Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.

Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:

Old EnglishModern English
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory

A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).

Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?

Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!

As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.

You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.

And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.

It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:

Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.

But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!

So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of West Saxon forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.

The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.

Bildresultat för swein of denmark
King Swein (or Sweyn) Forkbeard from a 13th century miniature (pic from Wikipedia)

Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.

And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.  

Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.

Alright, let’s talk language!

Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.

Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!

Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.

One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’.

Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.

Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).

Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:

her ‘here’

But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:

feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].

In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:

Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:

Old EnglishGothicModern English
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:

gæt (sg.)butgatu (pl.)'gate'
dæg (sg.)butdaga (dat. sg.)'day'

Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:

Old English GothicModern English

Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.

Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).

The standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).

However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.

On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.

If you’re reading poetry: chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!

Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!


As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:

The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here



Etymologiæ (where you can find the original version of the map we’ve used here)

For the last picture, we’ve used the one found here

The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here

Easy-peasy morphology: Reduplication

Sometimes, we’re just so excited to share the world of languages with you that we get caught up in our own linguistic jibber-jabber. What starts as chit-chat turns into the ol’ razzle-dazzle. Before we know it, we’re zig-zagging through some convoluted flimflammery, and soon enough, kookookachoo, everyone’s head hurts and they all just want to go night-night.

Okay, that sentence was a bit much. But it showcases an interesting morphological phenomenon: reduplication.

In reduplication, all or part of a word is repeated. As you can see, the repetition can be exact or can include slight changes. The repeated part or reduplicant can be morphologically significant, like a root, or phonological, like a syllable. It can also occur anywhere in the word.

Most of the examples above are more expressive than anything else, but reduplication can also be meaningful. In English, we might repeat a word to stress the realness of what we’re trying to convey1:

“Do you like him, or do you LIKE-like him?”

In some of the many other languages that employ reduplication, its uses can be even more significant. In Malay, reduplication forms the plural of nouns: You may have one rumah (house), but your rich neighbor has two rumah-rumah (houses)2. In Latin, some verbs used reduplication to show the perfect form of the past tense: Today, the produce man vēndit (is selling) pears, but yesterday, he vēndidit (sold) me a pineapple.

There’s also a special time in life when all of us, regardless of which language we speak, are prone to extensive reduplication. During language acquisition, children go through a phase somewhere around eight to twelve months of age where their chatter is full of repetition. This developmental stage is called reduplicated or canonical babbling. Through their repetition, children experiment with their voice and figure out some things about the native language they’re acquiring (heck, I was known to babble to myself the first time I took a phonology class—occupational hazard). This is the stage where we get the famous assumption that every child’s first word is “dada”. I once knew a child who referred to water as “wawa”.

Reduplication is found in languages all over the world, though its productivity varies from language to language. Still, it’s a clever trick, this doubling of things. So clever, one has to wonder: if you can repeat morphological and phonological elements, can you un-repeat them, too? More on that next week. Until then, bye-bye!


1 This is called contrastive focus reduplication.
2 Does that mean one wug, but two wug-wug?

What’s with WH?

In many varieties of English, a W is a W. In these varieties, W sounds like [w] like in ‘wise’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wowza’ (unless it’s at the end like in ‘draw’ or ‘stow’, in which case it’s quiet as a mouse.)

However, in Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, and certain American dialects, wh-words are pronounced a little different. In words like ‘which’ and ‘whale’, the H makes the W kind of…H-y.

Why is that? Why are those words even spelled with an H to begin with? As with many questions about the bitter rivalry between English pronunciation and English spelling, we have to look to the distant past…

Or, you know, the fairly old past—the Old English-y one. Old English inherited from Indo-European (with a few twists and turns through Grimm’s Law) a sound we linguists like to call a voiceless labiovelar approximant1. In IPA, [ʍ]. That’s fancy language-people talk for a kind of voiceless W. In OE, this sound was spelled ‘hw’. ‘Which’ was ‘hwilc’ and ‘whale’ was ‘hwæl’. Perhaps the real poster child for this phenomenon is the first word of Beowulf: Hwæt! (ModE ‘what’)

During the Middle English period, the spelling of this sound was flipped to our modern ‘wh’, most likely due to the influence of French scribes who came to England with the Normans. It was also sometime during this period that some dialects began to see a merger between the pronunciation of ‘wh’ and plain old ‘w’. For a while, the merger was seen as uncouth, and educated speakers deliberately maintained the [ʍ] pronunciation of ‘wh’. Now, we find more dialects than not where the merger is complete and both spellings are pronounced [w]. But as mentioned before, there are several varieties of English where the original [ʍ] is hanging in there.

English has its share of strange, purely historic spellings, but this isn’t one of them. Your [ʍ] dropping friend isn’t mispronouncing ‘white’ or being pedantic; they’re just kicking it old school.


1This sound is sometimes traditionally/erroneously called a labiovelar fricative.

Early Germanic Dialects: Old Saxon

Well, you’ve certainly have had fun without me, haven’t you? It’s been four weeks since you heard anything new about the Early Germanic dialects, but I can see that Lisa has had a word with you about contact situations and language influence (and exposed the HLC’s horrifying lies about language change!), and our great guest posts, by Sarah and Claire, must have kept you plenty entertained!

Now we’re getting back at it, though, and today, we’ll have a look at a little language that was part of the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon community in England: Old Saxon!

Let’s do what we usually do and start with a bit of a general history lesson, shall we?

The Saxons–surprise surprise!–were a somewhat warlike people. So much so, in fact, that their very name is a reference to a sword: a short sword characteristic of the Saxon people, known as the sahs (we still find its derivation in the second part of the German word for ‘knife’ (Messer)).

The Saxons were first mentioned during the middle of the 2nd century A.D. by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in his chapter Magna Germanica (in the book Geographia), in which Ptolemy places the Saxons in the area around the North Sea coast and to the east of the lower Elbe, an area that is now Holstein in the county of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany (just south of Denmark)–and if you’re wondering why all the warlike people seem to be coming from the northernmost areas of the world: it’s the cold. Definitely the cold.

In the following centuries, the Saxons show up prominently in a bunch of bloody battle accounts and struggles; they were fighting with their neighbours, with their allies, with their enemies… with pretty much everyone and anyone. But mostly, they fought with their neighbours, the Franks.

Despite this, they must have had a reasonably amicable relationship with their neighbours to the southwest around the year 531, when they joined together to destroy the kingdom of Thuringia:


However, the new Saxon kings of Thuringia were forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Frankish kingdom, which did not sit well with the Saxons. So, naturally, for about 200 years, there is an on-again-off-again war between the Saxons and the Franks.

