I Lied. No Hand(soap)axes today. Instead an English Lesson.

When I said I was gonna come back first with another hand(soap)axe post, I wasn’t expecting to be treated to a bit of very kewl news from Scandinavia. It’s particularly interesting to me because it implicitly belies the post-Medieval coziness between the English and the Germans, that the English royal family would rather you didn’t pay too much attention to [e.g. the English royal family is a German royal family–their pre-WWI family name was Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha [anglicized to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha]. Before that they were the House of Hanover [i.e. also German]. WWI convinced them that it wasn’t cool to have a fancy German last name if you were ruling a bunch of English who hadn’t thought of themselves as German…EVER. [Likewise the French, but that’s another and much longer story.]
     To my way of thinking it may well have been this intellectual, geopolitical, and family relationship of the English ruling class to that of the Germans that led to a major uh-oh in the standard story of the English language’s history. It took a couple of non-English, non-German European linguists and language historians–one a Slavic language speaker; the other a Scandinavian–to point up what to me is a fascinating set of data that shakes the foundation of conventional wisdom. [I’m struggling to figger out why, exactly, I’m so drawn to this sort of research. Ideas?]


     The standard story: Old English was a West Germanic language. Old English morphed into Middle English through the influence of the French who ‘invaded’ England in 1066 CE. [They weren’t really invading; they were simply asserting their centuries-old claim to the English throne. Part of that long story I alluded to above.] That’s it! West Germanic Old English becomes French-influenced Middle English and gradually changes into modern English. Easy-peasy. ‘Cept, there are all these anomalies in the post-Old-English English language that just don’t fit with the simple Western Germanic–Frenchified Western Germanic–English historical sequence. And that gives me something to blab about today.
      The headline reads

UiO linguist makes sensational claim: English is a Scandinavian language

UiO is the University of Oslo, Norway, and the article appears in the November 27 edition of Apollon, the UiO research magazine. The sub-heading reads

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not ‘borrow’ words and concepts from the Norwegian and Danish Vikings and their descendants. What we call English is actually a form of Scandinavian.  

Simple. Straightforward. And very likely spot on, if I’m not mistaken! The two smart people are Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo and Joseph Emmonds, visiting UiO professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic.

England in 878 CE. Note the predominance of the Danelaw [Scandinavian] and the hold-out Anglo-Saxons.
(This map borrowed from the Travelanguist. Thanks!)

     Language change is a tricky study. But there are some fairly well accepted principles about how languages change due to outside influences [read colonizers]. In this case the interlopers were Danes. First, indigenous languages tend to borrow words from the invaders when those words express ideas that simply weren’t important in occupied the homeland. In the case of English, it’s clear that the language comprises a good number of words that are very un-Western Germanic. Here are [just] some examples.

anger, awe, bag, band, big, birth, both, bull, cake, call, cast, cosy, cross, die, dirt, dream, egg, fellow, flat, gain, get, gift, give, guess, guest, hug, husband, ill, kid, law, leg, lift, likely, link, loan, loose, low, mistake, odd, race, raise, root, rotten, same, seat, seem, sister, skill, skin, skirt, sky, steak, though, thrive, Thursday, tight, till, trust, ugly, want, weak, window, wing, wrong.

Pretty impressive, huh? Sure there are lots of Western Germanic words and [of course the accurséd French-based ones ;-)]. But Faarlund and Emmonds’s radical revision involves much more than just a list of borrowed words. In fact, English displays a good number of grammatical parallels to the Scandinavian languages that just don’t exist in the Western Germanic language group.
     The examples given in the UiO article are very persuasive.

“We can show that wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages – German, Dutch, Frisian – it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages.” Here are some examples:

Word order: In English and Scandinavian the object is placed after the verb:
English: I have read the book.
Scandinavian: Eg har lese boka. [I have read the book]
German and Dutch (and Old English) put the verb at the end.
Ich habe das Buch gelesen. [I have the book read]

English and Scandinavian can have a preposition at the end of the sentence.
This we have talked about.
Dette har vi snakka om. [This have we talked of]

English and Scandinavian can have a split infinitive, i.e. we can insert a word between the infinitive marker and the verb.
I promise to never do it again.
Eg lovar å ikkje gjera det igjen. [I aver to never do it again]: 

Group genitive [possessive].
The Queen of England’s hat.
Dronninga av Englands hatt. [You probably get the idea]
[Or the example I snuck in above: Faarlund and Emmonds’s radical revision…]

  As the authors conclude,

 “All of this is impossible in German or Dutch, and these kinds of structures are very unlikely to change within a language. The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.”

These observations are not in the least trivial. They go to the heart of the matter, and explain anomalies  that have previously been minimized or overlooked completely, perhaps, as mentioned above, because of a lack of reflexivity on the part of linguists who preferred to see themselves as Anglo-Saxon inheritors.
     As a final point, the article mentions that it’s always confused people how present-day Norwegians seem better able to make the transition to English than either the Dutch or the Germans [and I won’t even start on the French ;-)]. It’s because English is constructed according to Scandinavian norms and not those of the Western Germanic languages from which German and Dutch derive.

     Pretty. Bloody. Kewl. No? And sort of archaeological [certainly anthropological]. See you next time!

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2 thoughts on “I Lied. No Hand(soap)axes today. Instead an English Lesson.

  1. Hi, Richard. I don't think the authors claim that Old English/Anglo-Saxon didn't exist–it would have been spoken in Wessex and Northumbria on the map shown in the post. They're saying that English didn't grow out of Old English, but rather the Scandinavian tongues spoken by the Danes and the Norse, which were spoken in the Danelaw that sprawled across the middle of England on that same map. Thanks for dropping in!


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