These contributed to our language during the 9th and 10th centuries, according to that old favourite book of mine, The English Language – Grammar, History, Literature by Professor Meiklejohn, printed in 1905. I would also note that in our global society we are still adding Scandinavian words to our language today.
Here’s a summary of Meiklejohn on the Scandinavian element in English…
Towards the end of the eighth century the English (Anglo-Saxon) settlements of the East coast of Britain found themselves under attack from the Teutonic peoples of Scandinavia – the Northmen, Norsemen or Danes. Interestingly Meiklejohn doesn’t ever call them Vikings. There is a good map showing the timeline of Scandinavian expansion on Wikipedia .
Despite the resistance of the English, the Danes held sway in much of the East of England by the end of the ninth century and a Danish dynasty sat on a unified English throne from 1016 to 1042 (starting with Canute and ending with Hardicanute).
The early contributions of Scandinavian to English are or two kinds – place-names and ordinary words.
“The most striking instance of a Danish place-name is by, a town. Mr Isaac Taylor tells us that there are in the East of England more than 600 names of towns ending in –by.
“Almost all of these are found in the Danelagh (Danelaw), within the limits of the great highway made by the Romans to the north west and well known as Watling Street”.
Whitby is the town on the white cliffs…
Grimsby is the town of Grim, a great sea-rover, who obtained for his countrymen the right that all ships from the Baltic should come into the port of Grimsby free of duty
Tenby is Dane-town – and here I move away from Meiklejohn for a moment to mention that although Wales was not heavily colonised by Vikings, they did settle in some parts of North and West Wales before their defeat by the Welsh kings.
Their settlement led to place names such as Anglesey, Bardsey, Milford, Fishguard, Goodwick and Swansea (apparently founded by Sweyne Forkbeard, who was shipwrecked in the bay).
In the Gower Peninsula there is Worm’s Head – worm was the Norse word for dragon, and the Vikings believed the island was a sleeping dragon.
Tusker Rock, an island in the Bristol Channel, took its name from Tuska, a Danish Viking who settled in the fertile Vale of Glamorgan. The island names of Skokholm (“wooded island”), Ramsey, Grassholm and Skomer also show Scandinavian origins.
But back to the English…
By-law means a law specific to a particular town. Other Scandinavian words found alone or in compounds are:
Beck – a stream
Fell – a hill
Firth or Fiord – an inlet of the sea
Force – a waterfall
Garth – a yard or enclosure
Holm – an island in a river
Kirk – a church
Oe – an island
Thorpe – a village
Thwaite – a forest clearing
Vik or Wick – a station for ships, or a creek
Ordinary words from Scandinavian
The most useful and most often used word the Scandinavians gave us is “are”. The pure English (Anglo Saxon) word for this would have been beoth or sinden.
The Scandinavians also gave us the habit of using the word “to” before an infinitive – so we can blame them, I guess, for making it so easy for us to split infinitives (as in “to boldly go…”)
Other old Norse words in English are:
Blunt, bole (of a tree), bound (on a journey), busk (to dress), cake, call, clog, clumsy, curl, cut, dairy, daze, dirt, droop, fellow, flit, hustings, ill, irk, kid, kindle, loft, odd, plough, root, scold, sky, tarn (a small mountain lake), weak and ugly…
One word whose absence from Meiklejohn’s list disappoints me is berserk – meaning “bear-shirt” and applied to a frenzied warrior. This came into English from Old Norse and I find remembering the meaning helps prevent you from mis-spelling it beserk…
Some other Old Norse words missing from this list might be: axle, blunder, dregs, gosling, hack, haggle, husband, knife, knot, lad, litmus, mire, mistake, oaf, ransack, reindeer, saga, scare, scarf, scathe, scrape, skill, skin, slaughter, sleuth (sloð means “trail”), take, thrall, troll, whirl, whisk, window (meaning wind-eye), work…
In Meiklejohn’s day, at least, the use of Scandinavian words and place names was commonest in Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the western side of Cumberland and Lancashire.
It was during the time when the English and Scandinavians lived side by side that we lost so many of the niceties of the language – not bothering any more with declensions and conjugations and with matching adjectives with their nouns in terms of gender and number etc. The adjective black can be applied to a cat whether male or female and to cats plural, without changing the ending. This was the biggest influence of the Scandinavians on our language.
Since Meiklejohn’s day we have been keen to take into English words from languages all over the world, when the object or concept does not already exist in English. Thus we have taken on…
Aquavit (a kind of spirit distilled from potatoes), floe (as in ice floe), Kraken (sea monster), krill (small shrimp-like animals), lemming, quisling (from a wartime traitor, Vidkun Quisling), ski, slalom and Yngling (a sailing boat class from an old Norwegian word for “youngster”
Angstrom (scientific measurement, from Anders Angstrom), gravlax (preserved salmon – originally “grave salmon” as it was preserved underground), moped, ombudsman, orienteering, smorgasbord (sandwich table), tungsten (meaning hard stone)
These are all a bit indirect, but here we go…
Frisbee is an interesting one. Inspiration for the toy came from the airworthy pie tins of the Frisbie Bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The family name comes from a place in Leicestershire called Frisby on the Wreak, the name meaning “farmstead or village of the Frisians” – there’s that by ending again…
The word angst was introduced from the Danish via existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, although it’s similar in German and Dutch.
Several words come from the Danes’ nautical exploits: flense, meaning to strip the blubber or skin from a whale or seal; iceberg (from isbjerg, meaning mountain of ice); maelstrom, meaning a violent whirlpool or turbulent situation, may come from the Danish malstrom, although my Chambers dictionary has it coming from a similar Dutch word; walrus came from Danish hvalros, from Old Norse hrosshvalr (“‘horse-whale’”). It’s similar in Dutch (walrus), Icelandic (hvalur) and German (Walross).
Finally the word midden is a lovely one in an archaeological sense, as I have visited shell middens close to Mesolithic settlements in Denmark. The word came to us through Middle English myddyng, apparently, from the Danish mög-dynge, meaning muck+dung. It now means a dung heap, a refuse heap near a dwelling or a prehistoric pile of discarded bones and shells.