English, language of the Vikings?

New evidence points to the conclusion that modern English is descended from Norse

Photo: Map 1, page 33, English: The Language of the Vikings Map of the Danish Kingdom(s) in England, 878-1041.

Photo: Map 1, page 33, English: The Language of the Vikings
Map of the Danish Kingdom(s) in England, 878-1041.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Two seasoned linguistic researchers, one Norwegian and one American, recently teamed up at the University of Oslo to question received knowledge about the roots of English. As reported by this newspaper (“Is English a Scandinavian language,” January 12, 2015), they concluded that English should be reclassified from the West Germanic language group to the North Germanic language group, along with Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish.

The researchers, Jan Terje Faarlund, a University of Oslo professor, and Joseph Embley Emonds, an American visiting professor at the Palacký University of Olomouc in the Czech Republic, have now furthered their research and have documented it in a 180-page monograph published in paper and online versions (Further reading).

Their unorthodox, yet they believe inescapable, conclusion is that over time Norse supplanted Old English as the language of England. It borrowed extensively from Old English, and not the other way around. The map of England from 878 to 1041 clearly reflects that trend. There are many Scandinavian place names, and Danelaw, the historical name of the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons, encompasses the most populous regions.

So it seems most likely that an Anglicized Norse, the language of a demographic minority, became the common tongue throughout the East Midlands, ultimately replacing Old English by the mid 13th century. If that indeed is the case, by the 14th century, when the Norman rulers switched from French to English, this Anglicized Norse was rapidly becoming the accepted language of the entire country.

In modern English, there are many traces of how the change came about. While French is the common root of some 60% of the vocabulary of English, the two languages did not merge into Middle English after the Norman Conquest. Prof. Faarlund explains that apparent disparity by observing that English was (and still is) subjected to a lexicographic invasion, not a fundamental change.

As in all fields of research, the findings of professors Faarlund and Emonds have not gone unchallenged, even among their academic colleagues. University of Oslo professor Kristin Bech, who heads the Information Structure and Word Order Change in Germanic and Romance Languages (ISWOC) project, believes that “It would be embarrassing for Norwegian linguistic research if Norwegians begin to believe their story.”

Yet in research, dissent in the face of new findings is commonplace. Even Einstein opposed quantum theory when it was proposed. If professors Faarlund and Emonds are right, the foundations of contemporary understanding of the place of English will be shaken to their roots. An academic battle of proportions is brewing.

Further reading: English: The Language of the Vikings by Joseph Embley Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund, University Press, Palacký University of Olomouc, Czech Republic, 1st edition 2014, ISBN 978-80-244-4382-9, electronic version online at anglistika.upol.cz/vikings2014

This article originally appeared in the July 17, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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