Semantic distribution of the terms in the Gersum database

The terms included in the Gersum database reflect the very wide range of lexico-semantic fields where we can find Norse loans during the Middle English period1. This, in turn, is a testament to two factors: (1) the typological proximity between Old English (particularly the Anglian dialects) and Old Norse2; and (2) the sociolinguistic situation in many parts of Anglo-Scandinavian England, where the speakers of the two languages would have had close social contacts and where, generally speaking, the two languages are likely to have enjoyed similar status (as opposed to the uneven distribution of prestige — a.k.a. diglossia — that characterised the contact between Old/Middle English and Latin, for instance).3 The remarks below provide an overview of the richness of the data, although examples have been restricted to those terms which are certainly or very likely from Old Norse (i.e. terms categorised as A, B and C, with no doubling of the consonant).

The typological proximity of the languages is particularly suggested by the significant number of function words (i.e. words which help establish grammatical relations but do not have much lexical meaning) that made their way into English. These terms include personal pronouns (þay ‘they’, þayr(es) ‘their(s)’), other types of pronouns (e.g. boþe ‘both’, same ‘same’), prepositions (e.g. (a)gayn(ȝ) ‘against’, fraward ‘away from’ and ouerþwert ‘across’), conjunctions (e.g. þoȝ ‘although’, or ‘than’, as well as fro ‘after’ and til ‘till, until’, which could act as a preposition or a conjunction), modal verbs (e.g. mon ‘must’), numerals (e.g. aȝtand ‘eighth’, hundreth ‘hundred’) and even some forms of the common verb to be: ware ‘were’. The members of the sere word family (see below, under relative properties) are particularly interesting in this respect because they are formed on the basis of the dative form of the Old Norse 3rd person reflexive pronoun (viz. sér), which was borrowed into Old English as an adjective (cp. ME sere ‘different’) rather than as a pronominal form; the use in English reflects the distributive sense (‘one by one, separately’) of the Norse pronoun. The preposition outtaken ‘except for’ exemplifies the opposite process, where a lexical term (cp. the verb take ‘take’; see below under possession) has taken part in a process of word-formation (compounding) and the new compound has become a function word (this process is often referred to as grammaticalisation). This is an indication that the lexical term has become fully integrated into the language and can, therefore, take part in the same processes of language change as native words.

As one would expect, the overwhelming majority of the terms recorded in the database are lexical words, as these are the terms that are most commonly transferred in situations of language contact. When discussing these terms, it is very helpful to follow the semantic classification presented in the Historical Thesaurus of English (HTE) and that is the approach adopted below. However, the discussion here does not go into as much detail in terms of the taxonomical classification within each lexico-semantic subfield as the HTE. Thus, those readers interested in the make-up of the subfield and the semantic relations between the Norse loans and their near-synonyms should consult the full version of the HTE. Please note as well  that, while clear quantitative information can be given in relation to the representation of the various Gersum categories in the database, the same is not possible for the semantic classification of the terms, because, on the one hand, many of them are polysemous (e.g. scaþe could refer to both physical harm and morally unacceptable behaviour) and, on the other, even the same sense could be associated with different semantic categories. Accordingly, the data is described from a qualitative rather than a quantitative perspective. For a more detailed classification of the data, see Pons-Sanz (forthcoming). 

Most of the terms included in the database are associated with the subfields belonging to the domain that the HTE calls the world:

the universe: e.g. sterneȝ ‘stars’.

the earth: we find here terms referring both to land and the landscape (e.g. bonk ‘hillside, slope, bank’, clynt ‘rocky cliffs’,  fell ‘fell, precipitous rock’, flat ‘plain’, grofe ‘cave’, howis ‘mounds’, ker ‘thicket or marshy ground’, myre ‘mire, swamp’, nabb ‘rock’, sckerres ‘rocks’, scowtes ‘jutting rocks’, skayued ‘wild, desolate’, wylsum ‘desolate’), terms referring to water (e.g. gill-stremes ‘streams from a gorge’, terne ‘lake, pool’) and terms referring to the weather (e.g. blaste ‘blast (of wind)’, ryng ‘storm’, skwe ‘cloud’, snart ‘bitterly’).