Then, in 715, the western Saxons invaded the lower Rhenish areas. They were pushed back by Charles Martel in 718, who had to enter western Saxony twice–and was not happy about it (which he brutally took out on the local population). Yet, the Saxons were nothing if not stubborn and revolted again in 753, with the same expected results. One would think they had enough by now, right? Yeah, not so much. The scenario was repeated again, with the same results, in 758 (have you ever heard that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”2?).

Eventually, we reach the fatal year 772–the beginning of the end for the Saxons as an independent state. In that year, the Imperial council officially declared war on the Saxons. Enter, stage right: Charlemagne.

Charlemagne completed the Frank’s annexation of Saxon territory in 782, but the final battles between the Saxons and the Franks weren’t fought for another 12 years, when finally, we see the end of the Saxons as an independent state.

That isn’t the last we’ll hear about the Saxons, of course, but I’ll deal with their history in England in the chapter on Old English rather than here (it’ll make sense to you soon enough, I promise).

Our knowledge about the Saxon language comes from two major surviving texts: the epic poem Heliand and a copy of Genesis which runs to just 330 lines, so it’s quite short–though it is argued that the original was likely quite long. The Heliand is quite interesting for a multitude of reasons: an alliterative poem of some 6000 long lines, it recounts the story of Jesus in a way that combines the contributions of all four Gospels in a single narrative. The poem not only translates the story into a Germanic verse form, but changes the setting of the story–the tale of Jesus is told not in some far-away Holy Land but on the plains and marshes of northern Germany, and the shepherds who are told of Jesus’s birth are not tending sheep, but horses.

Now that we’ve looked quite a bit at the history of the Saxons and their surviving texts, let’s have a look at the language that they spoke! It is why we are here after all.

Most of the time, the letters used in Old Saxon texts correspond quite well to what one, as an English-speaker, would expect–p, t, k, for example, are pronounced just as in modern English–but there are a couple of surprises:

In word-final position, the letter g corresponds to [x] (the sound in Scots loch or German nacht), so a word like dag ‘day’ would be pronounced something like dach, except if it was preceded by n. In these cases, g was pronounced like [k], so g in words like lang ‘long’ would be pronounced [k], i.e. lank.

Another surprise concerns the letters b and d. In general, these are pronounced as in Modern English, but in word-final position and before voiceless consonants (like t or s), they were probably pronounced [p] and [t]. So:

bi'by'[b] > [b]
dôan ‘do’[d] > [d]
lamb‘lamb’[b] > [p]
flôd‘flood’[d] > [t]

Another difference is found in the voiceless fricative /f/: when between vowels, it becomes voiced,  /v/, as does /θ/ and /s/ which become [ð] and [z] respectively. The difference between /f/ and the other letters that get voiced, is that the change in /f/ is faithfully reflected in writing! When /f/ became [v], it was consistently spelt ⟨ƀ⟩ and ⟨u⟩, so if you see those letters in between vowels, you can start to suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Let’s look at some other indicators that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Unlike Gothic and Old Norse, Old Saxon shows a development of the older diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to the monophthongs [e:] and [o:]. Other early Germanic dialects do this, too, but it is a conditional change, meaning that certain conditions must be fulfilled before the change can happen. In Old Saxon, though, we would call it an unconditional change, meaning that this change occurs virtually without exception–let’s look at stone as an example:

Old Saxonstên
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

So if you’re seeing <e> where in comparable texts you see a diphthong, you might suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon–like we said, though, this is not bulletproof evidence, so let’s look at some more stuff that Old Saxon does!

When we were talking about Old Norse, we briefly touched upon a process called gemination. What this means is that the consonants g and k doubled to gg and kk after a short vowel and before j (and sometimes w). This process has far greater scope in Old Saxon than in Old Norse; in Old Saxon, all consonants can be doubled except r and the doubling takes place before not just j and w but also quite frequently before r and l, and sometimes before m and n. Another unique feature of Old Saxon among the West Germanic languages (remember our tree?) is that it usually still shows the conditioning <j>:

Old SaxonOld EnglishModern English
biddian biddan‘ask’

Two more things before we wrap up:

In Old Saxon, as in all the languages that we will look at following this post (but not the ones that precede it), we find that the verbal infinitive has developed into something approaching a true noun, what we would today call the gerund. The gerund may function as the subject of a sentence:

Eating people is wrong

or the object of a verb:

The hardest thing about learning English is understanding the gerund.

And finally:  

Unlike in Gothic and Old Norse, the masculine nominative singular ending of Proto-Germanic, *-az, has disappeared completely in Old Saxon. In Old Norse, we find -r in its place, e.g. dagr ‘day’, while in Gothic, we find –s, e.g.  þs ‘good’. In Old Saxon, though, we find dag and gôd for these words – the ending has completely disappeared!

So, there you have it, features to look for in Old Saxon. Let’s wrap this up with a bit of an example, from the Eucharist, with a translation from Murphy3:

tho sagda he that her scoldi cumin en wiscuning
mari endi mahtig an thesan middelgard
bezton giburdies; quad that it scoldi wesan barn godes,
quad that he thesero weroldes waldan scoldi
gio te ewandaga, erdun endi himiles.
He quad that an them selbon daga, the ina salingna
an thesan middilgard modar gidrogi
so quad he that ostana en scoldi skinan
huit, sulic so wi her ne habdin er
undartuisc erda endi himil odar huerigin
ne sulic barn ne sulic bocan
Then he spoke and said
there would come a wise king,
magnificent and mighty,
to this middle realm;
he would be of the best birth;
he said that he would
be the Son of God,
he said that he would rule this world, earth and sky, always and forevermore.
he said that on the same day on which the mother gave
birth to the Blessed One in this middle
realm, in the East,
he said, there would
shine forth a brilliant light in the sky, one
such as we never had before between
heaven and earth nor anywhere
else, never such a baby and never such a beacon.


As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we have also taken a look at:

Robert Flierman. 2017. Saxon Identities, AD 150-900. London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

1 The map is an edited version from this map

2This famous quote is, of course, attributed to Albert Einstein

3And finally, this text comes from Wikipedia

Lies the HLC told you: All languages change.

We usually kind of hammer into you readers that languages change, and in my last post I described situations in the history of English when the contact with other languages was so intense that it drastically changed the language. Language contact is one factor which triggers language change, but change can also come from within the language itself, through e.g. innovation by speakers or speech communities (remember Rebekah’s post a while ago about some of the mechanisms in sound change?).

