Modern English, the language of international trade, commerce and diplomacy, didn’t descend from Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, according to new research by two linguistic professors. In fact, they claim English was a language developed from that spoken by the infamous and nasty Viking invaders of England.
According to Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo, and Joseph Emmonds, a visiting professor from Palacky in the Czech Republic, English is a Scandinavian language that belongs to the Northern Germanic language group, just like Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese (spoken on Faroe Islands). Previously, the accepted belief was that today’s English evolved from Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, a Western Germanic language brought by the Angles and Saxons to England in the fifth century from Northern Germany and Southern Jutland. Old English — a language incomprehensible to today’s English speakers — is closely related to Old Frisian and Low German.
“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians, who settled the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066,” said Faarland in an article by Trine Nickelsen, editor of the research magazine Apollon, that was published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on November 27.
Faarlund said that Old English and Modern English are two very different languages, so the latter couldn’t have descended from the former. “We believe it is because Old English simply died out, while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced, of course, by Old English.”
For the British, such a claim borders on the scandalous, as the Vikings have been portrayed from the moment they reached the isles as a bloodthirsty and pitiless group of death-dealing invaders with few redeeming qualities. Writing in 793 about the Viking raid on Lindisfarne, England, Alcuin, a Northumbrian cleric and scholar, said: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race ... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
The Vikings, who also became settlers in England, Scotland and Ireland, recieved quite a bit of bad press from the clergy. It didn’t help that the monasteries they attacked to pillage gold and silver contained monks, the only truly literate people of the era, who used pen, ink and paper to accuse the “heathens” of the most heinous crimes against Christians.
Alfred the Great (AD 871 to 899), the King of Wessex and a Christian, is remembered fondly to this day by the British as the man who repelled the Danish invaders and created the basis for a unified nation. Once he had the Danes at bay, Alfred self-styled himself as the King of the Anglo-Saxons. Of course, Alfred only briefly held back the Vikings only in one area of the British Isles. In 886, the Treaty of Wedmore between Alfred and Guthrum was formalized, defining the boundaries of the respective kingdoms. The Viking-controlled region was termed the Danelaw, which roughly comprised Yorkshire, East Anglia, and the central and eastern Midlands, all within the eastern and northern portions of England.
“One especially important, geographic point in our study is that the East Midlands regions, where the spoken language later developed into Modern English, coincides almost exactly with the densely populated, southern part of the Danelaw,” said Faarlund.
Faarlund explained that the language changed a great deal once the Normans — themselves descendants of Viking invaders of Normandy in France — arrived. Because of their miserable lot in life under the French-speaking Normans, the Old English speakers and the Scandinavian speakers joined to develop Middle English from which evolved Modern English. The language adopted many words from the Danelaw inhabitants of Danish and Norwegian descent. In the University of Oslo article, an example is: “He took the knife and cut the steak.” Only “he,” “the” and “and” come from Old English.
“But the Scandinavian element was not limited to the vocabulary, which is normal when languages come into contact with each other,” wrote Nickelsen. “Even though a massive number of new words are on their way into a language, it nevertheless retains its own grammar. This is almost a universal law.”
“But in England, grammatical words and morphemes — in other words the smallest abstract, meaningful linguistic unit — were also adopted from Scandinavian and survive in English to this day,” said Faarlund.
As examples of Scandinavian words used in English, he provided: anger, awe, bad, band, big, birth, bull, cake, call, cast, cosy, cross, die, dirt, dream, egg, fellow, flat, grain, get, gift, give, guess, guest, hug, husband, ill, kid, leg, lift, likely, link, loan, loose, low, mistake, odd, race, raise, root, rotten, same, seat, seem, sister, skill, skin, shirt, sky, steak, though, thrive, Thursday, tight, till, trust, ugly, want, weak, window, wing, wrong.
According to the article, the researchers believe that Old English already had 90 per cent of these concepts in its own vocabulary.
The researchers also determined that the sentence structure in Middle English and in Modern English is Scandinavian, not Western Germanic or Old English.
The example given is that in both, the object is placed before the verb: “I have read the book,” which is Scandinavian is “Eg har lese boka.” In German and Dutch, the verb is placed at the end of the sentence: “Ich habe das Buch gelesen.” And in English and Scandinavian a preposition can be placed at the end of a sentence, as in: “This we have talked about;” “Dette har vi snakka om.” As well, a word can be inserted between the infinitive marker and the verb: “I promise to never do it again;” “Eg lovar å ikkje gjera det igjen.” A group genitive is: “The Queen of England’s hat;” “Dronninga av Englands hatt.”
“All of this is impossible in German and Dutch, and these kinds of structure are very unlikely to change within a language,” said Faarlund. “The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.”
“Why the residents of the British Isles chose the Nordic grammar, though, is a matter of speculation,” added Faarlund.
In the meantime, the researchers have provided a good reason why the first Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegain and Danish settlers in Manitoba easily picked up the English language when they were exposed to it on a daily basis — it had a common ancestry.
But it will undoubtedly take some convincing before the British accept the premise that they owe their language’s origin to a group of so-called bloodthirsty and marauding Vikings.