life, death and health: while some terms refer to death (e.g. deʒe ‘die’, drowne ‘immersed, drowned’, slaȝtir ‘slaughter’ and the related compound manslatir ‘manslaughter’) and (ill-)health (e.g. skayned ‘grazed’), there are also various terms referring to the body, mainly its parts and their features (e.g. ande ‘breath’, campe ‘rough (said of hair)’, herneʒ ‘brains’, hores ‘hairs, (eye)lashes’, legg ‘leg’, loue ‘palm, hand’, mun ‘mouth’, neue ‘fist’, skinnes ‘skins’, swange ‘waist’, wykez ‘corners (of the mouth)’).

animals: there are here terms referring to animals (e.g. egg ‘egg’, galt ‘boar’, kid ‘kid, young goat’, nowte ‘bull, cattle’) or their bodily parts (dok ‘tail; trimmed hair (of tail, etc.)’, giles ‘gills’, wynge ‘wing’) as well as terms referring to the noises that animals make (e.g. ȝarmand ‘howl’).

plants: besides terms referring to particular plants (e.g. bracken ‘bracken, fern’, risonis ‘stalks of corn’), we also find terms referring to parts of a plant (e.g. blom ‘flower, bloom’, rote ‘root’) and terms referring to plants in relation to their growth and development (e.g. scoghe ‘wood’).

food and drink: while the terms for food refer mainly to the products themselves (e.g. kakeȝ ‘cakes’), those for drink refer to their containers (bekyr ‘beaker’ and scole ‘cup, scale’).

textiles and clothing: Norse-derived terms in this subfield refer mainly to the clothes that characters wear (e.g. gere ‘clothes, gear’ and the related verb gere ‘to clothe, attire’, skyrtez ‘skirts, lower part of flowing garment or covering; flaps of a saddle, saddle-skirts’).

physical sensation: here we find terms referring to the senses, particularly hearing (e.g. lote ‘sound, noise; word’, lyþen ‘to hear’, rowste ‘voice, roar’, schout ‘shout’, skrike ‘shouting, cry’, ȝarm ‘clamour’), as well as terms referring to sleeping (e.g. dreme ‘dream’) and terms connected with dirtiness (e.g. mokke ‘filth, muck’).

matter: terms in this subfield refer to different types of matter (fire: e.g. bale ‘blaze, fire’ and the related bele ‘burn’, forbrent ‘burned up’, kynd ‘burnt’ and the related kindill ‘kindle, set fire to’, swyþes ‘burns up’; liquid: e.g. hellid ‘poured’; light: e.g. skyre ‘bright’; colour: e.g.  blayke ‘yellow’, blo ‘dark, dusky, grey’, littis ‘colours’) and the (bad) condition of matter (e.g. mourkne ‘rot’, roten ‘decayed, decomposed’, moulynge ‘mould, mouldiness’).

existence and causation: we find here a number of terms referring, not to creation, but to damage and destruction (e.g. brestes ‘breaks, bursts’ and the related tobrest ‘break in two’ and vnbrosten ‘unbroken’, ryue ‘to rip, cut open, cleave’, snayped ‘nipped cruelly’, toriuen ‘tear asunder, shatter, break up’, tyne ‘lose, destroy, ruin’). Particularly interesting here is also the adverb algate ‘at any rate’, where we see that the noun gate, a term originally referring to a path or a way, has undergone semantic change to refer to something more abstract (i.e. the way in which things happen). 