However, despite all of this, some languages tend to be particularly reluctant to change. To give you an example, here is an extract from the Færeyinga saga1, written around the year 1200 in the western dialect of Old Norse, Old West Norse, which was used in Iceland and Norway:

Nv litlu sidar kemr Sigurdr j budina til brodur sins ok mællti. tak þu nu silfrit nu er samit kaupit. Hann suarar. ek fek þer silfrit skommu. Nei segir Sigurdr ek hefui ekki a þui tekit. Nu þræta þeir vm þetta. eftir þat segia þeir konungi til. konungr skilr nu ok adrir menn at þeir eru stolnir fenu. Nu leggr konungr farbann sua at æingi skip skulu sigla burt sua buit. þetta þotti morgum manni vanhagr mikill sem var at sitia vm þat fram er markadrinn stod.

Now, here is the modern Icelandic translation of the same extract:

Nú litlu síðar kemur Sigurður í búðina til bróður síns og mælti:
“Tak þú nú silfrið; nú er samið kaupið.”
Hann svarar: “Eg fékk þér silfrið skömmu.”
“Nei,” segir Sigurður; “eg hefi ekki á því tekið.”
Nú þræta þeir um þetta. Eftir það segja þeir konungi til. Konungur skilur nú, og aðrir menn, að þeir eru stolnir fénu. Nú leggur konungur farbann, svo að engi skip skulu sigla burt svo búið. Þetta þótti mörgum manni vanhagur mikill, sem var, að sitja um það fram, er markaðurinn stóð.

So this is quite similar; there are some differences in spelling (and punctuation), some of which give evidence of phonological change, such as the addition of <-u-> in e.g. konungr > konungur. The vocabulary, however, is pretty much identical.

To contrast this, let’s give the modern translation in Norwegian, which, like Icelandic, is another descendant of Old West Norse:

Lidt efter kom Sigurd ind i boden til sin bror og sagde: «Kom nu med pengene, for nu er handelen sluttet.» Men Haarek svared: «Jeg gav dig jo sølvet for en liden stund siden.» «Nei,» sagde Sigurd, «jeg har ikke tat imod det.» De trætted nu en stund om dette; derpaa gik de til kongen og fortalte ham om sagen. Han og de andre folk skjønte nu, at pengene var stjaalet fra dem. Kongen lagde da farbann paa skibene, saa at intet af dem fik lov til at seile bort, før denne sag var klaret. Dette tyktes mange stor skade, som venteligt var, at skulle ligge der, efterat markedet var slut.

While we can still see the family relation, this translation is quite different from the Old West Norse. This tells us that relatively little has happened to Icelandic since the year 1200. In fact, when it comes to the grammar, Icelandic is usually considered the most “conservative” of the Germanic languages, as it retains a system of case and gender on nouns, and a system of inflection on verbs, that has changed very little from the time of the early Germanic dialects.

Furthermore, remember how I said that the basic vocabulary is the most reluctant to change, and this is why the borrowing of basic vocabulary from Old Norse and French into English is evidence of some particularly intense contact? It is estimated that English has retained 67.8% of its basic vocabulary, meaning that 67.8% of basic vocabulary is inherited: from Germanic to Old English to its present day form (often with some phonological and morphological change). As a contrast, Icelandic has retained 97.3% of its basic vocabulary2. Quite the difference!

Why is this?

The Nordic countries – all but Finland has a North Germanic language as their national language. (Copyright: Alphathon, 2015. Wikimedia Commons.)

One reason is that Icelandic has been relatively isolated geographically, so it has not been as exposed to intense language contact as the other Germanic languages, which (save from Faroese and Afrikaans) are spoken on the mainland of the European continent and therefore have been exposed to plenty of input from their neighbouring languages, as well as having been more vulnerable to conquest and migration.

When it comes to the reluctance to borrow foreign vocabulary, this is partly due to an active effort to preserve Icelandic as a means to preserve the native Icelandic culture. This has led to, rather than adopting new vocabulary, Old Norse terms often being revived when a word is needed for a new concept or item. Alternatively, compounds of existing vocabulary are used: The Icelandic word for ambulance is ‘sjúkrabíll’, which literally translates to ‘sickness-car’ (whereas the other modern North Germanic languages uses forms of ‘ambulans(e)’).

Furthermore, in the process of borrowing words, we usually talk about adoption vs. adaptation. In the first process, a word is borrowed, adopted, with its foreign phonology and morphology; in Swedish, for example, new English loan words tend to use the English plural -s rather than the native Swedish -ar/or plural. In the process of adaptation, however, we borrow a word but adapt it to our own phonology and morphology (we’ve seen plenty of examples of this in our weekly etymologies on the HLC facebook page). According to April McMahon3, not only does Icelandic tend to revive Old Norse words for new purposes, but any new loan that does make it into Icelandic tends to be adapted rather than adopted.

So, just as we can make conscious efforts to introduce new concepts in a language, as in the case of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, we can also (to some extent, at least) make conscious efforts to not change a language, if enough people are on board with this. However, it’s not like Icelandic hasn’t changed at all – I wouldn’t recommend going to Iceland relying solely on your Old Norse proficiency in communications with the locals. So, in the end, we didn’t exactly lie when we said all languages change, but the degree to which they change is not always as dramatic as in the history of English.

Tune in next week for more early Germanic dialects with Sabina!


1This extract and translations are taken from http://heimskringla.no – a kind of data bank of Nordic texts.

2These numbers are taken from Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics, p. 456.

3 In her book Understanding Language Change, p. 205.

Cool stuff about Writing Systems Today: Egyptian Hieroglyphs

or how I tried to teach myself hieroglyphs and failed hilariously

(Papyrus scroll, book of the dead, collection: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Inv. 10466)

Once upon a time when I was still wee and less annoying (<- lie) than today, I tried to teach myself how to read hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system, because I was way into all things to do with Ancient Egypt.

Emphasis on ‘tried’. Here is how I screwed up:

1) I assumed each of those little pictures is either a word or a letter.
Well, good guess for a 12 year old, not completely wrong, but also not how hieroglyphs work.
Hieroglyphs are both logographic (meaning each picture is a word, actually a morpheme), alphabetic (each picture is a letter) and syllabic (each picture is a syllable).

Wait, what?! Okay, let’s back up a bit:

What is the origin of written language?

