Posted by: Jack Henry | July 31, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Old Norse

The other day, I answered a question about the different terms we use for meat when it’s still a full animal (cow) and when it’s something cut up and you’re asking for it at the grocery store (beef). Serendipitously, I received this article today about Old Norse, the Viking contribution to English during the same time period as the Normans I mentioned. I hope you will bear with me today. I will give you a little more history, and then tomorrow I will share the words that are a result of that history. From Daily Writing Tips:

…The language of the Vikings, Old Norse, has influenced the development of English more than any other language besides French and Latin. The Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders, and Danes all spoke Old Norse in those days, usually called the “Danish tongue.” In the 11th century, Old Norse was the most widely spoken European language, ranging west with Leif Erickson’s colony of Vinland in modern-day Canada, east with the Viking settlers on the Volga River in modern-day Russia, and south with warriors battling in modern-day Spain, Italy, and North Africa.

Four centuries after the Anglo-Saxons began emigrating from northern Europe, Danish Vikings began raiding Britain and had begun settling down by the year 876, plowing the land. The 14 shires dominated by Danish law in northern and eastern England were called the Danelaw. In 1016, King Canute the Great became ruler of all England, even before he became king of his native Denmark. Danish kings ruled England almost until William the Conqueror sailed from Normandy, France, and became the first Norman king of England in 1066. When he did, more Norse words entered English…

Today Old Norse words are most common in the Yorkshire dialect, but the Danelaw included the East Midlands, York, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex, and Buckingham.

Old Norse Words Used in Modern English

When it comes to English words for which we are indebted to Old Norse, let’s start with they, their, and them. It’s true. If it weren’t for the Vikings, we might still be using the Old English words hîe, heora, and him instead. Or maybe not—when him and them mean the same thing in a language, you know it’s time for a change.

In fact, English received many really, really common words from Old Norse, such as give, take, get, and both. And sale, cake, egg, husband, fellow, sister, root, rag, loose, raise, rugged, odd, plough, freckle, call, flat, hale, ugly, and lake.

Many English words that begin with sk or sc came from Old Norse, such as skin, sky, score, scant, scrub, scathe, and skill.

Old Norse words that feature two-letter blends and a high consonant-to-vowel ratio just sound Viking to me, especially if you pronounce both letters as the Vikings originally did: knife, snare, snub, wrong, bread, dwell, bask, dream, steak, stammer, and especially thwart.

Tomorrow, more words from Old Norse.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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