Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

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Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby DaveAgain » Tue Jul 02, 2019 9:07 am

Another interesting video from Langfocus.

He talks about the influence of norwegian/danish colonists in England (Danelaw) on modern english.

(I think IronMike linked to an article that suggested English should be classified as a north-germanic (scandinavian) language, but I can't find the post!)
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby Iversen » Tue Jul 02, 2019 9:34 am

We had a long discussion about this in HTLAL, but I have not really tried to find it again (I have stopped visiting those hallowed dead silent halls of glorious past times). I remember it because I took it as a incentive to read most of the extant chronicles in Anglosaxon, Old Norse and Old Saxon (the predecessor of low German). And OK, they resemble each other, but when those sources were written (from around 800 and upwards) each language already had its own character.

The main point about the viking influence on Anglosaxon is that it concerns some of the most central elements of the language, areas that normally wouldn't be affected by borrowings from abroad like the pronouns. But the Anglosaxons didn't do a wholesale switch to the language of the viking invaders/settlers, and as far as I remember the influence wasn't restricted to Danelagen, which would be the case if it simply had been a complete switch to a new language imposed by the conquerors.

Another problem is whether Frisian actually is the nearest relative to Anglosaxon or not. The venerable Bede expressly mentions Saxons, Angles and Jutes as the as the conquerors of Celtic/Roman Britain, but he did NOT include the Frisians - which of course doesn't exclude the possibility that Great Britain was peacefully settled by illiterate Frisians who left no written testimonies of their presence. But Frisian is first attested half a millenium later, and even though I have searched for proof that Anglosaxon is closer related to Frisian than for to instance Saxon (now called Low German) I haven't found anything convincing. My opinion is that the whole Ingväonic speaking coast was one big language continuum (or just call it a linguistic mess, because that is what it was), and that Great Britain was settled by people who spoke many different kinds of Germanic. And during the dark centuries from the mid 400s to around 700-800 Anglosaxon developed its own dialects, but within a common framework that separated it from not only the unattested proto-Frisian, but also from the reasonably wellknown Saxon language.

And when the vikings arrived (culminating in the conquest of Danelagen by Svend Tveskæg (Forkbeard)) they may have left their mark on some rather unusal parts of the local language, but not to the extent that it became part of the North Germanic language group. On the other hand it is clear that is wasn't simply a case of the poor vikings not quite mastering the local Anglosaxon as some chauvinist Brits have suggested - don't forget who had won the struggle for power! In fact their arrival did mark a turning point in the development of the Anglosaxon language, maybe even even to warrant the word 'semicreole' which the Langfocus guy at one point uses.

And then the (Normannic)French-speaking Normans arrived and smashed the newly revised Anglosaxon language so thoroughly up that it ended up as the simplified mishmash known as Middle English...
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby tarvos » Tue Jul 02, 2019 10:39 am

Borrowings does not a language structure make, but you can tell from the English language that there is a slight Scandinavian tinge to the language still. I'm inclined to agree with Iversen and go for the theory that in those days everything was a mishmash - and that the mixed up situation led to a unification where the Danelaw exerted some influence - but not enough to drown out the Saxon and the later Norman French influences that have led to modern-day English.
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby DaveAgain » Wed Jul 03, 2019 9:24 pm

There was a programme about Vikings on UK TV earlier this evening: Vikings, presented by Neil Oliver. There was a very brief piece about their impact on the English language, the 'language expert' for that bit was Richard Dance.

Dr Dance's webpage links to the Gersum Project
The Gersum Project, funded by the AHRC, aims to understand Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary by examining the origins of up to 1,600 words in a corpus of Middle English poems from the North of England
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby Random Review » Thu Jul 04, 2019 4:08 pm

Iversen wrote:On the other hand it is clear that is wasn't simply a case of the poor vikings not quite mastering the local Anglosaxon as some chauvinist Brits have suggested - don't forget who had won the struggle for power! In fact their arrival did mark a turning point in the development of the Anglosaxon language, maybe even even to warrant the word 'semicreole' which the Langfocus guy at one point uses.


As ever, an interesting post, mate. However, a couple of points jumped out at me:

I'm not sure winning a power struggle in the pre-modern world has been shown to correlate in any meaningful way with a culture's sophistication. Even the Romans acknowledged the cultural superiority of the Hellenic world and look who won that power struggle.

More importantly, as someone who takes the idea of English having been influenced by imperfect acquisition by large numbers of Vikings seriously, I can sincerely promise you that I hold no chauvinistic attitudes towards Scandinavians. I was first led to take the idea seriously (I suspect Paul from Langfocus may also have been) by John McWhorter. Mcwhorter details his argument in his popular book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue without a hint of condescension towards the Vikings (I rather had the impression that he admired their commercial savvy TBH). As an African-American, he tends to be far more sensitive than most linguists to the dangers of patronising attitudes towards other peoples.