If you have no writing system whatsoever but you want to “write”, the most natural thing to do is: you draw a picture.
How do we know that? Because every single writing system started off that way, and it still happens: What do you get if you leave a kid alone with crayons (I mean aside from the need to buy new wallpaper)? The first love letters they write don’t have letters in them, they have the mum and a heart as pictures. It’s the obvious thing to do if you want to put your idea on paper and don’t know a writing system: you draw the thing.
In fact, if you go to foreign places and want to communicate, you can buy dictionaries without words even today, looking something like this:

(pssst, if you want one: ISBN 978-3-468-29840-0, Langenscheidt OhneWörterBuch) 

Back to ancient writing systems.
So, you have your wee sun symbol for “sun”. You soon figure out that you can also use that symbol for ‘bright’, ‘day’  and ‘light’. So, now your sun symbols stands in for many words, and context will tell you which one is right. Boom! Congratulations, you now have a logographic writing system.
Nice. But soon you realise that you need words you can’t find a symbol for, like the name of that new foreign merchant in town. You have a bright idea: let’s just use the symbol for a word that starts with the same sound I need for that word.

Like “fish”. You can use your ‘fish’ symbol for /f/, /fɪ/ or maybe /fɪʃ/.
So, the symbol becomes either alphabetic /f/ (like in Latin, Greek, English), or syllabic /fɪ/ (open syllable (i.e. ending in the core vowel only) like Japanese kana or Indian devanagari), or syllabic (closed syllable (i.e. a consonant follows the core vowel, also known as a coda), like in Babylonian and Hittite cuneiform)

Well, guess what the people in Ancient Egypt did:

Yeah… so, each wee picture could be a word, a letter, or a full syllable.
But, most of the time, the wee pictures are letters. So that should have meant I could get most of the words, right? Nooope.

Mistake #2 I made:
I boldly assumed every sound would be written down. But I ended up with a salad of consonants.
Bscll lk ths. Smbd frgt t b vwl.

Either the Ancient Egyptians were really bad at Wheel of Fortune or I made a mistake, unlikely as the latter is.

So, here is the problem: Turns out Egyptian Hieroglyphs are something we call an ‘Abjad’, meaning the consonants were written out, but the vowels were actively put in by the speaker and not written. Arabic and Hebrew still use systems like that. Why? It makes sense for them because their vowels change to provide the morphology (<- yes, I oversimplified that a lot):
Imagine that sing, sang, sung were all spelled sng. You’d know which one is which from context; “Today I sng”, “Yesterday I sng.”
That, of course, doesn’t work for English across the board, but it’s the closest you can get to seeing how it works if you don’t speak Arabic or Hebrew.

Okay, actually all three systems, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic script, and Hebrew script, are “impure Abjads”. They sometimes spell out the vowels, or put a wee marker on a letter to give you a hint which vowel it is, but most vowels are still missing and you just have to know.

And, on top of that, you have to know which of the symbols are meant to be pronounced, and which are not.

This is point 3 I screwed up back then:
Determiners. I thought every wee picture is meant to be pronounced. Nope.
A determiner is a symbol that tells you which of the possible meanings of the next symbol to use.

For example, “Robin” could be a personal name or a bird. If you don’t want to wait for context to tell you, you could do this:

Sorted. And that is what Egyptian Hieroglyphs expanded into a full system.
You would put a wee lad at the end of male names and a wee lass at the end of female names.
Like this:

That’s Bibi and Bob. Yeah, not the most common female first name, give me a break.
Oh, by the way, hieroglyphs are usually read from right to left, sometimes from left to right, and sometimes they are a bit mixed up. But the determiners give you a good hint: the wee people and animals always look towards the beginning of the word.

Now guess what ‘family’ (Middle Egyptian: mhw.t) looks like?

Yep, the entire thing in the red circle is the determiner; a mum and a dad and the plural symbol. I guess that’s an Ancient Egyptian family: first parents, and then you make a few more humans.

You can easily see how such a system developed:
Let’s pretend English was an Abjad once more. So, only consonants are written down.
What could str be?

Getting that it is straw, star, satire, stray and stir is a lot easier with determiners, right?

This system was used so extensively that the Egyptians even came up with a marker that tells you when they mean the actual thing and not the symbol’s determiner function: a wee vertical line under the symbol would tell you it’s not a determiner:

No, I mean it this time, it’s star proper, a star star.

Cool, eh?

I wish I had known all this back then. But you know better than me now.

Want more hieroglyphs? Read this:
Zauzich, Karl-Theodor (1992). Discovering Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Practical Guide

Let’s get together and talk about languages getting together

Historical linguistics is often synonymous with the study of language change over time, and investigating what the reasons for that change are; are the changes being triggered by processes internal to the language, or did they come about through influence from another language? We know that English has changed significantly in its history – I recommend going back to Rebekah’s post about the English periods for a recap. Exactly what mechanisms are behind some of these changes are still under debate, but we do know that English has been greatly influenced by the languages it has been in contact with throughout history and in particular the contact with Old Norse and French. (Read also Sabina’s post about the creolization hypothesis for more about these contact situations)

Looking at these two contact situations, they had quite different effects. This can partly be explained by the different relationships these language had with English during the time of contact. Let’s investigate:

Old Norse

Remember the Vikings and their language, which Sabina taught us about two weeks ago? This language first became introduced to Britain through Viking raids in the 8th-9th centuries. The very earliest evidence of influence from Old Norse is from this period, and it shows up through loan words which have to do with seafaring and similar themes. The Norsemen eventually started settling in the British Isles, however, and in England, this meant some drastic political changes: wars between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons led to the establishment of the Danelaw, an area covering most of the East and North-East of England, which was under Danish rule for some time (although, the power shifted between Anglo-Saxon and Danish for the duration of the Danelaw). The relationship between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) thus changed in the Danelaw, in that Old Norse became the language of the rulers. In this period we see many Old Norse words to do with law and government entering English.

Another effect of this time is that speakers of Old Norse and Old English lived side-by-side and dealt with everyday communication. If you’ve paid attention during Sabina’s Early Germanic Dialects series, you will know that Old Norse and Old English are quite closely related languages, both being descendants of Proto-Germanic. In fact, these two languages had not been developing separately for very long before they came into contact in England again (only about 4-500 years or so, quite a short time in the grand scheme of things). This fact, along with some evidence in records from the time, suggests to us that speakers of these languages could understand each other, with help from some accommodation from each side. I imagine this to be something like when I, as a Swedish speaker, am talking to a Norwegian speaker and end up speaking something we jokingly call ‘Svorska’, a combination of Svenska (=Swedish) and Norska (=Norwegian).

