When I say “Old English” what comes to mind? The ornate, hard-to-read script? Reading Beowulf in your high school English class? The kinds of figurative compound nouns – or kennings – like “swan of blood” and “slaughter-dew” that have sustained heavy metal lyrics for decades?
Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was a language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons – the first Germanic tribes to settle the British Isles. They were not the first inhabitants, as any Welsh or Gaelic speaker will tell you, but their language did form the basis for the Angle-ish we speak today. But then why can’t we modern-day English speakers understand Old English? In terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, Old English resembles its cousins Dutch and German more than it does modern English. So how did English change so drastically?
The short answer is that the English language changed forever after the Norman invasion brought a new ruling class of French speakers to the British Isles in 1066. French was the language of the nobility for the next 300 years – plenty of time for lots of French words to trickle down to the merchant and
classes. For example, the Anglo-Saxons already had words for “sheep” and “cows”, but the Norman aristocracy – who usually only saw these animals on the plate – introduced mouton (mutton) and boeuf (beef). Today, nearly thirty percent of English words come from French.
As a result, modern English is commonly thought of as a West Germanic language with lots of French and, thanks to the church, Latin influence. But this history of English’s development leaves out a very important piece of the linguistic puzzle – Old Norse: the language of the Vikings.
How To Speak Viking
The Old Norse noun víking meant an overseas expedition, and a vikingr was a man who went on one of these expeditions. In the popular imagination, the Vikings were essentially pirates from the fjords of Denmark and Norway who descended on medieval England like a bloodthirsty frat party; they raped, pillaged, murdered, razed villages and then sailed back across the North Sea with the loot.
But the truth is far more nuanced. The earliest Viking activity in England did consist of coastal raids in the early ninth century, but by the 870s the Danes had traded sword for plow and were settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042. However, the more successful and longer-lasting Norman conquest in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era and virtually erased Danish influence in all aspects of English culture but one: its effect on the development of the English language.
Traust me, þó (though) it may seem oddi at first, we er still very líkligr to use the same words as the Vikings did in our everyday speech. Þeirra (their) language evolved into the modern-day Scandinavian languages, but þeir (they) also gave English the gift of hundreds of words.
[A NOTE ON THE LETTER Þ: THE OLD NORSE LETTER, CALLED THORN, MAKES THE SAME SOUND AS “TH”.]
Names of Days
The most obvious Viking influence on modern English is the word Thursday (Þorsdagr), which you can probably guess means “Thor’s day”.
“Tuesday”, “Wednesday” and “Friday” are sometimes also attributed to the Norse gods Tyr, Odin and Freya, respectively; but the days are actually named for the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of these gods, Tiw, Wodan and Friga. The similarity of these names points to the common ancestry of the various Germanic tribes in prehistoric northern Europe – centuries before their descendants clashed on England’s shores.
War & Violence
If the Vikings are famous for one thing, it’s their obsession with war. They didn’t just bring death and destruction to England in the Middle Ages, they brought really cool words for death and destruction. They were certainly a rough bunch. Just look at a Viking the rangr way, and he might þrysta (thrust) a knifr into your skulle.
berserk/berserker – berserkr, lit. ‘bear-shirt’. A berserkr was a Viking warrior who would enter battle in a crazed frenzy, wearing nothing for armor but an animal skin.
club – klubba. People have been bashing each other with heavy things since time immemorial, but not until the Danes started bringing this weapon down on English heads did this blunt weapon receive its fittingly blunt name.
ransack – rannsaka (to search a house)
These days, the adjective scathing is reserved for sharp criticism, but in the context of the original meaning of scathe (to injure), skaða takes on a much more visceral quality.
slaughter – slatra (to butcher)
Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildr: gunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle”. Only truly badass Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle”.
Society & Culture
But life in the Danelaw wasn’t all murder and mayhem. Ironically, these savage berserkers also gave us words that are central to our “civilized” culture:
bylaw – bylög (village-law)
sale – sala
heathen – heiðinn (one who inhabits the heath or open country)
skill – skil (distinction)
Hell – In Norse mythology, Loki’s daughter Hel ruled the underworld.
steak – steik (to fry)
husband – hús (house) + bóndi (occupier and tiller of soil) = húsbóndi
thrall – þræll (slave)
law – lag
thrift – þrift (prosperity)
litmus – litr (dye) + mosi (lichen; moss)
tidings – tíðindi (news of events)
loan – lán (to lend)
yule – jol (a pagan winter solstice feast)
Although most English animal names retain their Anglo-Saxon roots (cow, bear, hound, swine, chicken, etc) the Vikings did bring certain animals names into the vernacular:
bug – búkr (an insect within tree trunks)
bull – boli
reindeer – hreindyri
skate – skata (fish)
wing – vængr
Some words associated with hunting and trapping also come from Old Norse. Sleuth now means “detective”, but the original slóth meant “trail” or “track”. Snare, on the other hand, retains the original meaning of O.N. snara.
Old Norse is good at describing bleikr landscapes and weather. This was especially useful in the Vikings’ adopted northern England, where flatr or rogg (rugged) terrain can be shrouded in fok, and oppressed by gustr of wind and lagr (low) ský (clouds).
Much of the Danelaw bordered swamps and alluvial plains, so it’s no surprise that many Norse words for dirty, mucky things survive in English:
dirt – drit (excrement)
dregs – dregg (sediment)
mire – myrr (bog)
muck – myki (cow dung)
rotten – rotinn
The Norse Legacy in English
Thanks to the cross-cultural fermentation that occurred in the Danelaw – and later when England was temporarily absorbed into Canute the Great’s North Sea Kingdom – the English language is much closer to that of its Scandinavian neighbors than many acknowledge. By the time that the Norman conquest brought the irreversible influence of French, Old English had already been transformed beyond its Anglo-Saxon roots.
This is still in evidence today; modern English grammar and syntax are more similar to modern Scandinavian languages than to Old English. This suggests that Old Norse didn’t just introduce new words, but influenced how the Anglo-Saxons constructed their sentences. Some linguists even claim that English should be reclassified as a North Germanic language (along with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish), rather than a West Germanic language (with Dutch and German). The Viking influence may be most apparent in the Yorkshire dialect, which uses even more Norse words in daily speech than standard English does.
English is probably too much of a hybrid to ever neatly classify, but its Old Norse rót is clearly there among the tangle of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin roots. The language of the Vikings may have become subdued over the centuries, but make no mistake about it – from byrðr (birth) until we deyja (die) – Norse’s raw energy simmers under the surface of everything we say.
More Norse Words
bark – bǫrkr
rid – rythja (to clear land)
bask – baðask (reflexive of baða, “to bathe”)
run – renna
billow – bylgja
scare – skirra
blunder – blundra (to shut one’s eyes; to stumble about blindly)