Notes on...

Do you speak Viking?

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

Supposedly 5 per cent of words in English are borrowed from Old Norse. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but much of our key vocabulary was brought over in longboats: ‘get’, ‘take’, ‘give’ and ‘egg’ are all derived from the language of the Vikings.

Indeed, it took the Saxons centuries to thwart the gangs of sly lads who came across the gusty seas full of anger, hoping to ransack the weakSaxon oafs and angrily hit their skulls together.

Our Saxon fellows repeatedly fell victim to these dregs of the North Sea. They blundered in paying the Danegeld and only slowly learnt the awkwardlesson that this gift would not get rid of these Danish outlaws. By the time these gangs staggered back to Scandinavia, their words stayed with us, along with their settlers and settlements: any readers living in a town ending in –by or –thorpe are living somewhere founded by these marauding Norsemen.

Old Norse words didn’t just replace pre-existing Anglo-Saxon ones. They supplemented the language with new words with slightly different connotations.

My favourite example of this is difference between ‘slay’ and ‘slaughter’, which despite sharing the same Proto-Indo-European roots have very different connotations. We slay the dragon, but the women and children were slaughtered. The difference is that ‘slaughter’ was brought over by the Vikings and adopted by the resident Anglo-Saxons to denote a touch of brutality in proceedings; presumably as the rugged Nordic invaders, speaking their odd language, scared the natives.

It’s often forgotten that the Vikings won in the end. The Normans may have spoken French but they were descended from northmen. As a fan of Germanic languages, I wish they had kept speaking Old Norse: I much prefer the Germanic brotherliness or Brüderlichkeit tofraternité, or our freedom and Freiheit to the Latinate liberté.

That is merely personal preference, of course. Admittedly the influx of Latin words via the Normans has spared us from the German tendency to make words by gluing them together — Unabhängigkeitserklärungen, anyone? — but there is something pleasingly visual, almost tactile, in some of the words this process makes. Consider schadenfreude (schaden = pain, freude = joy), durchfall (literally ‘through fall’, aka ‘diarrhoea’), and nacktschnecke(meaning ‘naked snail’, or to you and I, ‘slug’).

The Vikings gave us the word ‘law’ too and were keen on its implementation. The world’s oldest surviving parliament — Iceland’s Alþingi — was formed in 930 at Þingvellir. Modern Icelandic keeps many of the letters that the Vikings used. ‘Þ’ (‘thorn’) is pronounced ‘th’ and existed in English until the early Middle Ages, until it got confused with the letter ‘y’, leading people to believe that ‘ye’ is an Ye Olde version of ‘the’. It isn’t. It was just that the printing presses used in England were imported from the continent and didn’t have a ‘Þ’, so they used ‘y’ instead.

Words mattered to the Vikings. ‘Word fame’ was the only consolation to be gained in their world of heroic fatalism. As the piece from the Hávamál — a collection of Old Norse poems — said:

‘Wealth dies, kinsmen die,
A man himself must likewise die;
But one thing I know which never dies –
The verdict on each man dead.’

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