Is English Closer to Norse Languages Than Germanic?

As an English speaker who had a few years of German and am now studying Norwegian  (why not, it’s very similar to Icelandic) and Icelandic (I have a few Icelandic friends and is related to Norwegian) and I’ve noticed that, where in German syntax I have to think about putting the verb at the end, in Norwegian/Icelandic, I am not so constrained.

This article has pointed out what was before my eyes but unnoticed.  There are many reasons to be interested in the Nordic countries.  Not the least of which were their incursions into Europe, England, and Ireland.  The raiding of  the continent from which Normandy gained its name, and trade routes to the middle East via the Volga and other rivers.  In fact, the Norse probably traveled more widely to North America and other countries than any others before the Spanish and Portuguese.

Moreover the Norse have made large contributions (not always voluntary) to the gene pool of Europe and America.

Linguist Makes Sensational Claim: English Is a Scandinavian Language

ScienceDaily (Nov. 27, 2012) — “Have you considered how easy it is for us Norwegians to learn English?” asks Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo. “Obviously there are many English words that resemble ours. But there is something more: its fundamental structure is strikingly similar to Norwegian. We avoid many of the usual mistakes because the grammar is more or less the same.

Faarlund and his colleague Joseph Emmonds, visiting professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, now believe they can prove that English is in reality a Scandinavian language, in other words it belongs to the Northern Germanic language group, just like Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese.

This is totally new and breaks with what other language researchers and the rest of the world believe, namely that English descends directly from Old English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is a West Germanic language, which the Angles and Saxons brought with them from Northern Germany and Southern Jylland when they settled in the British Isles in the fifth century.

Old English died out

“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066,” says Faarlund. He points out that Old English and Modern English are two very different languages. Why?  “We believe it is because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English,” he says.

The ‘cohabitation’ between the British and the Scandinavians was largely hostile. Both fought for political hegemony. The descendants of the Vikings gained control of the eastern and northern parts of the country. The Danelaw was under the control of Scandinavian chiefs for half a century.

Like most colonists, the Scandinavian-speaking inhabitants found no reason to switch to the language of the country they had arrived in. “One especially important, geographic point in our study is that the East Midlands region, where the spoken language later developed into Modern English, coincides almost exactly with the densely populated, southern part of the Danelaw,” says the professor.

The language changed a great deal in the period after the Normans arrived. The miserable conditions people lived in at the time resulted in a complete merger of the two previously separate groups of people — the Old English speakers and the Scandinavian speakers — and out of this came Middle English — the predecessor of Modern English.

Adopted words they already had

The language adopted many words from the Danelaw’s inhabitants who were of Norwegian and Danish descent. For example, all the lexical words in this sentence are Scandinavian: He took the knife and cut the steak. Only he, the and and come from Old English.

“What is particularly interesting is that Old English adopted words for day-to-day things that were already in the language. Usually one borrows words and concepts for new things. In English almost the reverse is true — the day-to-day words are Scandinavian, and there are many of them,” says Faarlund.

Here are 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.

The researchers believe that Old English already had 90 per cent of these concepts in its own vocabulary.

Took over the grammar

But the Scandinavian element was not limited to the vocabulary, which is normal when languages come into contact with each other. Even though a massive number of new words are on their way into a language, it nevertheless retains its own grammar. This is almost a universal law.

“But in England grammatical words and morphemes — in other words the smallest abstract, meaningful linguistic unit — were also adopted from Scandinavian and survive in English to this day.”

Scandinavian syntax

The two researchers show that the sentence structure in Middle English — and thus also Modern English — is Scandinavian and not Western Germanic. “It is highly irregular to borrow the syntax and structure from one language and use it in another language. In our days the Norwegians are borrowing words from English, and many people are concerned about this. However, the Norwegian word structure is totally unaffected by English. It remains the same. The same goes for the structure in English: it is virtually unaffected by Old English.”

“How can you illustrate this?”

“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:

I have read the book.

Eg har lese boka.

German and Dutch (and Old English) put the verb at the end.

Ich habe das Buch gelesen.

* English and Scandinavian can have a preposition at the end of the sentence.

