The study of loans from Old Norse, the language spoken by the Vikings, in English can lead to very interesting discussions on various aspects of the history of the English language (and comparisons with the current multilingual situation in Britain):
- Spelling: people often complain that English spellings can be unpredictable and difficult to make sense of. However, that unpredictability can be explained by studying the historical development of the language. Foreign words have played an important part in distancing spelling practices from pronunciation; for instance, we know that words spelt with ps and y in the middle of the word (eg psychology) are normally Greek words which had ψ (psi) and υ (upsilon), respectively (cf Greek ψυχή ‘breath, soul’). Unlike Greek and French loans, Norse loans do not tend to create many irregular sound-spelling correspondences and, in fact, at times they are part of a minority of terms where the correspondence is maintained: for example, when g is followed by e or I, it often sounds as /ʤ/ (eg general, gist); these terms tend to be French loans. In get, give and gift, though, g is pronounced as /g/ because these words exhibit Old Norse pronunciation (cf Old Norse geta ‘to obtain’, gefa ‘to give’, gipt ‘gift’).
- Linguistic variation: Norse loans can help us account for some of the differences between various British dialects. As can only be expected, their number is much higher in the dialects spoken in what used to be the Danelaw (the area of Britain settled by the Scandinavians: broadly speaking, lands to the east and north of an imaginary line from London to Chester). It is very important to acknowledge that many of the words used in those areas are not corrupted forms of English but words with a very rich cultural heritage: eg mun, a verb used to express obligation or necessity, is a loan (cf Old Norse munu) not a form of must.
- Social interaction: Norse loans are different from words borrowed from other languages such French, Latin, Greek in that the latter tend to be technical terms, whereas that is not generally the case with words borrowed from Old Norse. Loans, then, give us an insight into different types of sociolinguistic interaction: we need to remember, for instance, that many Scandinavians newcomers ended up intermarrying with the local population and living with them as neighbours and equals, whereas French was brought over by the Norman lords. It is fundamental to place language within a wider social context.
If you would like to discuss further teaching ideas on the presence of Norse loans in English, feel free to contact the Gersum Project team (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.gersum.org)."
Thanks Sara! Other Gersum project members Dr Richard Dance and Dr Brittany Schorn feature as real-life Vikings in our new app coming soon - conteact email@example.com for more information.