Vikings and the English Langauge

With many discussions over words and languages, few account for English’s long history with European languages – at least in my experience. One language, for myself, I have not taken into full account are Scandinavian languages. England saw many invasions of Vikings over two to nearly three hundred years (787-1014 approximately), where looting and invasion were common before their ensuing assimilation. As accounted by Baugh and Cable (1994), the assimilation was quite peaceful in comparison to their cursory contact with the peoples of England. While the noble realm of kings and laws were sought after by the English and Danes, much of the English population coupled with Scandinavians over a short period of time. This brought on many new words to the English language that were influenced by the Scandinavian language.

Even now in Modern English, we still have such words floating around our vernacular. The way philologists make sense of this influence is by comparing West Germanic Old English to North Germanic Old Norse. Old, Middle, and Modern English have transformed this influence into new variations fit for our modern times, so we must look for small indications to decipher how Old Norse has affected our language. One development that is a great indicator is how the consonants sk have transformed over time. Sk in Old English transformed into the palatalized sc which is pronounced sh; however, sk in Old Norse remains a hard pronunciation of k – as in sK. What this means for Modern English is that words that harbor the sound sh as in shirt, ship, shell, and fish are Old English. And words that contain the sk as in skirt, sky, skin, skill, scrape, scrub, bask, and whisk are derived from Old Norse.

Though many of the words have been changed from their original Scandinavian spelling or pronunciation, we can still see the influence of these many languages that have come into contact with the English language. While having adopted many words does not qualify for mutual intelligibility, it does offer an interesting look at history and perhaps where English is headed in the future. We have a diverse language that is capable of crossing many boundaries. So while you hear someone who may not be using what you may consider “standard” English, understand they are speaking yet another influenced English that just may become the next fad in the English language.  Keep your ears open – our language is transforming every day. As linguist Dr. John McWhorter expressed, English is a magnificent bastard tongue.

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