This we have talked about.

Dette har vi snakka om.

* 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.

* Group genitive:

The Queen of England’s hat.

Dronninga av Englands hatt.

“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.”

“But why the inhabitants of the British Isles chose the Scandinavian grammar is something we can only speculate on,” says Jan Terje Faarlund.

About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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6 Responses to Is English Closer to Norse Languages Than Germanic?

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Your post about languages sounds really interesting Carlos but not having any idea on the subject, of course I can’t comment However I will delve a little and try to understand more. Regards

    • carlos says:

      Well, Rita, I’m just a linguistic dilettante. Just enough knowledge to get me in trouble. I do speak Portuguese, Spanish, and took a years of college German. I found it interesting that while, in German, I was always ware that in German, the verb went at the end and there were clever ways to break verbs like Aufstehen so that the verb splits and just the “auf” went at the end. As you may know old, middle and modern English seem different languages and require specialized knowledge, Norwegian, on the other hand, generally is easier to read by modern English readers using a little imagination and the words are often similar. I’m still looking into this because it has piqued my curiosity. Of course, even today I have to listen with a fair amount of attention to those long, lovely accents from the lake country;-)

  2. tiare75 says:

    This is an interesting post, although it is also somewhat confusing to someone like I, who am fascinated by language (and have also studied German in the past). The title of the post was a bit of a head-scratcher, as I had always thought that Nordic languages are also Germanic. It is not only reasonable to assume, but well established that the development of the English language was strongly influenced by Old Norse (the North Germanic language of the Norsemen). But I am not sure where the controversy lies, as English still very much developed as a Germanic language. Many grammar rules and syntax are different from German, and perhaps more closely resemble that of Scandinavian languages, but is it possible that this had just as much to do with the influence of Romantic languages as well? This has sparked my curiosity. 🙂

    • carlos says:

      Hi Tiare75, good to hear from you. Most languages we are familiar with are descended from Indo-European (although sometimes I scratch my head). Here is an interesting link that shows the upside-down tree that shows how today’s many languages have descended over millenia, across rivers, mountains and deserts changing from accent to dialect to distinct languages. Each cultural branch diverged further and further while retaining similarities that tell you something about the branch from which it has sprung.
      I often joke with people that German is similar to English except that the verb goes at the end and it may take a while to find out what was done to whom. In English we know that jack WENT up the hill (svo) rather than Jack up the hill WENT (sov).
      I’m of Irish/German descent and know that the Norse often raided Ireland and took the prettiest back home or just settled and intermarried locally. The Norse also raided along the English Channel and raided/settled Normandy. They also raided into Russia and penetrated to the Middle East and perhaps further. Old English is

      Here’s an link to some sites with many interesting links . And another:
      For an old English recording

      Most of the root sites are still here even it the particular portion of the site has been changed. Just back up to the root and find your way. Cathy Ball is somewhat of an expert and hers were the best I’ve heard but in this little time I’ve had I can’t find any of her audio
      I had a lot of fun following these sites and especially telling is the use of ð instead of “th” (Ðor rather than Thor) this can tell you if it came from the North Germanic rather West Germanic. I’ve had a lot of fun poking around some of these sites over tim and I hope you will too. Cheers!

      • tiare75 says:

        Thanks for the links. I am enjoying them very much. The tree model seems so straight-forward, if somewhat sterile. It seems so lacking, since it leaves out connections to the Romantic languages, which have had such an obvious influence on the development of modern English. Perhaps the tree simply was not designed to show the modern version of English, but only Old English. Not sure. I will do some more reading on the other sites.

        • carlos says:

          Aha! well this tree represents the Western “centum” languages (cent=100) The “Satem” (Sat = 100) branch covers Slavic/Indic languages. I just didn’t want to be a bore with some of the more esoteric info, after all we were just talking about Norse vs Germanic influence on modern English.

          I’m actually taking a basic Linguistics course from MIT on line because I need a map to pull all the info into a focused framework otherwise I’m just flitting around from one interesting thing to another. These free distance courses that have been popping up in the last few years are great. You can get lectures by professors in schools I couldn’t begin to afford.

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