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The Scandinavian Influence on The English Language

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2567 words Published: 27th Jul 2021

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The Viking colonisation of the British Isles had a considerable effect on the English language and vocabulary. Even today, after hundreds of years, we can still see the evidence of Scandinavian influence. This paper deals with the influence of Scandinavian on the English language. The aim of this paper is to show examples and explain the impact of Scandinavian on the English language.

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1. Introduction

The history of English language is usually divided up into four major periods that can be justified both on the basis of linguistic differences and on the basis of historical events that influenced the later development of English language [1] . These periods are Old English (450-1150), Middle English (1150-1500), Early Modern English (1500-1700) and Modern English (1700-present). These years are not strict boundaries but rough approximations.

English has been influenced by many languages and one of them is Scandinavian (in the period of OE and ME). Scandinavian loans differ from other loans from the same period because they refer to common, everyday events and objects. Because of its extent, it is one of the most interesting of the foreign influences on the English language.

2. The Scandinavian influence on the English language

“Their activities began in plunder and ended in conquest.” (Baugh and Cable 92)

2.1. Historical background

The Viking Age lasted roughly from the middle of the eighth century to the beginning of the eleventh. The Vikings were the Germanic tribes of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Denmark. The reasons for their sudden attacks and voyages are unknown; it is possible that they were of economic or political nature. In their adventures the Swedes established a kingdom in Russia; Norwegians colonized parts of the British Isles, the Faroes, and Iceland, and from there pushed on to Greenland and the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland; the Danes founded the dukedom of Normandy and finally conquered England (Baugh 92). Vikings conquered large areas of England but were stopped by King Alfred of Wessex. He signed the Treaty of Wedmore (878) with Gunthrum, the Viking leader. The treaty defined the boundary line, running roughly from Chester to London, to the east of which the Vikings were to remain (Berndt 1989: 22). This area was where Danish law and customs were followed and would later be known as the Danelaw. In the beginning of the eleventh century, the Vikings reached the pinnacle of their achievement – Cnut, king of Denmark, conquered Norway England and obtained the throne of England (Berndt 23).

Viking invasions led to an immigration wave from Scandinavia. Although most of the new inhabitants were Danes, there were also Norwegians and Swedes. The two peoples, the English and the Scandinavian, amalgamated. As is described in Baugh and Cable (98), the Scandinavians intermarried with the English, adopted many of their customs and accepted Christianity. Not much is known about the relation of the two languages. In some places the Scandinavian gave up their language early and in some places Norse was spoken as late as the seventeenth century. It is also highly possible that some of the new inhabitants were bilingual. Old Norse and Old English were similar languages so it is highly probable that the two may even have been” mutually intelligible to a limited extent” (Baugh and Cable 96) which made the process of borrowing and adoption easier.

2.2. Scandinavian place-names

Many places in today England bear Scandinavian names (more than 1,400). These names are notable evidence that the Vikings once settled in England. These places are mostly situated in the district of the Danelaw but are not uniformly distributed (Berndt 22, 64). According to Baugh and Cable (98-99), there are more than 600 places with names ending in -by (such as Whitby, Grimsby). The Scandinavian word by means ‘farm’ or ‘town’; the word can also be seen in by-law (town law). Some 300 place-names end in the Scandinavian word thorp that means ‘village’ (like Althorp, Bishopsthorpe, Linthorpe). There are almost as much place-names that contain the word thwaite, ‘an isolated piece of land’ (e.g. Applethwaite, Langthwaite). Around a hundred end in toft, ‘a piece of ground, a messuage’ (Brimtoft, Nortoft).

Even personal names bear witness to the Scandinavian influence. Names with the suffix -son like Stevenson or Johnson are the Scandinavian equivalent of OE patronymic -ing (as in Browning).