I don't know if his argument is right. One of McWhorter's main research focuses was the impact of large-scale non-native adult acquisition on languages, so it may just be a case of a guy with a hammer seeing nails everywhere; but I do think it is a serious argument, mate. It's not the crazy ravings of a chauvinist.

I can give an example from my personal life. My sister's husband is Romanian. He is a very smart guy who trained as an engineer, and has successfully built a career for himself in two different countries in two different foreign languages. In no way could I possibly consider myself his intellectual superior. Nevertheless, his acquisition of English grammar and phonology are what you might expect in a busy adult who learned English as a practical tool on the job. Large numbers of guys like him raising families in the UK would undoubtedly make the UK a better place; but they would plausibly perhaps also result in further streamlining of the remaining difficult aspects of English. When reading McWhorter talk about the Viking influence on English, it was my sister's husband and niece's father I immediately thought of.
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby tungemål » Thu Aug 08, 2019 6:57 pm

I remember I read an article some years ago.
A paper was published by Jan Terje Faarlund and Joseph Emmonds that suggested that English could be regarded as a scandinavian language! The theory pointed out that English not only borrowed words from the vikings, but also has grammatical structures in common with scandinavian languages. Structures that other west germanic languages (German, Dutch) don't share.

Here is a newspaper article:
https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/i/GG3P ... visk-sprak
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby Iversen » Fri Aug 09, 2019 1:10 am

I have tried to find the discussion in HTLAL about the thesis that Middle English is a direct descendant from Old Norse with some loans from Anglosaxon rather than the opposite, but so far to no avail. Instead I have read some of the oldest texts in Anglosaxon (Cædmon) and Old Saxon (Heiland) to get a 'feel' for the grammar and the words of these languages. You may ask: why Old Saxon? Well, the simple fact is that we know next to nothing about the thing the article calls "gammelengelsk" (which in the context must mean Anglosaxon from before the arrival of the vikings). But this vernacular must have descended from the langages spoken along the continental coast of the North Sea, also known as the Ingwäonic languages. But just as is the case with Anglosaxon these languages are only attested from the mid 700s, apart from things like single words from inscriptions. So even if archaic Anglosaxon ("gammelengelsk") was partly based on even older Saxon we can't be sure about how the grammar and daily vocabulary of any of the languages looked before the mid 700s or even later. The Vikings made their first big conquest in the mid 800s, so they could in principle have influenced all texts in Anglosaxon apart from Caedmon's short poem from that time on.

In Saxo this first viking conquest (apart from isolated robberies) is described as the vengance of Ubbe the Boneless and his brothers after the murder of his father Regnar by the English king Ella. The details may be spurious (including the gruesome death of king Ella), but the invasion as such is well attested, and it really only left Wessex to the English king Alfred. Then king Ethered decided to kill off the Danes, and as I mentioned in my first anser this led to fullscale conquest of more or less the whole English territory - but soon after the Normans came and changed the whole game: the rulers for a couple of centuries spoke French, not Anglosaxon and definitely not Old Norse, and it was in this period that whatever was spoken in England metamorphosed into Middle English.

It is logical that that the center of the Nordic influence - as long as it lasted - would be along the East coast, but the power center of the Vikings was Jorvick, modern York, which is quite far North. And one more more detail worth noticing: the genetical analysis of modern Brits shows very little Nordic influence, so even at its peak the number of vikings can't have been overwhelming compared to the local population. Already here the argumentation in the article seems somewhat shaky.

I have not had time to do the necessary research myself and I'm not an expert of any of these old languages, but I find it somewhat unsettling that the lingusts quoted in the article use modern stages of the languages for their grammatical argumentations instead of referring back as far as possible. I actually know that some of the features of later English also can be attested in for instance Low German or other languages from the North Sea coast. For instance Low German used "doen" for emphasis in a way that very well could have developed in the use of "do" in Anglosaxon during the 'dark' period. This is not seen in the Nordic languages, so it must be an inherited trait from 'old' Anglosaxon.

As for the word order with analytic past tenses ('has/had done') I have the impression that these forms generally weren't used nearly as much in any of relevant old languages as in Modern English, which diminishes the chances of getting enough examples to analyse. But we find examples in the old Saxon texts with a word order that isn't allowed in modern High German or Dutch. Here a quote from "Heiland" (line 94-96) with the corresponding translation by Karl Simrock and my own tentative hyperliteral translation..

Thô uuarð thiu tîd cuman, -- | that thar gitald habdun
uuîsa man mid uuordun, -- | that scolda thana uuîh godes
Zacharias bisehan.

Nun war die Zeit gekommen, die bezeichnet hatten
Wohlweise Männer, daß Gottes Weihtum
Zacharias versähe.


