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Scandinavian Influence on English Language: A Detailed Study in Terms of Vocabulary, Grammar and Syntax

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Scandinavian Influence: Origin and History

The Old English language was a purely Teutonic language and had few foreign elements. Towards the end of the eighth century near about 790, bands of Norse invaders attacked and plundered the east coast and finally established a few settlements there. The Scandinavians (Danes and Norwegians) eventually became a great influence on the language of the land.

The Scandinavians and English, both being Teutonic races, were closely related in blood and language. The most far-reaching influence of the Scandinavians was upon the pronunciation, grammar and syntax of the language.

Jarlshof: The Norse settlement (Viking). The Vikings left their mark at Jarlshof with extensive remains at the northern half of the site. The Norse settlement covers a period from about 800 to 1200 AD.

Jarlshof: The Norse settlement (Viking). The Vikings left their mark at Jarlshof with extensive remains at the northern half of the site. The Norse settlement covers a period from about 800 to 1200 AD.

Scandinavian Influence on English Vocabulary

The Scandinavians were not superior to the English in terms of culture and civilization. So, there was no large-scale borrowing of loan words observed. However, in certain spheres borrowings went on smoothly. The influence of Scandinavian conquest is seen in three areas:

  1. Certain place names and proper names.
  2. Introduction of new words of Danish origin.
  3. Modification in respect to grammar and syntax as well as pronunciation.

Scandinavian Influence on Place Names

Certain names of places ending in “by”, “thorp”, “beck”, “dale” etc. show Scandinavian influence. For example, Whitby, Goldthorp etc. This shows that a great number of Scandinavian families settled permanently in England. Similar influence is observed in case of personal names ending in “-son” such as Gibson, Thomson, Johnson etc.

Scandinavian Law Terms and War Terms

The attempt of the Scandinavians to impose their own Danish law on England is evident from the number of Scandinavian law-terms that have entered the language. For instance, “law”, “by-law”, “thrall”, “crave” are all Scandinavian words. There were many more such words which went out of usage after the Norman Conquest when the French took over the nation and replaced the terms with French loans.

As the Scandinavians were superior in military affairs, the English borrowed from them a few words like “orrest” (battle), “lith” (fleet), “barda” (a type of warship). However, these words also disappeared after the Norman conquest.

Scandinavian Influence on General Vocabulary

Though the Scandinavians were not very superior in architecture or cooking, some words were adopted by the English. For instance, window, steak and knife. Interestingly, the Scandinavian influence was more pronounced in matters of everyday use. Among nouns that came to be borrowed were “husband”, “fellow”, “sky”, “sister”, “want”. Among adjectives there were words like “meek”, “low”, “ill”, “happy”, “rotten”, “scant”, “seemly”. Common verbs were also adopted such as “call”, “thrive”, “take”, “give”, “thrust”, “die”. Other loan words include pronouns such as “they”, “them”, “their”, conjunctions like “though”, prepositions like “fro”, “till” and adverbs like “thence”, “whence” and “hence”. The influence appears to be so natural that no English man can thrive, be happy, fall ill or even die without Scandinavian influence!

Warfare was a special area where the Danes excelled.

Warfare was a special area where the Danes excelled.

Scandinavian Influence on Grammar and Syntax

The Scandinavian influence not only affected the English vocabulary but extended to English grammar and syntax. The influence on the use of inflections is remarkable in this context. Some instances may be cited as follows:

  1. The -s of the third person singular, present indicative and the participle ending is due to Scandinavian influence.
  2. The final “t” in neuter adjective ending of Old Norse is preserved in words like “scant”, “want”, “athwart”.
  3. With a few exceptions (take, thrive) almost all verbs that are strongly inflected in Scandinavian have been made weak in conjugation in English. For example, the word die was a strong verb in Scandinavian but in English conjugation it has become a weak verb “died”.
  4. Scandinavian nominative ending -r in nouns (byr) was dropped in English (by).

Although there is absence of definite evidence, few observations are possible in terms of Scandinavian influence on syntax:

  1. Relative clauses without any pronoun are very rare in O.E but they become very common in Middle English due to Scandinavian influence.
  2. The use of “shall” and “will” in Middle English corresponds to Scandinavian usage.
  3. The universal position of the genitive case before its noun is due to Scandinavian influence, while in Old English it was very often placed before the noun.
The expanse of Danish settlement accounts for the extent of influence.

The expanse of Danish settlement accounts for the extent of influence.

Democratic Nature of Scandinavian Influence

The importance of Scandinavian loan words lies in the fact that they reveal the reciprocal homely relationship of the two races. So far as the loan words are concerned, there are only about nine hundred words, not a very significant number when compared to French influence. However, there is also an equal number in which Scandinavian origin is probable or in which influence of a Scandinavian form has entered.

It is seen that because of the fusion of the two nations, many of the grammatical complexities were simplified. The two nations came to mingle together in antagonism but eventually settled as peaceful brothers. In spite of hostility, there was mutual respect and regard which explains the abiding nature of the Scandinavian influence.

References

  • Jespersen, Otto. Growth and Structure of the English Language. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1923. Print.
  • “Norsemen and Normans.” The English Language: A Historical Introduction, by Charles Barber et al., 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 137–160. Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics.
  • Wrenn, C L. The English Language. London: Methuen, 1966. Print.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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