About the Project 

In the early Middle Ages, Scandinavian influence on British life, language and culture was profound. The Vikings had a major and lasting impact, and their legacy still resonates strongly in modern constructions of British identity and heritage. Scandinavian settlement began in earnest in the late ninth century, especially in the North and East of England, and one of its most enduring and significant effects was on the English language. The Gersum Project aims to understand this Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary by examining the origins of the words in a large corpus of Middle English poems from the North of England. It has been funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2016-19). The Gersum Project research team are Richard Dance (Cambridge), Sara Pons-Sanz (Cardiff) and Brittany Schorn (Cambridge), supported by the Digital Humanities Institute (Sheffield). Matthias Ammon (Cambridge) took part in a pilot phase (funded by the Cambridge Humanities Research Grants and Newton Trust Small Research Grants schemes in 2012).

The project is named after the ME word gersum, borrowed from ON gersemi ‘treasure’. English words with Old Norse origins certainly enriched the language and include such basic items as sky, egg, law, leg, call, take, window, knife, die and skin, and the pronouns they, their and them, as well as others as diverse and intriguing as hernez ‘brains’, mugged ‘drizzled’, stange ‘pole’ and wothe ‘danger’. These are cultural artefacts which link Modern English speakers directly with the Vikings. People still use many of them on a daily basis; and there are hundreds of other similar borrowings in standard and regional English usage, especially Northern dialects. The Gersum Project investigates their early history to address questions about how we can identify Old Norse loans, and how and by whom these words were used in the first few centuries after their adoption into English, especially in the crucial Middle English period.

The Middle English corpus investigated by Gersum includes renowned works of literature like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and The Wars of Alexander. They date from much later than the period of language contact between Old English and Old Norse (the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, instead of the ninth to eleventh centuries), but provide a unique window onto that contact for two main reasons: (1) Old Norse words would have made their way into English over an extended period during which Scandinavian speakers gradually gave up their native languages in favour of the English spoken by their neighbours. This process is difficult to reconstruct from contemporary sources, because some dialects, such as those in which these poems were composed, are relatively poorly represented in the written record in earlier periods. (2) The alliterative style of these poems required a vast vocabulary, both for metrical and aesthetic purposes. This led poets to choose less common words, including words that might have been avoided in the standard register of earlier literature, but that would have been part of their daily spoken dialect. It also included some words that might have fallen out of use in prose, but continued to be part of the poetic lexicon. 

The Gersum database is designed to facilitate systematic study of this vocabulary in ways that have not been possible before. The very close inherited similarities of Old English and Old Norse as early Germanic languages make it impossible to identify every instance of a loanword with complete confidence. In most instances, the case for Old Norse input comes down to relative probability, creating scope for significant differences of opinion between scholars and major dictionaries and reference works. We include every word for which some Old Norse input has been suggested with any degree of plausibility, from the very likely to those that we deem extremely unlikely. The database makes the basis for these judgements transparent, by presenting a detailed account of the evidence in a format that allows for easy comparisons. Our classification system (detailed here) indicates our assessment of which words probably do show some input from Old Norse. Access the database here and read our user guide to learn more about the many ways you can use it to explore the origins and history of English words.