The English Language and the Danish Language

Talks and presentations


An English Project Talk - Copenhagen, 12 May 2009 

Christopher Mulvey 

The starting point of England was the arrival of West Germanic peoples in Britannia in the fifth century. Those West Germanics were Angles, Saxons and Jutes, all speaking relatively close versions of West Germanic. West Germanic is itself a version of the ancient Germanic language which had arrived with the Germanic peoples in north-west Europe about 1000 BC. Two thousand years ago, the English language and the Danish language were the same language. Since then they have drifted apart, moved towards each other and drifted apart again.

By the year 500, the abandoned Roman province of Britannia contained at the lowest count 10,000 Germanic inhabitants and at the highest 200,000 Germanics inhabitants. For the next three hundred years, the dialects of these peoples evolved in the steady, slow way that languages do evolve. Vocabulary expanded to take account of Christianity, and some speakers began to refer to their language as English, but it was not until the eighth century that a major change began to be made in the West Germanic of the British Isles. That change came with the impact of invaders in the ninth and tenth centuries.

These invaders were Germanic speaking people who came mainly from the territories that we now call Denmark, and the language they spoke we call North Germanic or Norse. They had advanced metal-working, ship-building and navigational techniques that made them view the world differently from many of the peoples on the North Sea coasts and in the British Isles. They perceived the sea as joining the scattered islands not separating them, and, since their population was expanding, they moved themselves and their families to create settlements in the Faroe, Shetland and Orkney Islands, in the lands that are now Britain, Ireland, and France, in Iceland and Greenland, in the Mediterranean Basin. They even migrated internally into Central Europe, taking river routes to set up kingdoms on the Volga.

The word ‘viking’ in Norse means sea traveller and warrior, and Old English texts treat them as pirates and pillagers, but by their invasions, settlements and kingdom creation, they were doing no more than the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had done before them. An interesting feature of the Vikings in many instances is that these Norse speakers gave up speaking Norse, so that in Ireland they became speakers of Irish, in Sicily speakers of Sicilian, and in Normandy speakers of French. In Normandy, the Norse people not only adopted the French language, they adopted French religion and culture as well within three generations. They were then ready by 1066 to invade England from the south and bring about the Norman Conquest, setting England and English on a remarkable new trajectory.

That Norman invasion, – a second Danish invasion of England - means that we cannot detect the influence of the first Norse invasion on the English language until English resurfaced as a literary form in the fourteenth century. For three hundred years from 1066, English almost ceased to be written. England was ruled in French and educated in Latin; English was a despised tongue spoken, for the most part, by peasants. But it never ceased entirely to be a written language, any monk or clerk who could write Latin and French could also write English if he had a mind too. And in fact from about 1350 onwards English begins to resurface with astonishing force and energy. Major poets like Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower use it, John Wycliffe and his followers translate the whole Bible into English, and the law courts and parliament begin to make it the main language of their business. This English is however a very different English from that spoken and written in 1066. It is well on its way to becoming Modern English. It can take a year to learn to read the Old English poem Beowulf; it takes thirty minutes to learn to read The Canterbury Tales if they are given modern spelling.

Now, much of this change was due to the fact that, by 1350, English had practically fused with Norman and Old French, but an important part of the change was also brought about by the impact of Norse in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. And that was an impact that went beyond the superficial effect of vocabulary. Certainly English had imported a large number of words from Norse, but it had also imported elements of grammar and syntax. That represents a profound linguistic influence and Norse, or can I say Old Danish, is second only to French in the reshaping the English language. There has been no third such influence.

Though we cannot fully detect the influence of Norse on English until the fourteenth century, we can guess that influence was already strong by the ninth century. It was in that century, in the year 878, that the English king Alfred and the Danish king Guthrum agreed to split England between them. Alfred gave up his claim to rule all of England, and he confined his kingdom of Wessex to England south of the Thames and west of Watling Street. Guthrum took control of the land east of Watling Street and north of the Thames, a territory called, by Alfred, the Danelaw. London was the pivot point, and the city itself was given to the Danes. One very important concession that the Danes made was that they agreed to become Christian; that led to the eventual integration of the Danish and the English populations with profound linguistic effects. The old kingdom of Mercia was cut in half, and what the Danes were doing was regularizing the great number of settlements they had established mainly in the counties that we now call Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland. A thousand Norse place names can be indentified to this day by the suffixes -by, thorp, -beck, -dale, and -thwaite. (Jesperson 58). Within the Danelaw, Danish political dominance was reinforced not only by extensive settlement but also by intermarriage with the English. And this ready intermixing was facilitated by the fact that the Norse and English languages were so close that they may have been mutually intelligible. They were certainly close enough to influence each other in the most subtle ways. Old Norse even affected that most important of all words - the verb ‘to be’. Today, we say ‘they are’ not ‘they be’. The older form of what the dictionary calls this ‘irregular and defective verb’ was gradually displaced by the Norse verb form. (OED) The modern English third-person present tense takes forms such as ‘he walks’.

The older form was ‘he walketh’. That change is probably a result of Norse influence. It may even be that the English way of forming a question by reversing the subject-verb order so that ‘I am’ becomes ‘Am I?’ is related to the same pattern in Norse. (Wikipedia) It is certainly true that English replaced its third person plural pronouns ‘hi, hem, hir’, with the Norse ‘they, them, their’. (OED) In addition, Norse has given us ‘both’ and ‘same’ and ‘till’ and ‘with’ – remarkable words to borrow from another language. Actually, Old English had the word ‘with’ but it meant ‘against’. That meaning still lingers so that we can say that in the Second World War, the English fought with the Americans and with the Germans, and we mean opposite things. (Meyers 109-110) Danish and English often had the same word with the same meaning but the two languages had different case systems. In time, the endings got dropped (Meyers), and English became fully reliant on word order and prepositions instead. The prepositions are still being sorted out: a word like ‘different’ is followed by ‘from’ or ‘to’ or ‘than’. ‘Than’ is probably emerging as the victor.