It is through this close relationship between the languages in the Danelaw that we see some of the deeper effects of Old Norse influence in English. First of all, the type of loan words that enter English in this period is the type of words that are most reluctant to change or influence, such as the verb take, or the noun sister; words that are used so frequently and are so fundamental to the language that they rarely get replaced by innovations. There are also some grammatical changes that have been suggested to be triggered by contact with Old Norse, such as changes in word order and simplification of the case and gender system on nouns. While some suggest that these grammatical changes were directly influenced by Old Norse, others argue that the changes were already underway before the contact, but that the contact triggered them to happen quicker.

How does contact with another language affect the grammar, if it’s not a direct transfer? Well, this can partly be due to grammar becoming compromised when people accommodate to a closely related language – people taking “shortcuts” to make themselves understood, kind of. It can also be due to that children learning their first language become presented with a mixed-but-similar-enough input that the grammar they learn as a first language is slightly different from what came before.

This Danelaw way of speaking came to influence the other English dialects, and Scots as well, through large enough numbers of people bringing their dialect with them from the Danelaw to other parts of Britain, even after the Norman conquest (immigration from the North to London is of particular importance for the Northern dialect forms entering standard English).

So what about that Norman conquest?



Well, in short: the Norman army conquered England in 1066. English nobles were replaced by French ones, and Norman French as well as Parisian French became the language of rulers across England. This contact situation was in some respects similar to the situation in the Danelaw, in that French, like Old Norse, became a language of invading rulers, but the situations differ in one very important way: French never became the language of the people. The French-speaking nobility were always in a position of power, and often had to speak English in order for their subordinates to understand them. Furthermore, the French-speakers were much fewer in numbers than the Old Norse-speakers were. After French loses its influence over England, the nobility starts to shift to English altogether, and English successively regains its position as the national language of England and the process of standardisation begins.

What English gets from this period is a whole lot of vocabulary. We especially see a huge influx of French vocabulary items entering English when the nobles shifted from French to English.. These words are often relating to “higher” contexts, such as art, music, religion and government, but there are also everyday words, such as joy, entering the language as a result of this contact. The legal and “governmentary” words largely came to replace the similar words that were previously borrowed from Old Norse, but mostly the French vocabulary expanded the language so that there were more word choices (compare the French borrowing joyous to the Old Norse borrowing happy).

The influence was not only in form of individual word transfers, however. The sheer number of words that entered English caused some alteration to the grammar: for example, the French suffixes -ment and -able became productive suffixes, meaning they can now combine with any word stem, whether Germanic or French (or other), and the sounds /f/ and /v/ became “upgraded” from allophones to phonemes.

In conclusion…

Most languages do not develop in a straight line from their origin to the present day, and English is certainly no exception – it is usually estimated that 70% of the English vocabulary is loan words! Not all of these are from Old Norse and French of course, but they certainly make out the largest chunks of the borrowed vocabulary.

Is English uniquely mixed, though?
A lot of people would like to think so, but there are plenty of other languages in this melting-pot continent of Europe which have experienced intense contact during long periods of time – for example, 40% of the Swedish vocabulary is estimated to be from German. However, there is no doubt that English has been greatly affected by these conquests, which sets it apart at least from its Germanic sisters in terms of its vocabulary and grammar.

Eh: What’s the Big Deal, eh?

You may have heard the word eh being used before. Often, it’s found at the end of sentences; for example, you might hear someone say ‘nice day, eh?’. Usually, eh serves to mark a question or initiate some kind of response from the listener, though it can also be used to signal agreement or inclusiveness. We call these kinds of words ‘tag particles’ – they have no set meaning on their own but are often used for a particular communicative function.

The tag particle eh has a long history, dating back in literature to the 1600s. It has been noted across a far-ranging spread of dialects and varieties, including Scottish English, Canadian English, Guernsey English and New Zealand English, suggesting a common British origin. In each variety it shares several semantic and social functions and it is frequently associated with national identity and vernacular use. However, over time these different varieties have also developed dialect-specific uses of eh. Today we’re going to focus particularly on the use of eh in New Zealand English, where it has the shortest but nonetheless very interesting history. But first, we cannot talk about eh without briefly mentioning its prominent role in Canadian English.

Canadian English

Eh has long been recognised as a typical feature of Canadian English, and it is so prevalent and so well-known that it is often the subject of jokes or caricatures of the Canadian accent. Already in the 1970s and 80s it was being used in advertisements, indicating that this particle was becoming widespread and nationally recognised.

Canadian eh has with time become associated with national identity, and this has endowed it with the status of a purely Canadian feature, or ‘Canadianism’, despite the fact that eh also plays this role in a number of other accents. The Canadian variant is typically pronounced as the short, front, mid-high vowel [e], and has a rising intonation. The main function of eh is to mark informality and inclusiveness, as well as seek agreement from the listener. Eh has been found to be widespread across Canada geographically and socially, although it is more frequently used by the lower classes, who tend to make more use of addressee-oriented devices in general. Though it has several functions, Canadian eh is most commonly found in:

Opinions: ‘nice day, eh?’
Statements of fact: ‘it goes over there, eh’
Exclamations: ‘what a game, eh?’
and fixed expressions, such as: ‘I know, eh’ and ‘thanks, eh’.

It is also found in questions, requests for repetition, insults, accusations, and narrative functions, although the questioning and narrative function of eh is often seen by speakers as uneducated, lower class, and rural.

New Zealand English

To jump forward a few centuries to a more recently developed English accent, eh is commonly found in New Zealand English as well. New Zealand English (NZE) speakers tend to prefer eh to other possible tags, leading to its highly salient nature. As in Canadian English, eh is a well-recognised feature, and is also showing signs of growing national awareness, exemplified in its use in a nationwide advert promoting New Zealand’s national soft drink; L&P. This soft drink is an iconic feature of New Zealand, originating and being produced there, and it is partially named after the small town it was created in.

Notice that the spelling here is aye rather than eh. This is most likely because in NZE eh is realised as the diphthong [æe], as in ‘face’, with a slight palatal approximant gesture (meaning that the vowel is followed by a slight ‘y’ sound), unlike Canadian eh which is realized as [e] in IPA. New Zealand speakers generally pronounce eh with a falling intonation, which distinguishes eh from most other varieties of English who typically have a rising intonation, Canadian English included. Eh most commonly occurs at the end of sentences, but is also likely to occur mid-utterance, unlike in most other varieties. For example:

‘the phone will be non-stop eh with all the girls ringing him up and stuff’

Eh performs a number of functions in New Zealand English and tends to be used to a greater extent by working-class speakers and in informal contexts, which overlaps with the patterning we find for Canadian English. The array of semantic roles eh has acquired are both New Zealand-specific and share significant overlap with the Canadian variant. In New Zealand English its most common purpose is to signal, recheck or establish common ground with the interlocutor, but eh can also be used to checking the comprehension of information, confirm shared background knowledge or seek reassurance of the listener’s continued attention. However, question and answer sentences discourage eh, quite unlike the Canadian variant. This wide range of usage may be partially due to the historical developments it has undergone since it arrived on New Zealand’s shores. 