2.3. The tests of borrowed words

As previously stated, Old English and Old Norse were similar languages; some common words of the two languages were even identical. Therefore, in some cases, it is difficult to determine whether a word in Modern English is native or a borrowed word. However, there are some reliable criteria that help to determine the origin of the word. Baugh and Cable (96-97) enumerate and exemplify three criteria. One of the simplest is (1) the development of the sound sk. In OE, this sound was palatalized to sh (written sc), except in the combination scr while in ON it retained its hard sk sound. So, for example, native words like ship and fish have sh in Modern English, whereas words borrowed from Scandinavian are still pronounced with sk: sky, skin, skill, scrape, whisk. An interesting example is that of the OE word scyrte that became skirt in Modern English, whereas the corresponding ON form skyrta became skirt. The retention of the hard pronunciation of k and g in words such as kid, get, give, and egg indicates Scandinavian origin. Occasionally, (2) the vowel of a word helps to determine the origin. For example, the Germanic diphthong ai became Ä in OE (Å in Modern English) and in ON it became ei or Ä“. Some examples of borrowed words are aye, nay, hale, reindeer and swain. These kinds of tests, based on sound-developments in the two languages, are the most reliable means of distinguishing Scandinavian from native words. Sometimes (3) meaning can help to determine the origin of the word. The Modern English word bloom (flower) could have come from OE blÅma or Scandinavian blÅm. The OE word meant an ‘ingot of iron’, whereas the Scandinavian word meant ‘flower, bloom’. The ON meaning is the one in ordinary use while the OE word has survived as a term in metallurgy. Another example where meaning helps us to determine the origin of the word is the word gift. In OE this word meant the ‘price of a wife’, and thus ‘marriage’ in the plural, whereas the ON word had a more general sense with the meaning of ‘gift, present’.

2.4. Scandinavian loanwords

Although the Scandinavian loan words began to enter the English language probably at the same time when the Vikings settled down (the period of Old English), the evidence in writing can be found mostly in Middle English texts. The loanwords were recorded long after they came in use because it took some time before they entered the standard English. Baugh and Cable divided the early loanwords (in OE) into two groups. The first group constitute words “associated with sea-roving and predatory people” (99). The second group is made out of “words relating to the law or characteristic of the social and administrative system of Danelaw” (99). After the Norman Conquest, most of the words from the second group were replaced by the French terms and thus can no longer be found in Modern English.

It was only after the Danes had begun to settle down that Scandinavian words started to enter in greater numbers into language. We cannot divide these words into different domains of thought or experience because Scandinavian loanwords are varied and simple (as opposed to the French or Latin loanwords). They include common, familiar, everyday words. The following list serves only illustrative purposes and is not in any way exhaustive, as there are around 900 Scandinavian words in Modern English.


  • axle-tree
  • band
  • bank
  • birth
  • boon
  • booth
  • brink
  • bull
  • calf (of leg)
  • crook
  • dirt
  • down (feathers)
  • dregs
  • egg
  • fellow
  • freckle
  • gait
  • gap
  • girth
  • guess
  • hap
  • husband
  • keel
  • kid
  • law
  • leg
  • link
  • loan
  • mire
  • race
  • reef (of sail)
  • reindeer
  • rift
  • root
  • scab
  • scales
  • score
  • scrap
  • seat
  • sister
  • skill
  • skin
  • skirt
  • sky
  • slaughter
  • snare
  • stack
  • steak
  • swain
  • thrift
  • tidings
  • trust
  • want
  • window


  • awkward
  • flat
  • ill
  • loose
  • low
  • meek
  • muggy
  • odd
  • rotten
  • rugged
  • scant
  • seemly
  • sly
  • tattered
  • tight
  • weak


  • bait
  • bask
  • batten
  • cal
  • cast
  • clip
  • cow
  • crave
  • crawl
  • die
  • droop
  • egg (on)
  • flit
  • gape
  • gasp
  • get
  • give
  • glitter
  • hit
  • kindle
  • lift
  • lug
  • nag
  • raise
  • rake
  • ran-sack
  • rid
  • rive
  • scare
  • scout (an idea)
  • scowl
  • screech
  • snub
  • sprint
  • take
  • thrive
  • thrust

As already mentioned, these words are very common and of everyday use. There probably existed words for the same concepts in OE, so the new words could have supplied no real need in the English vocabulary. However, these words made their way into the English as the result of the mixture of two peoples. Scandinavian loanwords are very interesting because they refer to ordinary things and because they retained in the language. As Ruiz Moneva (184) points out, the most important source languages at OE and ME period were Celtic, Latin, French and Scandinavian. But, “contrarily to what had happened with the Celts, the Scandinavian influence upon the English language is characterized by its intensity, the great and important areas of the language which were affected” (Ruiz Moneva 184).