Literally ... "Thus was time that come(PART.P.) / that there told had / wise men with words(?) / that should that blessing(?) God's / Zacharias equip(-with)

The article does not explicitely quote the absence of -ge as a Nordic trait in English, but as you can see the form "cuman" has no prefixed "ge-" (as in Dutch and High German) - and it is still not used in Modern Platt - so this is a case where inheritance from Old Saxon would have yielded the same result as inheritance from Old Norse. On the other hand the infinite verbal forms are placed at the end of both the dependent clauses and the sentence parts that precede htem. And the finite verbal forms are put before the subjects, which gives a fairly exotic colouring to the whole thing. If this is one possible line in the developments from very OLd Saxon, how can you then be sure about the possibilities of another descendant, the oldest Anglosaxon from Britain?

Let's have a look at a couple of quotes) from that little-known gem of Ancient English prose, the Anglosaxon chronicle (translation here). The first one about the year about the year 455, where Great Britain was invaded by Saxons-Anglish-Jutish mercenaries on the invitation of king Vortigern. Not much to say about the grammar here, except that the sentences are extremely simple in their structure - which isn't what we are looking for. But the message is worth noticing:

455: Her Hengest ⁊ Horsa fuhton wiþ Wyrtgeorne þam cyninge, in þære stowe þe is gecueden Agælesþrep, ⁊ his broþur Horsan man ofslog; ⁊ æfter þam Hengest feng to rice ⁊ Æsc his sunu.
A.D. 455. This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.


In this translation "his broþur Horsan man ofslog" is translated as a passive construction, but "Horsan" seems to be an accusative. So it is more likely that 'man' is an unspecified dummy: "(man) slew Horsa". This is extremely common in for instance Danish ("man dræbte Horsa"), but not in Modern English .. but how come then that it is used in a source that would be expected to use Anglosaxon as it was before the viking invasions? And why didn't it persist into modern English?

Another point: the word order in several sentences is [SOMETHING]-subject-verb. In the modern Scandinavian languages we have a tendency to use an inversion when there is something heavy at the start of a sentence - and sometimes without any reason in Old Norse. But in the chronicle there are also inversions which hardly can be blamed on the vikings, like for instance this horror tale:

491 Her Ælle ⁊ Cissa ymbsæton Andredescester ⁊ ofslogon alle þa þe þærinne eardedon; ne wearþ þær forþon an Bret to lafe.

A.D. 490. This year Ella and Cissa besieged the city of Andred, and slew all that were therein; nor was one Briten left there afterwards.

491: Here Ælle and Cissa around-sat Andreds(castle)town and killed all those that therein were; nor be for-that one Brit to-left


It is claimed that the chronicle was started on orders from king Alfred the Great (who hardly would be expected to borrow heavily from the language of his worst foes) and written in the dialect of Wessex, but then generation after generation of scribes added their own informations, and the last entries are written in something close to Middle English, which should in itself be an illustration of the continuous development from Anglosaxon towards Middle English - though not without some heavy influence from the vikings.

I have deliberately chosen quotes from the first part because they would be among the first ones written. And in some cases their grammatical constructions seem to anticipate things you also find in Old Norse, so again the vikings can't be blamed. As for the 90% old words that were dropped by the inhabitants of Britain in favour of viking words according to the article: when you consider how little people back then wrote about the daily life of the population then I would not be shocked if some of the words mentioned in the article already existed in Anglosaxon, maybe because of earlier contacts.

When I wrote that Anglosaxon in all likelihood was formed from a mix of several Ingväonic languages and that Middle English (and later stages of English) might possibly be conceived as a Creole based on Anglosaxon and Old Norse I did go some distance in the direction of the researchers mentioned in the Norwegian newspaper article - but I think they go too far by claiming that Middle English only is a direct continuation of Old Norse (after it killed off the true old Anglosaxon). And if they were right then they should be able to come up with more arguments based on the relevant languages in their oldest forms rather than references to how the languages function now.
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby DaveAgain » Fri Aug 09, 2019 5:12 am

Iversen wrote:It is logical that that the center of the Nordic influence - as long as it lasted - would be along the East coast, but the power center of the Vikings was Jorvick, modern York, which is quite far North. And one more more detail worth noticing: the genetical analysis of modern Brits shows very little Nordic influence, so even at its peak the number of vikings can't have been overwhelming compared to the local population. Already here the argumentation in the article seems somewhat shaky.

As I understand it the Vikings were a slave owning society, so a viking household in York would have included many nominally British people.
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Re: Langfocus: Viking influence on the English language

Postby Iversen » Fri Aug 09, 2019 2:07 pm

That's true. And that would make it more likely that some kind of language mix occurred. However the influence could go both ways: I remember that the simplicity of Afrikaans grammar has been ascribed to the use of native African nannies in South African boer families. Something similar could have happened in Danelagen. The main difference is that the vikings didn't systematically subjugate the Anglosaxons and make them serve as slaves or servants (although it may have happened). In that respect they were less inhumane than both the Saxon conquerers from the 455 invasion and the Normans of 1066.
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