Listening for the Vikings: Some Evidence from Etymology

Sir Gawain and the Green KnightListening for the Vikings: Some Evidence from Etymology

By Richard Dance

Paper given at the Vikings in England session, 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)

The Vikings left behind several kinds of evidence during their stay in Anglo-Saxon England. Richard Dance notes that “one crucial aspect is the etymological.” In his paper he examines the influence of the Norse language on Old English, and how Norse words can be found in the Middle English version of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Dance, a Senior Lecturer in Old English Language and Literature at the University of Cambridge, explains that since the 19th century researchers have been examining which Norse loan-words have survived into modern English. Estimates range from 600 to 900 words, including die, egg, law, leg, loan, meek, seem, sky, take, they and till.

The use of Old Norse can also be found in Middle English, with about 500 words found in a 14th century version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dance is currently working on the etymology of the words found in that poem, including those of Old Norse origin, and offers some insights into the field.

Both Old English and Old Norse are descendant from the Germanic language and share similarities. In some cases, the original Germanic word did not change too much over the centuries, such as kerza, which means “marshy thicket”. In Old English the word for that term was ceorr, later becoming ker in Middle English, while in the Old Icelandic language that word was kjarr.

In other cases it is more difficult to tell if Old Norse had an influence on Old English, or when it was just that both languages just evolved similar words from the proto-Germanic language. Dance explains it often depends “upon your philosophy as a linguist,” in the way you interpret the etymology of certain words.

He suggests that one approach is to catalogue words and place them within one of four categories, depending on how much knowledge we have about the origins of the word. They are:

A) Formal comparative evidence for derivation from Old Norse, ie. one or more regular and predictable Old Norse phonological and/or morphological developments not supposed to have occurred in Old English

B) The (Germanic) root of the lexeme is not recorded (early enough) in Old English, but recorded in Old Norse. Loan from Old Norse has therefore been proposed.

C)  The root of the lexeme is recorded (early enough) in Old English (or its form can be accounted for by loan from a third language). But some aspects of form/sense/usage are unparalleled in Old English, and paralleled in Old Norse. Loan or influence from Old Norse has therefore been proposed

D) Etymology obscure. Comparable forms in Old Norse have been suggested as sources, but explanatory power is at best partial.

Dance adds that certain ‘tests’ can be applied to weigh the probability of Old Norse influence, such as

a) cognates are known for the supposed Old Norse-derived element in West Germanic

b) the distribution of the supposed Old Norse-derived element in principally confined to the North and/or East Midlands in the onomastic record

c) the distribution of the supposed Old Norse-derived element in principally confined to the North and/or East Midlands in the lexical record

d) there is an association with a demonstrably (Viking-Age) Scandinavian ‘cultural artefact’, including association with Scandinavian practices in the word’s earliest English usage.

Richard Dance concludes that one can understand the Old Norse origins for words in the English language, but that “listening to the Vikings requires a selective and discriminating ear.”

See also The History of English in Ten Minutes

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