When non-Scandinavian speakers first come into contact with Scandinavian languages, they are often struck by how many English words our Nordic friends tend to use in their everyday speech. Entire concepts are lifted wholesale into Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, with speakers often switching seamlessly into an American accent to pronounce them. Others are Scandified, like tweeta and spoila (“to tweet” and “to spoil”), to name just a few.
On the face of things, it may look like this borrowing is a one-way street.
Makes sense too, right? Scandinavians are constantly watching American TV and engaging with American technology, so of course they’re going to pick up the lingo. And sure, a few Scandinavian words have made their way into English lately, like lagom and hygge, or all the modern classics — from ombudsman to smörgåsbord.
But did you know that quite a lot of really common English words actually have a Nordic origin dating back to the time of the Vikings? And that a lot of dialectical terms in particular are the result of historic contact with the Scandinavian world?
The history of linguistic exchange between the Scandinavian and English speaking worlds is much more extensive and interesting than you might think. So grab your history books and prepare for an etymology lesson that will leave you with a new-found appreciation for the links between these fascinating languages!
The Vikings in Britain
The Vikings came to Britain around the late eight century, mostly to raid monasteries and towns, stealing valuables which they took back home to smelt down or trade. But the Vikings also set up camps and settlements of their own. They took over areas around Northumberland and East Anglia, they founded cities in Ireland like Dublin and Cork, and they made York their capital.
Although little is known about precisely what Viking life was like in Britain at this time, there was no doubt the Vikings were a fearsome bunch. They captured slaves, plundered the coasts and made a name for themselves as brutal heathens from a distant land.
Their legacy wasn’t all bad, though.
They also brought Old Norse to Britain, a now extinct language which evolved over time into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. The legacy of Old Norse gave rise to lots of new and very useful words and had a particular influence on the names of towns and cities.
Places like Whitby, Sheffield and Warwick might sound as English as cream tea and scones, but in fact they all have Norse origins. The ending -by is particularly common and comes from the Old Norse word for a farm settlement. Not only can it be found in names like Krikby (Church Farmstead), Selby (Willow Farmstead) and Whitby (White Farmstead), but it even made its way into the term by-laws , meaning the local laws of a town or community.
Common Words with a Viking Origin
Beyond place names, the Vikings also introduced a few very common words into English. These were often fundamental words which the Vikings used in their everyday communication with the people they met on the British Isles.
Here are some examples:
- The pronouns “they”, “them” and “their”
- The verb “to take”
- The preposition “(un)till”
Being keen explorers and surveyors of the landscape, the Vikings also gave us a lot of words to describe the things we see around us. This is something that English-speakers often notice when they start studying a Scandinavian language — they realise that the main nouns for certain landscape features have a less common counterpart in English. Like dal which means “valley” and resembles the English word “dale” (as in the Yorkshire Dales), or fjäll/fjeld which means “mountain” and resembles the English word “fell” (as in the Fells of the Lake District).
Then there are all those words that describe what the Vikings did and who they were — that’s right, words like “berserk”, “ransack”, “scathe” (from skada, meaning “to harm” or “to injure”), “club”, “gun” and “slaughter”.
They certainly had a reputation, and our wartime vocabulary is all the richer for it!
One of the most fascinating legacies of the Vikings in the English language is all of those UK quirky and colloquial dialect words which are spoken only in certain places, indicating a particularly strong Viking link. They are especially common in Ireland and Scotland — countries which the Vikings often raided before journeys to Iceland — and in parts of England which once belonged to the so-called Danelaw.
Take a look at the table below for some examples.
How many of these words do you recognise? And did you know they were Scandinavian in origin?
|Bairn||Child||Used in Scotland and northern England, resembles barn in modern Scandinavian languages.|
|Blae||Faded, pale||Used in Ulster. Resembles blek and bleg in modern Swedish and Danish.|
|Gowk||Cuckoo, fool/simpleton||Used in Scotland and Yorkshire, resembles modern Swedish word gök.|
|Graave||To dig||Used in Yorkshire, resembles gräva or grave in modern Swedish and Danish respectively.|
|Lug||Ear||Used throughout Ireland from an Old Norse word meaning “appendage”. Resembles lugg in modern Swedish and Norwegian, meaning “fringe”.|
So there you have it!
The Nordic languages and English are actually a lot more closely entwined than you might have thought.
And while the Scandinavians are the ones with a reputation for stealing words, English speakers have been plundered words for centuries and centuries. The result is a much richer language and a hidden legacy concealed in place names and local slang all across the British Isles and even beyond.
If you would like to learn more about the Scandinavian languages and how we can help you communicate between them, English and many other languages, get in touch and let’s chat about your language and translation needs today!