Norse Terms in English: A short Introduction

When we look at the influence of Old Norse on English we need to leave aside Scandinavian terms that have been borrowed after the medieval period, such as Vikingberserkfjord or ski. The terms that we are interested in are those that were borrowed as a result of linguistic contacts between speakers of Old English [= OE], the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, and Old Norse [=ON], the language spoken by the Scandinavians during the Viking Age.

According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most important historical documents that we have for Anglo-Saxon (and early Anglo-Norman) England, the first set of Scandinavian marauders came to British shores in 787, when they took the inhabitants of Dorset by surprise because they ‘did not know what they were’. Very soon, though, the Anglo-Saxons became well-acquainted with these newcomers and their practices. Yet, it would be too simplistic to see the activities of the Scandinavians as being simply led by a seasonal interest in plunder. Instead, the impact of Viking activities in England can to be divided into three phases:

(1) From the end of the eighth century to the middle of the ninth century, the Scandinavian marauders were interested mainly in hit-and-run attacks (a ‘summer holiday’ activity, as it were).

(2) From the middle of the ninth century the Scandinavians started to spend their winters on English soil, turning their attention to conquest and settlement rather than mere pillage. Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that a ‘great heathen army’ took control of East Anglia in 865 and York in 866, and forayed into Mercia in 867. There are two main dates in this period. In 878 King Alfred the Great and Guthrum, the leader of the Scandinavian army that had tried to conquer Wessex in 875, signed the Treaty of Wedmore, establishing the border of the area where the Scandinavians were allowed to settle down (commonly referred to as the Danelaw). This border was a line which, generally speaking, stretched from London to Chester. The second date to remember is 954, when King Eadred took control over York after Eric Bloodaxe’s expulsion and, in so doing, gained the last of the English territories dominated by the Scandinavians. Even though the English now had political control over the Danelaw, large areas of England retained a very significant Scandinavian presence, particularly the lands around York and in the Five Boroughs of Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, and Stamford. Some place-names (e.g. names ending in –by, cp. Old Danish [= ODan.] bý ‘farm(stead)’, like Derby or Grimsby; –thorpe, cp. ODan. thorp torp ‘hamlet, village’, like Kettlethorpe and Kirkthorpe; or –thwaite, cp. ON þveit ‘clearing’, like Kirkthwaite or Langthwaite) are still very clear reminders of their presence.

(3) A third phase, characterised by political domination, began with the activities of a later raider, Svein ‘Forkbeard’. Svein’s priorities changed at some point between 1007 and 1013 from the extraction of tribute (or Danegeld) to conquest. His aim was to seize royal power rather than mere settlement, an aim that was successfully achieved by his son Cnut (king of England from 1016 to 1035), who made England part of a powerful Scandinavian empire. Although Harald Hardrada attempted to follow in Cnut’s footsteps in 1066 after Edward the Confessor’s death, and the last of the Viking Age Scandinavian attacks took place in 1085, the third phase can be said to end with the death of Harthacnut, Cnut’s son, in 1042.

These phases have historical and linguistic significance. The erratic character of the attacks during the first phase probably only allowed for very limited linguistic contact, and speakers of Old English seem mainly to have been exposed to Old Norse words relating somehow to fighting and agreements (e.g. in the text of the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum we have a reference to a Norse unit of monetary account: OE healfmearc, cp. ON mörk ‘by weight or value, = eight ounces’; and a typically Scandinavian social rank: OE lysing, cp. ON leysingi, which refers to the highest of the two Scandinavian categories of manumitted slaves). Anglo-Scandinavian linguistic contacts flourished mainly during the second and third phases. While these two phases probably saw the more or less continuous arrival of Old Norse speakers (settlers, traders, fighters, etc.), they can be said to diverge with respect to the areas of significant Anglo-Scandinavian contact. During the second phase, linguistic contact between speakers of Old English and Old Norse probably took place mainly in the Danelaw, whereas Cnut’s royal power facilitated the presence of Old Norse speakers in areas where it had previously been insignificant (e.g. in the South-West Midlands and the South-East). This, as well as contact between speakers of the different Old English dialects, helps us explain the presence of Norse-derived terms in texts not clearly associated with the Danelaw already during the Old English period. This process, however, probably involved far fewer Old Norse speakers than those who took part in the ninth-century settlement, although the number of Scandinavian settlers is still a highly debated topic.