But where did this eh in New Zealand English come from exactly?

Whilst we cannot know for sure with the current information we have, it seems very likely that eh came from Scots, where it is still found today. Previously, the general assumption was that New Zealand English was generally derived from the English of South East England, but now we know that a surprising number of words came from the north of Britain, particularly from Scots. The use of Scottish eh, or rather e (as it is commonly transcribed), is prevalent in some Scots varieties such as Hawick Scots and also in Edinburgh. Just like New Zealand English, it too has a falling intonation, although it is pronounced [e] rather than [æe]. E typically occurs with be and have, for example:

‘he had a stroke, e?’

There are a number of significant overlaps between use of eh in NZE and use of e in Scots. E can be used to confirm shared background knowledge, which matches its usage in NZE, where eh acknowledges the shared understanding between speakers. For example:

‘we know him quite well by now, e?

Furthermore, both eh and e can also be used as a positive politeness feature to make a statement, opinion, or request less sharp and more polite. For example;

 ‘Put it down there, e’
 ‘I like Sambuca, e’

However Scots e is also noticeable in question and answer sentences, unlike NZE. For example:

‘he’s coming, e?’  
‘he isnae coming, e?’

We can see here that Scots e performs a number of functions, some of which have significant similarities with eh in NZE, and some which differ. So, if NZE eh possibly comes from e, how did it get into the accent?

Scottish e contributed to the rise of eh in New Zealand English through process of new dialect formation. Historical dialect formation is (often) the result of a number of different dialects being brought into close proximity with one another in unique, isolated circumstances. Through various processes these form a new dialect. These processes have been categorized into five distinct periods by Peter Trudgill. Initially there is reduction and accommodation between the different dialects; the most dialectal features are discarded and ‘half-way’ features are frequently chosen. The next two steps involve further levelling (so removing the strongest dialectal features) and modification through speaker convergence (speakers adapt their speech to make themselves more comprehensible). During this process one feature is chosen and becomes standardised; in this case it was eh rather than other tags that was chosen as the agreement marker. The final components to dialect formation are focussing and adoption by the wider community. These last steps are still ongoing today; use of eh is led by the youth in the NZE community.

One of the great things about the New Zealand dialect is that we actually have recordings from the very first British settlers setting foot on New Zealand soil, right up until present day NZE. These recordings, stored in what is known as the ONZE (Origins of New Zealand English) corpus (https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/nzilbb/research/onze/), have allowed researchers to see (or rather hear) these processes of dialect formation in action. In the corpus, we found that use of eh was significantly higher in the region of Otago, which historically saw a high concentration of Scottish settlers. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, the dialect from this local area has a number of Scottish-inspired features, including Scots vocabulary items and rhoticity. Furthermore, speakers with Scottish parents showed greater usage of eh, regardless of where they had settled in New Zealand. Small numbers of e were in fact present in the first wave of recordings (1860-1900), but this becomes gradually replaced by eh after 1900. So here we can see the stages of dialect formation taking off; initially e is present in the dialect, but with reduction, accommodation, and levelling, eh was chosen and has become widely adopted into everyday NZE during the last fifty years. However, this might not be the whole story.

Whilst it seems likely that eh came into NZE from Scots and pre-colonial varieties of English, the difference in pronunciation between the two is more difficult to account for. However, there is some precedent for minority language influence on New Zealand eh; various studies have found that Maori speakers, particularly males, were the most frequent users of eh. The particle eh is very similar both in pronunciation and function to the Maori tag particle (pronounced [næe]. It is possible that once eh was adopted by Maori speakers if would have been influenced by to produce a form similar in phonetic quality. The functions of eh also appear to have expanded, again through influence from .

This change in turn possibly influenced young Pakeha (non-Maori) speakers, who have shown increasing use of eh by from around 1940 onwards. This gives us the particular ‘ay-ye’ pronunciation that is now in wide circulation, as well as the new meanings associated with eh. We can see this change happening shortly after increasing numbers of Maori were migrating to the cities in search of work, bringing them into greater contact with Pakeha speakers. The New Zealand Government also practiced a policy of ‘pepper potting’- the scattering of individual Maori families among Pakeha neighbours, in an effort to prevent the Maori community from clustering together in the cities. This naturally brought the two speaker groups into closer contact with one another, allowing for cross-dialectal influence.

So it appears that eh came initially from Scots and influenced the New Zealand English dialect. It was chosen as the invariant tag of choice, and was in use within the post-colonial population in New Zealand. This tag was then adopted by Maori speakers acquiring English and influenced by their own particular tag particle, . The pronunciation changed, as well the particular uses of eh. This new form of the variant was then adopted by younger, Pakeha speakers, and is now spreading through the society, led by the youth.

But what about Canadian eh?

Again, there are similar possible links between the Scots e and Canadian eh. In 1851-61 there were several waves of British settlers to Canada, especially Scots and Irish immigrants as part of a concerted effort by the British government to populate Canada. In 1901-11 another wave of British migrants settled in Canada, particularly Scottish. In the unsettled areas of Ottawa Valley, the colonial lineage of Scottish and Irish accents remains to this day and can still be heard in the speech of some local speakers in the Ottawa basin.

So, it seems that eh could have spread via Scottish immigration during the colonial period. It concurrently underwent linguistic changes through new dialect formation to produce the form that has surfaced in several colonial countries over time. Both the New Zealand and Canadian dialects have developed their own version of eh, but it seems that the roots of this particle in both dialects stems from the same source; Scots. Pretty cool, eh?

Early Germanic Dialects: Old Norse

While on the subject of Scandinavian people who move around a lot, let’s talk Vikings!
Actually, we have to look a bit further back first: to the Age of Migrations (the first phase of which is considered to be roughly between the years 300 and 500 CE, and the second between 500 and 700 CE). During the first phase, many Germanic tribes migrated from their homeland in the north (hence the Age of Migration), but the ancestors of the speakers of Old Norse stayed fairly close to home.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around quite a bit within that area: the Danes moved out of the south of Sweden, to Zealand and the Jutland peninsula, while the Swedes stayed put and expanded their territory to central Sweden and Götland through… well, somewhat hostile efforts. What eventually became the royal house of Norway came from Sweden to the Oslo region, as reported by the Old Norse genealogical poem Ynglingatal.