space: we find here terms referring to a particular place (e.g. stad ‘placed’, sete ‘seat’), terms referring to a relative position (e.g. hilen ‘cover’ and the opposite vnhyles ‘uncovers’, kay ‘left’, lyfte ‘lift’, vplyften ‘uplift’ and the related loft ‘high place’, which we also find in the adv. / prep. alofte ‘above, at the top; on’, loȝe ‘low’ and the related adverb bilooghe ‘below’, melle ‘middle’, ouerþwert ‘postponed’, rayse ‘raise’), terms referring to direction (e.g. heþen ‘hence’, þethen ‘from there’ and wheþen ‘whence’) and terms referring to shape (e.g. gerrethis ‘hoops’, vmbeþour ‘round about’). 

time: e.g. ay ‘always’, litid ‘delayed’, nyȝter-tale ‘night time’, tite ‘soon, quickly’ and the related as-tit ‘at once, in a moment’ and titely ‘quickly’.    

movement: a significant number of terms refer to different types of movement (e.g. balteres ‘rolls around, hobbles’, flitt ‘move’, kest ‘throw, offer’, which we also find in vmbekesten ‘throw about’ and kest ‘throwing, stroke’, dumpe ‘plunge’, dungen ‘struck’, hitte ‘hit, smite’, renne ‘run’, swayf ‘swinging blow’, rayke ‘wander, depart’, stakirs ‘staggers’, wayue ‘waive, swing’). 

action or operation: a significant number of terms in this category refer to the general act of doing something (e.g. gareȝ ‘makes, causes’), a particular action (e.g. lait ‘to seek, search’), the preparation to carry out an action (e.g. busk ‘get ready, array’, bounet ‘prepared’ and the related boun ‘ready, arranged’,  grayþe ‘get ready’ and the homonymous adjective meaning ‘ready’) or the manner in which an action is carried out, particularly quickly  and violently (brathþe ‘violence, impetuosity’ and the related broþely ‘suddenly; fiercely, violently’, race ‘headlong course; hurry; stroke’, snart ‘sharp’, wyȝt ‘quick; strong, fierce’ and the homonymous adverb meaning ‘swiftly; ardently’). Also important here are terms referring to prosperity or adversity (e.g. gaynly ‘suitably, conveniently, readily’, various members of the hap word family such as hap ‘good fortune, happiness’, vnhap ‘misfortune’ and vnhappy ‘unfortunate’, haille ‘success’, þriue ‘thrive’), the harm that an action can cause (e.g. woþe ‘danger, peril’, scaþe ‘harm, injury; wrong, sin’ and other members of its word family such as scaþel ‘dangerous’, skatheles ‘without injury’ and skathely ‘with injury’), one’s behaviour (cost ‘manners, disposition’, gaynly ‘gracious’, haylse ‘greet’, hendelayk ‘courtesy’, menskefully ‘gracefully’ and menskly ‘courteously’) and one’s ability to carry out an action (e.g. haȝer ‘skilful, well-wrought’ and the related hagherlych ‘fittingly, properly’, sleȝt ‘cunning, skill; device, stratagem; act of practised skill’ and the related sleȝe ‘skilfully made’). Many of the terms in this category overlap with those referring to movement.

relative properties: in this category we find terms referring to agreement and harmony (e.g. (bi)seme ‘beseem, suit, be fitting’ and various members of its word family such as seme ‘seemly, fair, excellent; becomingly, fairly', semly ‘seemly, fitting; comely, fair’ and the homonymous adverb meaning ‘becomingly, excellently; pleasantly, sweetly’, semlyly ‘becomingly’ and vnsemely ‘improper(ly)’, naytly ‘well, properly’, þryftyly ‘with propriety’), similarity or lack thereof (e.g. odde ‘odd’ and the related oddely ‘exceptionally’, same ‘same’, slik ‘such’), quantity (e.g. helder ‘rather, more’, minne ‘less’, score ‘sets of twenty’, wont ‘lack’ and the homonymous verb meaning ‘to want, to lack’, þryuande ‘abundant’ and the related þryuandely ‘abundantly; excellently’), strength (wayke ‘weak’ and the related waykis ‘grows weak’ and waykned ‘was enfeebled’) and a whole-part relationship (e.g. sere ‘separate, individual’ and the related serlepes ‘individual, single, in turn’, serelepy ‘various, separate, different’).  

the supernatural: the database includes a couple of words referring to magic and the occult: wandez ‘wand, magic wand’ and demerlayke ‘magic arts’.

