Scandinavian Influence on the English Language

As a result of the contacts with the Vikings, the Old English language underwent influence of Scandinavian towards the end of the Old English period. Originally, on the continent the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians were intimately related in a common racial and linguistic bond. This explains why the first English epic Beowulf , had for its setting one of the Scandinavian countries; even the main characters in the poem are Scandinavian. But when the Vikings began to attack and plunder England, the relationship between the Germanic races worsened. Ultimately, many Scandinavians settled down in different parts of England, and as a result of this co-existence, the language of the Anglo-Saxons was considerably influenced by the language of the invaders.
Since the two peoples lived very intimately, it is very difficult to identify the Scandinavian words in English. Some words, however, can be identified as of Scandinavian origin. The reason is that phonologically their form is different from what could be expected in a native English word. Thus the word awe is certainly of Scandinavian origin; the Old English form is ege. Another word where Old English had a palatal g and Scandinavian a velar g was the word for ‘egg’, which was Old English æg and Scandinavian egg. Obviously, therefore, the modern word, egg comes from Scandinavian. Similarly Old English sometimes had palatal c where Scandinavian retained the velar k. That is why church is English and kirk is Sandinavian. Again Germanic sk did not become palatalized in Scandinavian as it did in Old English. Thus Shirt is English and skirt, Scandinavian.
Among the vowels, the main difference is that proto-Germanic ai becomes ei in Scandinavian, but a in Old English as can be seen in the pair nei-na, the first giving modern English nay and the second no. Often, a word of Scandinavian origin can be identified by the fact that it does not occur in Old English, but does occur in Scandinavian. An example is the verb, “to take”, which is Scandinavian taka. This is not found in Old English, which uses the verb niman.
Many of the Scandinavian words have since died out from the English language, but quite a number remains. We find the legal and administrative terms, such as the words—thrall, law, by-law, crave and riding. The largest single group of these words is such as would be associated with a sea-roving people, words like barda (beaked ship), ceanerr (small warship), liþ (fleet), dreng (warrior), orrest (battle) and ran (robbery). Among the most notable evidences of Scandinavian settlement in England is the large number of places that bear Scandinavian names. We find more than six hundred of places like Whitby, Derby, Rugby (–by, a Danish word meaning ‘farm’ or ‘town’), three hundred names like Althorp and Linthorp (Scan. ‘thorp’ meaning ‘village’), almost equal number of names like Braithwate, (Scan. thwate, meaning “an isolated piece of land”, about a hundred places like Brimtoft, Nortoft (Scan. -toft a piece of ground). A similar high percentage of Scandinavian personal names is found in English. Names ending in -son, like Stevenson or Johnson, conform to a characteristic Scandinavian custom.
The English and the Scandinavian were accustomed to much the same kind of rural life, and the fusion of the two peoples was a very close one. Many of the words taken over in consequence were homely and everyday ones. Thus the word sister is taken from Scandinavian. So are the names of parts of the body— leg and neck. Other common names include window, sky, knife, skin, dirt, skill, bag, cake and fellow. Everyday adjectives include wrong, low, loose, odd, flat and ugly. Among the everyday verbs are get, give, call, want, take, drag, smile, thrive, die etc. the conjunction though is also from Scandinavian. So are more remarkably the pronouns they, them and their. As Jesperson pointed out, such words are rarely borrowed by one language from another. All this only go to show that the distinguished Scandinavian philologist is right when he says:
“An Englishman cannot thrive or be ill or die without Scandinavian words; they are to the language what bread and eggs are to the daily fare.”


  1. Anonymous

    Oh, this is awesome!

  2. Interesting article but with huge problems, this is assuming Old English had the same words throughout the country and that the Scandinavians were one people, from evidence I have looked at neither are the case. Old English had various dialects how can we possible know what is Scandinavian or what is simply a local Old English dialect word. As in Beowulf so called Saxons were happy to read about stories set in Scandinavia without a care, how do we know Scandianvian influence was not already in the north and east after all the north and east is closer to Scandinavia anyway. There are words in the West Midlands (not ruled by the Vikings) which come from Scandinavian words e.g. blather and Wassailing (which is old English) but close to Scandinavian tradition is found in Somerset and Devon. The picture is far from straight forward.

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