Most scholars place English in the West Germanic family along with German, Dutch, and a few others. However, some affirm that English is actually a Scandinavian language because of the strong influence Old Norse (a North Germanic language that was spoken in the Scandinavian peninsula and Denmark between the 9th and the 13th century AD) has on its grammar and vocabulary.
In this blog post we’ll dive into the history of English, how the Germanic languages, Latin, Old Norse and Anglo-Norman have enriched it, and the influence of Scandinavia on the English language.
The history of English
When looking at the history of English, we can see a vast number of tribes and cultures who colonized and occupied the British Isles, and therefore contributed to the development of the English language.
Germanic languages and Latin
During the times of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples came to settle and brought a number of West Germanic dialects, which developed into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. Around the late 7th century Christian missionaries arrived and brought Latin with them. This culminated in the Old English Latin alphabet being introduced around the 9th century.
In the late 8th century, the Vikings invaded the British Isles and prevailed for 300 years. These tribes came from Denmark, Norway and Sweden and spoke Old Norse. Since a great number of the invadors were Danes we can find many similarities in the vocabulary between English and Danish (and Norwegian because Danish and Norwegian are almost identical when it comes to vocabulary).
Old Norse had a strong influence on the English language (even in present day) and this is why some scholars insist that English has its roots in this Scandinavian language.
Norse words in the English language
Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday all come from the names of the gods in which both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings believed. In Anglo-Saxon they are called: Tiw, Wodan and Friga, and in Old Norse they are called: Tyr, Odin and Freya. It is difficult to determine therefore whether the origin of our days of the week was from Anlgo-Saxon or Old Norse.
But Old Norse affected many other spheres of life and we can see similar words such as:
- Gun (English) – gunn (Old Norse)
- Sale (English) – sala (Old Norse)
- Bull (English) – boli (Old Norse)
Old Norse also influenced the morphology (from personal pronouns to prepositions) and although less prominent there is also a syntactic influence that can be seen in the use of the “shall” for example.
The Norman Conquest
Further developments in the English language occurred in the 11th century with the arrival of William the Conqueror, who introduced Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French. Jury and justice are just 2 out of roughly 10,000 examples of words that had entered the language by the 14th century.
As you may guess, the history and evolution of the English language did not stop here, but underwent new and important changes.
Mutating words and Latin enriched the English language
Between 1350 and 1700 the Great Vowel Shift took place. Many words changed phonetically within the space of 350 years and today sound very different.
Other sounds also vanished or mutated. For example, the “K” in knight was audible just like the “w” in wrong, but both sounds were dropped.
During the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press roughly 10,000 to 12,000 words entered the English language. The Latin influence also affected the spelling of words, particularly noticeable those words with silent letters, for example “doubt” (from the Latin “dubitare”).
It was around the time of Shakespeare in the XVI century that Early Modern English really developed, which is the most similar to contemporary English.
English and Scandinavian Languages
Conquests and invasions led some languages to be more prominent than others, but together all of them have helped shape the current English language.
The change continues today with new terms and product names being introduced. Whether it’s cashless or adulting, English speakers never stop learning new words that continue to enrich their language.
Although it is nice to look with nostalgia to the history of English and its similarity with the scandinavian languages, the truth is that people from Denmark, Norway and Sweden cannot understand English these days.