 The second HTE general category in terms of the number of Norse-derived terms in the database is the mind, where terms referring to emotion are particularly numerous:

mental capacity: we find here mainly terms referring to memory (e.g. forgat ‘forgot’), knowledge or lack thereof (e.g. fele ‘hide’, layne ‘conceal; remain silent’, lugged ‘lurched’), belief (e.g. gesse ‘conceive, form an idea’, trayst ‘sure’ and the related traistis ‘trust, have confidence’) and expectation (e.g. dased ‘to be bewildered, dazed’).   

attention and judgement: terms in this subfield refer to attention (e.g. vndertake ‘take in, perceive’), judgement (e.g. skyl ‘reason, judgement’ and the related adjective skylful ‘reasonable, righteous’), enquiry and the provision of an answer (e.g. frayst ‘ask, seek’, sware ‘answer’), esteem (e.g. mensk ‘honoured’ and other members of the word family such as menske ‘honour, fame; courtesy’, mensked ‘honoured’ and menskful ‘of worth, noble’, rose ‘praise’, þryuen ‘fair, grown, honourable, worthy') and contempt (e.g. broþely ‘wild, vile’, bruxleȝ ‘reproves’, heþyng ‘contempt, scorn’, vnþryuande ‘unworthy, ignoble’ and the related vnþryvandely ‘poorly, improperly’). 

goodness and badness: e.g. wale ‘choice, excellent, fair, noble’. The terms in this category overlap with many associated above with harm (under action or operation), esteem and contempt (under attention and judgement) and morality.

emotion: Norse terms made a significant impact on this subfield, with many of them having a prominent position for the expression of zeal and enthusiasm (e.g. þro ‘intense, steadfast, bold; angry, fierce’ and the related adverbs þro ‘earnestly, heartily, eagerly’ and þroly ‘heartily; urgently; violently’), passion (e.g. luf-lowe ‘fire of love’ and forbrent ‘burnt up’),4 anger (anger ‘anger; sorrow’ — the latter was its original meaning — and the related angirs ‘grows angry’, broþe ‘angry, fierce, grim’, gnaistes ‘gnashes’, waymot ‘bad-tempered’), mental pain or suffering (e.g. syt ‘grief, sorrow’), hatred (e.g. laith ‘loathsome, hateful’), calmness (e.g. spakid ‘became calm’), humility (e.g. lowe ‘humbly, lowly’ and the related loȝly ‘humbly, with deference’, meke ‘humble, submissive; gentle, compassionate’ and the related mekyn ‘humble’, mekely ‘humbly, compassionately’ and mekeness ‘meekness, humility’), fear (e.g. aghe ‘awe, reverence, terror’ and other members of its word family such as aȝed ‘frightened’, aȝefullest ‘most formidable’ and aghlich ‘terrible’, rad ‘afraid’, skere ‘fear’ and the related scarreȝ ‘take alarm, startle’, stiggis ‘starts in alarm’, vgly ‘gruesome, threatening’) and courage (e.g. aȝlez ‘without fear’, derf ‘bold, audacious, doughty, stout’ and the related adverb deruely ‘boldly’).

will: terms here refer mainly to one’s free will or intention to do something (e.g. attle ‘intend, prepare’ and the related noun atlyng ‘intention’, wale ‘choice, range to choose from’ and the homonymous verb meaning ‘choose’), one’s willingness to do it (e.g. bayn ‘willing, obedient’, grayþely ‘readily, promptly’) or one’s motivation to do it (e.g. eggyng ‘urging’). 