However, while a lot was going on in the frozen north of the world, the world went on much as per usual – until around the mid-eighth century when the rest of the world had a… probably somewhat unpleasant surprise. We’ve reached the Viking Age.

I won’t linger too much on the Vikings; most of you probably know quite a bit about them anyway. What you may not know is that the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Vikings actually focused their attentions quite differently.

When you do think about Vikings, it is quite likely you might be thinking of the Norwegian or Danish Vikings. These are the ones that came to Britain and Ireland, and they must have been an unpleasant surprise indeed.

The first we hear (read) about the Danish Vikings is this:

Her nom Beorhtric cyning Offan dohtor Eadburge ⁊ on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu ⁊ þa se gerefa þærto rad ⁊ hie wolde drifan to þæs cynginges tune þy he nyste hwæt hie wæron ⁊ hiene mon ofslog þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton.

Which was translated by J.A. Giles in 1914 as:

This year king Bertric took to wife Eadburga, king Offa’s daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen, out of Hæretha-land [Denmark]. And then the reve [sheriff] rode to the place, and would have driven them to the king’s town, because he knew not who they were: and they there slew him. These were the first ships of Danishmen which sought the land of the English nation.
(The bold font here is, of course, our addition.)

This was written in the year 789, and it was but the first of many ‘visits’ that the Scandinavian Vikings paid England. And, of course, it didn’t stop there. In 793, Norwegian Vikings were most likely responsible for sacking the Lindisfarne monastery in northeast of England; this event may be considered to be start of the ‘true’ Viking Age.

While we all enjoy a bit of historic tidbits on the Vikings, I think we might often forget how truly terrifying these people were to those that were attacked. Some may even have believed that the Viking incursion was the fulfilment of Jeremiah 1.14: “The LORD said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land”.

To put it short and sweet: the Vikings were terrifying. Of course, they continued to plague England for a long time, and one could even (a bit weakly) argue that the Anglo-Norman Invasion was, at least partly, a Scandinavian one; the duchy of Normandy in France, of which William the Conqueror was the duke, was created by Danish Vikings, and France had actually conceded the region to the Danes in 911. Of course, by the time of the invasion in 1066, the Normans were more French than Danish, but the ancestral relationship was still recognised.

Unlike the Danes and Norwegians, the Swedish Vikings mostly left England alone and instead focused their attentions on establishing profitable trading towns on the Baltic. They seem to have been somewhat less aggressive in their travels – though don’t mistake that to mean that they weren’t aggressive at all – and could perhaps be described as piratical merchants who traded with people as far away as Constantinople and Arabia. Their principal trading routes, however, lay in what is now Russia, and some even claim that the Swedish Vikings, under the name Rus, were the founders of some major cities, such as Novgorod and Kiev (though whether this is true is somewhat unclear).

But let’s also not forget that the Vikings were more than pirates: they were great explorers. They discovered the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and ‘Vinland’ (nowadays, we know – or strongly believe – this to be some part of North America).

Anyway, eventually, the Vikings became christianized and, thanks to the conversion, the excesses of the Viking Age were moderated and eventually came to an end. With Christianity came also something else extremely important: the introduction of the pen.

Old Norse, as Orrin W. Robinson puts it, “is unique among the Germanic languages in the volume and richness of its literature” , which of course also gives us a rich insight into the language itself. I won’t be taking you through the literary genres of Old Norse here but they are certainly worth a look! Instead, I’ll do the same thing as I did with Gothic and take you through some of the features of Old Norse that make it unique (or almost) and distinctive in comparison to the other Germanic languages.

Let’s get going!

First, let’s look at some consonants.

Like Gothic, Old Norse underwent sharpening. There’s a bit of a difference in comparison to Gothic, though. As you may recall, in Gothic, the medial consonant clusters jj and ww in Proto-Germanic became ddj and ggw respectively, while in Old Norse, they both became gg clusters followed by j or v respectively. So, you’ll find consonant clusters like tveggja ‘of two’ and hoggva ‘strike’.

Unlike Gothic, Old Norse underwent rhotacism, meaning that it turned Proto-Germanic z to r, and also underwent a process known as gemination. Gemination means that if the consonants g or k were preceded by a short vowel, they doubled. So, we find Old Norse leggja ‘lay’ but Gothic lagjan.

Old Norse also had a number of ‘assimilatory’ phenomena, meaning that one sound becomes like (or identical) to an adjacent sound. These are:

[ht] becomes [tt]: Gothic þûhta ‘seemed’ corresponds Old Norse þotti

[nþ] becomes [nn]: Gothic finpan ‘find’ corresponds Old Norse finna

[ŋk] becomes [kk]: Gothic drincan ‘drink’ corresponds Old Norse drekka

[lþ] becomes [ll]: Gothic gulþ corresponds Old Norse gull

As a group, these are highly distinctive features of Old Norse.

That’s enough of consonants, I think, but let’s also have a brief look at the vowels. As you may recall, Old Norse has undergone umlaut. Actually, Old Norse underwent three varieties of umlaut: a-umlaut, i-umlaut and u-umlaut. I won’t be going through the details of umlaut here, but check out this post if you want to know more!

There are two more particularly interesting features of the Old Norse language that I’ll mention here – I’d keep going, but you’ll get sick of me.

First, the Proto-Germanic ending *-az, which was used for both masculine a-stem nouns and most strong masculine adjectives, has been preserved in Old Norse as –r. In Old Norse, you therefore find forms like armr for ‘arm’ and goðr for ‘good’.

Second, and this is a biggy: the definite article in Old Norse (in English, ‘the’) is regularly added to the end of nouns as a suffix rather than as a separated word before them. In Old High German, you find der hamar but in Old Norse, it’s expressed like this: hamarinn.

Of course, the Vikings (and their predecessors) also made use of runes, but I won’t get into that here. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, check out our previous post on runes.

Gosh, that was quite a bit, wasn’t it? I hope you didn’t get too sick of me, but it is the historic stage of my own native language after all, so I suppose I was bound to keep talking too long.

Until we meet again, dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this post on Old Norse and please join us next week as we welcome guest blogger Sarah van Eyndhoven, PhD student in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh, here at the HLC!


As before, our source for this post is Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives – a really excellent resource if you’re looking for an excellent overview of the Early Germanic Dialects. His quote above is taken from page 61 of this book.

The Old English text quoted here is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We’ve taken the quote from here and the translation from here. (While it is from 789, the listing will tell you 787.)

