Is English a Scandinavian language?

Cartoon: Fanney Antonsdóttir The Vikings helped make English what it is today.

Cartoon: Fanney Antonsdóttir
The Vikings helped make English what it is today.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

As readers of this newspaper know, modern English descends from Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, a West Germanic language that the Angles and Saxons brought in when they settled the British Isles in the fifth century. The Romans, and then the Scandinavians, came and went. The French left a lasting imprint after the Norman conquest of 1066. With time, English became an eclectic language, borrowing and absorbing everything that its speakers came across.

That bit of received wisdom recently has been questioned. Two linguists at the University of Oslo, Professor Jan Terje Faarlund and Joseph Emmonds, a visiting Professor from the Palacký University at Olomouc in the Czech Republic, have begun examining its inconsistencies.

First, they reasoned that there were too many English words of Scandinavian origin for their being loanwords borrowed to fulfill specific new needs. Indeed there are genuine loanwords from Norwegian in modern English, such as “ski” which first appeared in 1755 and “ombudsman,” the name of an administrative position first used in 1971. But, from “anger” to “wrong,” more than 60 everyday words in English come from the Scandinavian languages, mostly Old Norse. People tend not to seek new words for their everyday surroundings and activities. So the borrowing of words misses the mark.

Moreover, English syntax differs from that of the other West Germanic languages, German, Dutch, and Frisian. Some syntactic usages may have been adopted along with words, such as the English pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their,” which along with their usages, come from the Scandinavian languages. Yet the syntax of a language is an indelible stamp that seldom travels into another language. Perhaps the best example of that is the difference in the location of a descriptive adjective, before the noun in English, but after the noun in the Latin languages: “Red Mill” in English is Moulin Rouge in French and Molino Rojo in Spanish.

Faarlund and Emmonds observed that when English syntax differs from that of the other Western Germanic languages, it usually agrees with the syntax of the Scandinavian languages. Three examples illustrate that:

• The word order in a sentence in English is like that of sentences in the Scandinavian languages: “I have read the book.” is literally the same as the Norwegian Jeg har lest boken. In German the verb is at the end of a sentence: Ich habe das buch gelesen.

• A preposition frequently ends a sentence in English and the Scandinavian languages: “This we have talked about.” is literally the same as the Norwegian Dette har vi snakket om. That is incorrect in German.

• An infinitive may be split in English and the Scandinavian languages: “I promise to never do it again.” is directly equivalent to the Norwegian Jeg lover å ikke gjøre det igjen. But splitting is incorrect in German.

Most modern-day readers may take comfort in the first two but many may disagree with the third syntactic comparison by pointing to the rules of English grammar, as taught in schools, colleges and universities, in which splitting an infinitive is held to be the ultimate grammatical sin. History as well as common sense suggest otherwise.

Early English grammars of the 16th and 17th centuries were based on and often written in Latin, the last in 1685 by Christopher Cooper, then the headmaster of a secondary school in East Herfordshire, England. The scholarly discord of delineating one language in another left its mark in a set of rules confusing even to native speakers, as English has little in common with Latin. Perhaps the most confusing rule was the one prohibiting splitting the infinitive, which the early grammarians banished in English, because it wasn’t possible in Latin.

As author Bill Bryson points out in his authoritative and amusing Mother Tongue, The English Language, today there’s no reason why we shouldn’t split an infinitive “any more than we should forsake instant coffee and air travel because they weren’t available to the Romans” (p. 128, Penguin paperback edition). The leading authorities of practical communication in English support Bryson’s view. The benchmark reference for American English, The Chicago Manual of Style (entry 5.106) allows splitting the infinitive in stating that “…adverbs sometimes justifiably separate an infinitive’s to from its principal verb…” In Britain, the rule against splitting is ridiculed, as in The Economist Style Guide’s tongue-in-cheek: “To never split an infinitive is quite easy.” In his definitive The Sense of Style published in 2014, Harvard Professor Stephen Pinker devotes a section (pp 228-230) to describing why the rule against splitting the infinitive is a “mythical usage rule that…is downright pernicious.” If anything, the rule against splitting the infinitive in English suggests that the language itself long has been wrongly classified. As Bill Bryson remarks in Mother Tongue, “Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football.”

Linguistic rules are not as straightforward as those of ball games, but as Professors Faarlund and Emmonds point out, history affects the practice of them. Modern English owes much to the language of the Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the 9th century and initiated Danelaw, the historical name of the eastern and northern parts of England that they governed by Danish law. It’s then more likely that Old English died out or mixed with the vernacular of the rulers of Danelaw.

So history as well as linguistic common sense suggest that English should be reclassified in the Northern Germanic language group, along with Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish.

Further reading: Report of the original research on the University of Oslo Apollon website, the Nynorsk original at www.apollon.uio.no/artikler/2012/4-engelsk-er-skandinavisk.html and its translation into English at www.apollon.uio.no/english/articles/2012/4-english-scandinavian.html.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 16, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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