possession: besides the possession of something or lack thereof (e.g. mysse ‘lose, lack’), the terms in this category refer mainly to the processes of acquisition (e.g. adill ‘acquire, earn’, gete ‘get, seize, fetch’ and the related noun get ‘something one has got’, take ‘take, accept, receive, capture’ and the related ouertake ‘overtake, regain?’, taking ‘capture’) or giving out (e.g. bitan ‘given, assigned’, gif ‘give, grant’ and the related noun gifte ‘gift, giving’, ȝette ‘grant’). 

language: the terms in this category refer mainly to the process of speaking and what is uttered (e.g. call ‘call, name, summon’, carp ‘speak, say, converse’ and the related nouns carp ‘talk, conversation, discourse’ and carping ‘speech, words’, kest ‘utter’ and the related words kest ‘speech, utterances’, vpcaste ‘proclaimed, uttered’, neuen ‘name, call, mention’ and the related adjectival form vnneuened ‘unsaid’, tyþing ‘word; message, information’), the expression of a request (e.g. bayþe ‘ask; agree, consent’, bone ‘request, boon’) and of a refusal or negation (e.g. nay ‘no’, nite ‘refused’), as well as the manner in which speech is produced (e.g. aloȝ ‘quietly’).

society, the third of the HTE's domains, is the least well represented in the database, although there are also some important terms in this category:

society and the community: here we find terms referring to social and kinship relations (e.g. sister-sunes ‘sister’s sons, nephews’) and the presence or absence of dissent (e.g. saȝte ‘peace’ and the related terms saȝte ‘at peace’, saȝtle ‘make peace, reconcile’, saȝtlyng ‘reconciliation’, vnsaȝt ‘unreconciled, unappeased’).

inhabiting and dwelling: we find here mainly references to any dwelling and the concept of settling down somewhere (e.g. bigge ‘settle, found, build, make’ and other members of its word family such as bygyng ‘dwelling, home’ and bygly ‘inhabitable, pleasant’, and won ‘dwelling, abode’), different types of dwellings (e.g. boþe ‘booth, arbour’), groups of dwellings (e.g. þorpes ‘villages’) and parts of a building (e.g. wyndow ‘window’).

armed hostility: here we have terms referring to troops of warriors (e.g. sopp ‘company, troop’) as well as their equipment (e.g. bruny ‘mail-shirt’, grayn ‘blade of axe, spike?’, gunnes ‘war engines’, klubbe ‘club’, sparþe ‘battle-axe’, stel-gere ‘armour’, wapen ‘weapon’ and the related wapened ‘armed’).

authority: while some terms refer to power itself (e.g. ouirlaike ‘superiority, conquest’) and what authority allows one to do, such as summon someone (e.g. cal ‘summons’ and the related bycalle ‘call upon, summon) or restrain them (e.g. rekanthes ‘chains’ and lausen ‘release, free, loosen’), others refer to those with power (e.g. cayser ‘emperor, ruler’) and those who are under someone else’s power (e.g. bonde ‘bondmen, serfs’, carle ‘churl’, swaynes ‘servants’, þral ‘serf, slave’).  

law: here we have a couple of members of the lawe word family, which has a long standing in English records: lawe ‘law; faith; style’ and louyly ‘lawful’. 

morality: the terms connected to this subfield are associated with both positive (e.g. forgif ‘forgive’, saklez ‘innocent’, skete ‘pure’, vnsakathely 'spiritually unharmed, the pure’) and negative (e.g. lastes ‘sins, vices’, vnþryfte ‘wickedness, folly’ and the related adverb vnþryftyly ‘wantonly’, wrange 'wrongdoing, injustice; harm, evil, hurt, sorrow' and the homonyms wrang 'evil, perverted; wrong’ and wrang ‘unjustly, wrongly’) moral values.