Early Germanic Dialects: The Gothic language

friaþwa usbeisneiga ist, sels ist:
friaþwa ni aljanoþ;
friaþwa ni flauteiþ, ni ufblesada,

Recognise that? No? What if I told you that a (somewhat modified) version of this exact thing is very popular to quote during wedding ceremonies (in fact, my husband and I had it read during ours). Still nothing? How about this:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Yes? Marvellous! This is 1 Corinthians 13:4, though nowadays, we usually say ‘love’ rather than ‘charity’ (yes, even the Bible changes throughout the centuries). But what is that weird little language we started out with? Well, that’s Gothic, our topic of the week!

Being the only East Germanic language (that we know of), it differs a bit from the rest of the Germanic languages, and in this post, I hope to highlight some of these differences and tell you a bit about the history of the language and the people who spoke it.

Let’s start there actually. Sit back, have a nice cup of tea, and let me tell you the story of the Goths.

Though less famous than the Vikings, the Goths also hailed from a Scandinavian country, the native country of half the HLC actually: Sweden! We see their influence in the names of two mainland counties: Västergötland, Östergötland, and the island Gotland! The mainland appears to be the most likely point of origin, though by the time we are first told something about the Goths, Roman and Greek sources place them along the Vistula River during the first and second century. The sixth-century historian Jordanes says that they originally came from across the sea, though, which would point to the Swedish mainland.

Why, exactly, they decided to move away from Sweden is a bit unclear, but it is sometimes suggested that it was due to population pressure. Regardless, we know that around the year A.D. 170, the Goths settled between the Don and Dniester Rivers (an area north of the Black Sea).

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Scandinavian people who moved around a lot, the Goths were a warlike people and, now, they were at the borders of the Roman Empire. Don’t think they didn’t do anything about that—in fact, they managed to force the Romans to abandon the province of Dacia, in present-day Romania, around the year 270.

From around the time of Dacia, the Goths split into two groups, the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, and they pretty much became separate, independent groups thereafter. The Ostrogoths continued to consolidate power, while the Visigoths were moving around on the edges of the Roman Empire, sometimes fighting together with their Roman allies, and sometimes fighting against them.

The Visigoths eventually became Christianized, largely thanks to the Gothic bishop Wulfila, one of the most famous Goths in history thanks to his tireless efforts to convert the Goths and also for one of the results of those efforts: the Gothic Bible. I actually talked about this in my post on Proto-Germanic as well, but what I didn’t say is that the Gothic Bible is a marvellous witness to a very different language. In fact, it is one of the major sources of our knowledge of the Gothic language and it was written primarily by Wulfila—or at least it is attributed to him. In order to translate the Bible into Gothic, though, Wulfila first had to pretty much invent a Gothic alphabet! Until this point, the Goths had written primarily in runes, like many other of the Germanic tribes, but Wulfila’s alphabet was based on the Greek one, though some Latin and Runic symbols can be seen as well:

(From Omniglot)

The two letters without any information under them were adopted for their numeric value only  and supposedly borrowed from the Greek alphabet, according to Ancient Scripts (though, I’ll admit I’m somewhat confounded myself about ᛏ, as it closely resembles the rune Tyr or Tiwaz, and so I’m more inclined to see a runic origin for this letter. That’s just a personal opinion though, and I’m not familiar enough with the ancient Greek, or the Gothic, alphabet to say anything further on the subject).

Anyway, the Gothic Bible—or the Wulfila Bible as it is sometimes called—became a primary source for our knowledge of the Gothic language. On that note, let’s look at some of the features that distinguish Gothic from the other Germanic languages!

First, let’s look at a rather characteristic feature: a large number of words in Gothic show  long [eː] where most other Germanic languages show an [aː] or [oː]. The Gothic vowel is assumed to come from Proto-Germanic, probably with the phonetic value [æː]. For example:

Old High GermanGothic

So if you’re looking at a text and you keep seeing <e>, where you would expect an <a> or <o>, you might be looking at Gothic. But that’s hardly enough to be sure, so let’s look at some other features!

Gothic also underwent a change called sharpening. While this change is also found in Old Norse, it is otherwise fairly unique to Gothic. What it means is that some instances of <gg> represent a long [gg] sound, rather than [ŋg], which we would expect in English. These sharpened sounds always show up before the consonant <w> and represent a development from Proto-Germanic <ww>. The sharpening also happens in the Proto-Germanic sequence <jj>, which becomes <ddj> in Gothic. For example:

Old High GermanGothicEnglish
(gi)triuwitriggws 'true'
zweiiotwaddje'of two'

The last of the distinctive phonological features we’ll look at is a process called rhotacism. Rhotacism is a change, which affected all the Germanic languages except Gothic, in which the Proto-Germanic z became r. What this means is that if you find a <z> where you would otherwise expect an <r>, it is starting to become very likely that you’re looking at Gothic.

Aside from phonological features, Gothic also has a couple of other distinctive features. Specifically, I want to say a little something about the verbs of Gothic, as Gothic makes use of a process that is not used in the other Germanic languages. Traditionally, the strong verb conjugation in Germanic languages is said to have seven subclasses. I won’t go through this in detail because it quickly gets a bit complicated, but the first six use some kind of vowel alternation to show tense (e.g. PDE sing-sang-sung). This is also true for the seventh subclass in most Germanic languages. But not in Gothic.

Instead, Gothic uses something known as reduplication. What this means is that the past tense of the verbs in the seventh subclass is formed by repeating the first consonant, or consonant cluster, and adding <ai> after it – that is,  háit- (meaning to call, name, order, command, invite) becomes, in its past tense, haihait!

So, if you were to study a text without knowing what language you’re looking at and you keep seeing these features—well, then, you can be quite sure that you’re looking at Gothic (also, if you were to happen to stumble across something, please tell us because we can really never have enough textual evidence… Please?).

That’s just a little bit about Gothic! I hope you enjoyed this little trip, and do check in with us again next week when we’ll continue our journey through the early Germanic dialects by taking a look at Old Norse!

See you then!


This post relies primarily on Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives. The examples used here come from this excellent resource, as well as a lot of the information.

Other resources we’ve used for this post are:

The Wulfila Project – where you can find the Gothic text of Corinthians quoted above.
The Oxford English Dictionary
The English-Old Norse Dictionary, compiled by Ross G. Arthur (2002)
Ancient Scripts – an online resource, used here for the Gothic alphabet
Glossary from Joseph Wright’s Grammar of the Gothic Language
Omniglot – where you can find some more information on the Gothic alphabet