As previously stated, at one time, both languages were used side by side. This situation could have resulted in six different scenarios (Baugh and Cable 99-102; Ruiz Moneva 187-88). (1) If words in the two languages coincided more or less in form and meaning, the modern word stands at the same time for both its English and its Scandinavian ancestors. Some examples are burn, cole, drag, fast, hang, murk(y), scrape, thick. (2) If there were differences in form, the English word often survived. Some examples are bench, goat, heathen, yarn, few, grey, loath, leap, flay. Corresponding Scandinavian forms can often be found in ME literature and in some cases they still exist in dialectal use (e.g. screde, skelle, skere with the hard pronunciation of the initial consonant group; the standard English forms are shred, shell, sheer). (3) In some cases, the Scandinavian word replaced the native word, often after two had long remained in use concurrently. For example, the word awe is of Scandinavian origin and its cognate eye (aye) was an OE word. In the earlier part of the ME period the English word was more common, but later on (by 1300) the Scandinavian form appeared more often and finally replaced the Old English word. The same happened with the words for egg – ey (English) and egg (Scandinavian); words for sister – OE sweostor, ON syster; the ON verb take replaced the OE niman. (4) Sometimes, both the English and Scandinavian words survived with a difference of meaning or use (the English word is given first): no-nay, whole-hale, rear-raise, from-fro, craft-skill, hide-skin, sick-ill. (5) Some native words that were not in common use were reinforced or reintroduced from the Scandinavian. Examples are till, dale, rim, blend, run and the Scottish bairn. (6) Finally, the English word might have been modified by taking on some characteristics of the corresponding Scandinavian word. Examples include give and get with their hard g and Thursday instead of the OE ThunresdÅ“g.

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2.5. Form (grammatical) words

Scandinavian words that made their way into English were not only open class words (nouns, adjectives and verbs). The Scandinavian influence extended to grammatical words – pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, and even a part of the verb to be. This is not a common case when it comes to borrowing. The pronouns they, their, them are Scandinavian (OE were hÄ«e, hiera, him). Both and same, although they are not pronouns, have pronominal uses and are of Scandinavian origin. Some other examples include the conjunction though, adverbs aloft, athwart, aye (ever) and seemly. One of the most important Scandinavian words in English is the present plural of the verb ‘to be’ – are. The Scandinavian form took place of bÄ“oth or sind.

2.6. Syntax and grammar

Scholars do not agree on the Scandinavian influence on the English syntax. Baugh and Cable (103-105) claim that “the Scandinavian influence not only affected the vocabulary but also extended to […] syntax”. They admit that “it is less capable of exact demonstration”, but then conclude that “it is hardly to be doubted” (103). Kirch (503), on the other hand, argues that all of the previous claims made about the influence of Scandinavian on English syntax are “the subject of much controversy”. It was considered that these syntactic features originated from Scandinavian: “(1) relative clauses without pronouns, (2) the omission of the conjunction ‘that,’ (3) the use of ‘shall’ and ‘will’ in Middle English, (4) the genitive before nouns” (Kirch 503). But Kirch (503-510) refutes the quoted features and concludes that the “investigation turns up no positive proof of Scandinavian influence on English syntax” (510). Berndt does not even mention syntax, so it is possible that he considers that Scandinavian did influence it.

3. Conclusion

As we have seen, even today, after so many years, we can still see the evidence of Scandinavian influence in English. There are thousands of place-names of Scandinavian origin. Many common and everyday words have Scandinavian origin. We cannot even imagine the English vocabulary without them. What is even more fascinating is that Scandinavian left an imprint on grammatical words and possibly syntax, which is a rare case when it comes to borrowing. It can be concluded that Scandinavian has had significant impact on the development of the English vocabulary.


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