scandinavians crossed the North Sea in great numbers. Their legacy is still very much alive in hundreds of place names and personal names, not to mention everyday items and even days of the week.

An article in the research journal Antiquity suggested that the number of Scandinavians moving to the British Isles during the Viking Age may have been larger than previous DNA studies suggested.

As many as 35,000 Scandinavians may have relocated to England. Eventually, these newcomers settled across the country, marrying into local families.

Most of the Nordic languages spoken today trace their roots back to Old Norse, which also had its influence on the English language.

Scandinavians lived and farmed alongside the Old English speakers in the time of Danelaw. So, it's perhaps no surprise that the English language developed to include many terms previously only used in Old Norse.

Old Norse and Old English

Before we dive into the specifics of Viking words, it's important for context to take a look at the languages of the time.

Graphic concept of Viking ships

Old English, the language spoken in much of the British Isles at the time, was quite a different language to the one we know today. In much the same way as Old Norse is very difficult to read for a Norwegian today, Old English would be a challenge to a native English speaker.

English and Old Norse are both members of the Germanic language family. Although distantly related today, some 1,200 years ago Old English and Old Norse were more closely related.

It's hard to know for sure because of the primarily spoken nature of language of the time, but it's possible that the two languages were to some extent mutually intelligible.

Read more: The Languages of Norway

This means that Old English adapting to include some Old Norse words wouldn't have seemed particularly strange at the time. It's only by looking back with hindsight that we can see how big an influence the Scandinavians had.

Viking place names in England

I grew up just a few miles from a small village called Naseby. I didn't know it at the time, but this was my first exposure to a Viking-influenced place name.

The hint? Look for a -by suffix at the end of the name. Still used in Norwegian today, by simply means place, town or city, although it used to mean farm.

Viking place names in England
Place names such as Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Whitby are of Viking origin.

In the British Isles today there are hundreds of place names of Old Norse origin. Many of them are in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, which fall within the former boundaries of the Danelaw.

In the -by club there is Grimsby, Whitby, Asgarby and many, many more. Another popular suffix from the Viking Age is -thorpe, which once meant village. There are more than 100 -thorpe place names in Yorkshire alone.

Other place names with likely Old Norse influence include those with the suffixes -hulme or -holm (from holmr, meaning an island or raised ground in marsh), ness (from nes, meaning cape) and -kirk (from kirkja, meaning church).

Pronouns

Even if you don't know the specifics, many people have heard that there are place names of Viking origin in England. However, I'd wager that far fewer know about the Old Norse origins of they, their and them.

Personal pronoun diagram.

“They, their, and them are of Scandinavian origin, having entered English in the wake of the 9th-century Viking settlements of northern England. In spite of having surprised and intrigued linguists for a century this phenomenon is still poorly understood,” said researcher Elise Emerson Morse-Gagne.

Previously, Old English used a plural pronoun hem, which was often shortened to 'em. That's still around today in the form of “go get 'em”, which many people assume is a shortening of them.

It's assumed that people preferred to use them as hem sounded too close to him and could often have been misunderstood.

Viking Verbs

One of the verbs with Old Norse influence is to be. In particular, are is a merger of the Old English earun/earon with the Old Norse er. It's easy to see how the sentence they are has Scandinavian roots. In modern Norwegian, it's de er.

Other verbs said to derive from or be influenced by Old Norse include to take, to crawl, to guess and to trust.

Fighting words

Perhaps it's no surprise given the early Viking raids on the British Isles, but the Norsemen left many fighting-relating words on the islands. Without those raids, we wouldn't have words such as slaughter, ransack, club and knife.

Viking word berserker

Another Norse word that made its way into English was berserk. While it's today used to mean a form of reckless defiance, it was originally used to refer to a Norseman who reached a heightened state of focus, almost trance-like, during battle.

Viking words in English dialects

Differences in dialects are always fascinating no matter the language. In English, you can find Viking-influenced words in several dialects, notably in Scotland and the north and east of England, especially Yorkshire.

One of the best examples of this is barn or bairn, used in Yorkshire, other parts of northern England and parts of Scotland to mean children. In modern Norwegian, barn remains the word for children.

The word dale meaning valley likely comes from the Old Norse dalur, which has become dal in modern Norwegian. There are many other words of Norse origin used in and around Yorkshire that you can read about here.

The Norse history of Orkney and Shetland is a fascinating story. Its legacy can clearly be seen in place and family names all over the islands. The islands were Scandinavian until the year 1472, after which time the Norse language evolved into the Norn language.

Scalloway harbour in Shetland
Many words of Old Norse origin are still used in Shetland.

Although Norn essentially died out over the following centuries, many Norn words remain in common everyday use on the islands. NorthLink Ferries gives a good summary.

So that's a brief explanation as to some of the words we use in English that were imported from Scandinavia during or after the Viking Age. We hope you found it interesting!

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5 thoughts on “Viking Words: The Old Norse Influence on English”

  1. Another borrowing from Old Norse led to the development of pairs of words. ‘Sc’ was found in words of both Old English and Old Norse But the pronounciation differed,being ‘sh’ in Old English and’sk’ in Old Norse. This rise to pairs of words such as ‘shirt/skirt’ and ‘shrimp/skimp’.

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  2. The most important effect that Old Norse had on English was to start its transformation from a synthetic language with case endings to the analytical uninfected tongue we have today. The root words used by the Danes and English were often very similar but case endings and gender were mostly different. To overcome this, they quickly dropped the inflections and used prepositions instead which aided mutual understanding.

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  3. ‘Thorpe’ is the Dutch word ‘dorp’ (village). ‘Dale’ is the Dutch word ‘dal’ (valley). ‘Kirk’ is the Dutch word ‘kerk’ (church).
    There are many Dutch and English words coming from the same origin, mostly Old-Germanic or even Indo-Germanic. The Old-Germanic ‘th’ sound has remained/survived in English, but in most Germanic languages become a ‘d’ (English/Dutch: the/de, thorpe/dorp, thick/dik, thin/dun, think/denk, through/door, there/daar, this/dit, these/die, etc)

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  4. You forgot about one major county that had massive influence of viking heritage. NORFOLK. its capitol Norwich…norvic was a major factor for the mass waterways in the east. We are prolific boat builders then and now. The fenns and the broads with 2/3 of a coast line. Many many place names, districts, marshs, carrs, bogs, wetlands, farms and waterways are heavily norse in origin. After all, Ivar the boneless and king canute ruled here in danelaw. It was our rich fertile soil,abundance of woodland and the most churches in the whole country they blundered.

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