faith: perhaps unsurprisingly, we do not have many Norse-derived terms referring to religion, but we do have some, such as kirk ‘church’ and hap ‘one of eight beatitudes’. 

travel: besides some of the terms associated with movement above, which could also be included here, we find terms referring to the concept of travelling in general (e.g. kayre 'to go, ride’, trone ‘go, march’), means of travel (e.g. gate 'way, road, path’, gayn ‘direct, straight’, wro ‘secluded place, passage') and specific references to travel by water and parts of a ship (e.g. bulk ‘hold (of a ship)’).

farming: e.g. snape ‘poor pasture’.

occupation and work: the most important terms here are those referring to the equipment that one might need to carry out work (e.g. caraldes casks’, kyste ‘chest’, sekke ‘piece of sack-cloth’, wyndas ‘windlass’).

leisure: we find here references to leisure in general (e.g. layke ‘to play, amuse oneself’ and the related nouns layk ‘sport, entertainment’ and laykyng ‘playing’, tayt ‘pleasure, sport, play’, tom ‘leisure; time’), specific activities that one might engage in for leisure, particularly hunting (e.g. bayted ‘baited (by dogs), fed’, wayth ‘(meat gained in) hunting’) and those enjoying such leisurely activities (e.g. gest ‘guest’).

 The situation during the Middle English period differs very significantly from what we find in Old English texts, where a significant proportion of Norse-derived terms can be said to be part of the technical vocabulary referring to social classes, measurements, as well as legal and nautical terminology; see further Pons-Sanz (2013).

2 See Frede Nielsen (1985) for a study of the morphological and phonological similarities between the two languages, and Townend (2002) for an argument in favour of the existence of mutual intelligibility between their speakers.

This statement is, of course, a broad generalisation that does not take into account the situation in the various areas in terms of the differing power structures and concomitant numbers of Scandinavian speakers (see Pons-Sanz 2004 for a study of the sociolinguistic situation in Northumbria), nor the impact that Cnut’s reign is likely to have had on the status of Old Norse (see Townend 2001 in this respect). See, however, Lutz (2012 and 2013) for a somewhat different view about the sociolinguistic relations between Old English and Old Norse.

4 We see in these terms interesting examples of the conceptual metaphor passion is fire.



Historical Thesaurus of English, available at <>, last accessed on 29th September 2019.

Lutz, Angelika. 2012. ‘Norse Influence on English in the Light of Contact Linguistics’, in English Historical Linguistics 2010: Selected Papers from the Sixteenth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Pécs, 23-27 August 2010, ed. by Irén Hegedüsand Alexandra Fodor, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 325 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), pp. 15-42.

--- 2013. ‘Language Contact and Prestige’, Anglia, 131: 564-90.

Nielsen, Hans Frede. 1985. Old English and the Continental Germanic Languages: A Survey of Morphological and Phonological Interrelations, Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft, 33, 2nd ed. (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck).

Pons-Sanz, Sara M. 2004. ‘A Sociolinguistic Approach to the Norse-Derived Words in the Glosses to the Lindisfarne and Rushworth Gospels’, in New Perspectives on English Historical Linguistics: Selected Papers from 12 ICEHL, Glasgow, 21-26 August 2002, Vol. 2: Lexis and Transmission, ed. by Christian Kay et al., Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 252 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins), pp. 177-92

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

--- Forthcoming. ‘The Lexico-Semantic Distribution of Norse-Derived Terms in Late Middle English Alliterative Poems: Analysing the Gersum Database’, in New Perspectives on the Scandinavian Legacy in Medieval Britain, ed. by Richard Dance, Sara M. Pons-Sanz and Brittany Schorn, Studies in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols).

Townend, Matthew. ‘Contextualizing the Knútsdrápur: Skaldic Praise-Poetry at the Court of Cnut’, Anglo-Saxon England, 30: 145-79.

--- 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).