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:
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.
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.