Of course, we took a lot of words from Danish. There are about nine hundred Danish words in Standard English, and another nine hundred that linguists cannot be sure whether they come from Danish or were already in Anglian English. Moreover, in English dialects, especially in the North and in Scotland, there are thousands of Danish words. (Meyer 108) Standard English Danish words like ‘egg’, ‘husband’, and ‘leg’ are notable for their commonplaceness. Normally a language borrows a word because it expresses a meaning not already present, but the English did not need the Danish to tell them what a leg was. Again, this reflects the closeness of the two languages. Something else that happened produced a phenomenon that becomes a very distinct feature of English. The Danish word did not replace the English word but came to exist alongside it. This produced doublets such as kirk and church, dike and ditch, skirt and shirt, sky and welkin, skin and hide, anger and wrath, die and starve, ill and sick, ugly and foul. (Morris). There are many, many more, and each set deserves its own interpretation. With kirk and church, the difference is primarily geographical so that kirk is used in Scotland and church in England, but the difference is also theological so that the Kirk represents the established Calvinist religion of Scotland and the Church represents the established Anglican religion of England. Skirt and shirt are distinguished as the female and male versions of similar garments; sky and welkin are distinguished as the prosaic and the poetic terms for the same phenomenon; ill and sick are distinguished as the middle-class and upper-class terms for the same condition. There is sometimes a substantial, sometimes a slight and sometimes no difference in meaning.

There is considerable uncertainty about the exact nature of these Norse influences because we have no ongoing written record by which to track them. Changes were beginning as early as the year 800 perhaps, but they do not become apparent for five and a half centuries. As has already been pointed out, the French supression of written English accounts for three hundred years, but what of the years between 800 and 1066? Why do we have so little written record of Norse influence in that period? First, we can put it down to the fact that initally the English feared and hated the Danes and no doubt resisted assimilating their language. Second, writing is more conservative than speech. As a result, Danish words and forms may have been deliberately avoided in writing for some time after they had been readily accepted in speech. Third, we need to take into account the cultural as well as the political effects of the division of England at Watling Street. That diagonal still runs from London to Chester, dividing the country in half. It was a first expression of the great North-South divide that is characteristic of England. The English of the South had become by 900 the most prestigious written form of English. We call that form of English, West Saxon; it was the language of Alfred’s court, of Winchester, his capital, and of Wessex, his kingdom. The great majority of Old English literature that has been preserved is written in West Saxon. It is evident that monastic scribes elsewhere in England tended to use West Saxon in preference to their own Kentish, Mercian or Northumbrian dialects. West Saxon became the first Standard English, the first form of the King’s English. Alfred’s court and capital were far removed from the influence of Norse, and as late as 1066, there is almost no evidence of Norse in West Saxon. (Crystal, Stories 85)

Three hundred years later the linguistic as well as the political scene was radically changed. Winchester was no longer an important city, and the kingdom of Wessex had disappeared. In its place was the kingdom of England with a capital in London. The new English that was written and spoken in the new capital and the new court was very different from the English of Alfred and Winchester. London had been in the Danelaw and the new English was a Mercian English unaware of its Danish additions and boasting its rich French vocabulary. From 1350 onwards we have a complete written record of the evolution of Middle English into Modern English, and one of the effects that can be progressively seen is the steady spread towards the west and south of the language changes that took place first in the Danelaw. As late as 1600, Shakespeare can be seen caught between the modern formula seen in ‘he walks’ and the older formula seen in ‘he walketh’. The first is the Mercian and Norse form; the second is the West Saxon form. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the one, and sometimes he uses the other. Both were acceptable, but not for long. By 1650, it was archaic to write ‘he walketh’. If it is still intelligible English, it is probably because, in 1611, the translators of the King James Bible insisted on using the old formula and have so preserved it.

That is the story for Old and Middle English and brings us up to 1400, even 1600. Now, we need to look at the story of Modern English and Modern Danish., and here the story is more conventional because these two languages, that were two thousand years ago the same language and that were one thousand years ago in daily contact, have been for the last five hundred years in a distant relationship, one that relates only to the borrowing of vocabulary. For the last twelve hundred years, the Oxford English Dictionary lists 853 English words that have a relationship of some kind with Danish, either because they are cognates or because English has taken them from Danish. The period of intense borrowing of everyday words had probably come to an end by 1150, but first appearances in written English means that many of these words are given dates as late as 1400 when, for example, the verb ‘to mirken’ is listed as coming from a Scandanavian source - Norse, Danish, Swedish. It means ‘to darken’, and today is used only in the Shetland Islands though Standard English has the related words ‘murk’ and ‘murky’. In recent centuries science and technology have been the main sources of new English words from Danish. In 1901, Danish gave English the word ‘Poulsens’ for various electrical devices invented by the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen. In 1947, Danish gave English the adjective ‘Pedersen’ as in the phrase ‘Pedersen graph’ named after the Danish mathematician Julius Petersen who devised it. More exotically, in 1999, Danish gave English the word ‘Bluetooth’. It is a translation of Blåtand, the nickname of King Harald I of Denmark ‘who is credited with unifying the country during his reign […] with allusion to the way in which this technology unites those of telecommunications and computing.’ On average Danish cognate or borrowed words have been appearing in the English language at the rate of 45 every hundred years, or one every two years or so. (OED)