The Scandinavian presence in England had a long-lasting cultural impact, particularly in terms of vocabulary. When it comes to numbers, French influence, mainly as a result of the Norman Conquest, is much more significant: approximately 10,000 words were borrowed from French during the Middle English period (of which around 7,000 are still used), whereas there are about 2,000 Norse-derived terms recorded in medieval English texts.  Of them, about 700 are still in use in Standard English, although many more can be found in dialects from areas such as the East Midlands, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Cheshire. The significance of the Norse impact on (Standard) English lies instead in the fact that most of the Norse-derived terms do not have a technical character (consider, for instance, skirt, leg, window, uglyillhappy, scarebask, die) and even include a number of grammatical terms, the most notable being the third person plural pronouns theythem and their (because personal pronouns are not easily borrowed between languages).  The presence of these terms was probably facilitated by the similarity between Old English and Old Norse, both of which were Germanic languages. In fact, it seems very likely that the speakers of the two languages were able to understand each other by speaking their own language, of course with some careful lexical choices and a good deal of pointing and, when appropriate, smiling.

Yet, it is precisely the similarity between the two languages that makes the identification of Norse-derived terms in English particularly difficult, mainly when we do not have anything in the formal structure of the word that suggests a Norse-origin. For instance, the presence of the consonant cluster /sk/ is one of the best-known ways to recognise Old Norse loanwords in English (besides skirt and scare, we have skyskullskin, etc.) because native English terms have /ʃ/ instead (e.g. shirt derives from the same Germanic root as skirt). Unfortunately, things are not so clear when we do not have such evidence and in the past some scholars have been happy to invoke Norse influence when faced with words whose histories are much more challenging. This is the reason why it is fundamental to present very clearly the actual evidence that we have for suggesting that a term is Norse-derived, and to grade this evidence in terms of its reliability. This is the driving force behind the classification put forward by the Gersum Project, initially piloted by Dr Richard Dance in his book on the Norse-derived terms recorded in one of the texts in our corpus, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and its application in the database that you can find in the Project’s website.
You can find out more by viewing our poster exhibition: Gersum Posters.


Selected further reading

Historical background and linguistic introductions

Bolton, Timothy. 2009. The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century, The Northern World, 40 (Leiden: Brill).

Dance, Richard. 2012. ‘English in Contact: Norse’, in English Historical Linguistics: An International Handbook, Vol. 2, ed. by Alexander Bergs and Laurel J. Brinton, Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 34.2 (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter), pp. 1724-37.

Durkin, Philip. 2014. Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Hadley, Dawn M. 2006. The Vikings in England: Settlement, Society and Culture, Manchester Medieval Studies (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Keynes, Simon. 1997. ‘The Vikings in England, c. 790-1016’, in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. by Peter Sawyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 48-82.

Townend, Matthew. ‘Viking Age England as a Bilingual Society’, in Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, ed. by Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), pp. 89-105.

More advanced linguistic studies

Björkman, Erik. 1900-02. Scandinavian Loanwords in Middle English, 2 vols, Studien zur englischen Philologie, 7 and 11 (Halle: Niemeyer).

Dance, Richard. 2003. Words Derived from Old Norse in Early Middle English: Studies in the Vocabulary of the South-West Midland Texts, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 246 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).

Dance, Richard. Forthcoming. Words Derived from Old Norse in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Etymological Survey.

Miller, D. Gary. 2012. External Influences on English: From its Beginnings to the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Parsons, David. 2001. ‘How Long Did the Scandinavian Language Survive in England? Again’, in Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997, ed. by James Graham-Campbell et al. (Oxford: Oxbow Books), pp. 299-312.

Pons-Sanz, Sara M. 2013. The Lexical Effects of Anglo-Scandinavian Linguistic Contact on Old English, Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 1 (Turnhout: Brepols).

Skaffari, Janne. 2009. Studies in Early Middle English Loanwords: Norse and French Influences (Turku: University of Turku).

Townend, Matthew. 2002. Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English, Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 6 (Turnhout: Brepols).