Lexical imposition Old Norse vocabulary in Scottish Gaelic

Old NorseLexical imposition Old Norse vocabulary in Scottish Gaelic 

Thomas W. Stewart, Jr. (Truman State University)

Diachronica, Volume 21, Number 2, pp. 393-420 (2004)


A population of Norse settlers in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland eventually shifted from Old Norse to the contemporary Gaelic of the established community. Although little direct evidence of the sociolinguistic conditions of the contact situation exists, an unusual sound pattern found among the words transferred from Old Norse into Scottish Gaelic suggests that an unexpectedly large number of words beginning with /s/+[stop] clusters were transferred under Norse-speaker agency (via imposition) rather than under Gaelic-speaker agency (via borrowing).

Lexical transfer is commonly encountered in situations of language contact. Transfer of lexical items is most frequently due to borrowing,1 and borrowing is most frequently assumed to have one of two motivations: either a perceived lexical gap (semantic basis) or a meta-communicative function implying an identification with, or an evaluation (positive or negative) of, the speakers of the language from which the item or items are borrowed (social basis). On these assumptions, then, it should safely be expected that the primary con- straint on or guide to lexical transfer would be semantic and or social in na- ture, i.e., that there should be no pattern of note which is neither semantically nor socially motivatable in a reasonably comprehensive sample of transferred items from a single source language (sl, Van Coetsem 1988, 2000) to a single re- cipient language (rl). In the case under discussion here, however, lexical items transferred from Old Norse (ON) to Scottish Gaelic (SG) show an irregular distribution that cannot be accounted for on these grounds.

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