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 – 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.

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.

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.)

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3


1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.

They, them and their(s) – the non-English pronouns

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

Today, we’re going to make an assertion that you may not like: you know the third person plural pronouns in English, i.e. they, them and their(s)?

Well (you’re gonna hate us): they aren’t English.

Okay, so that may not be exactly true. Let’s say: they weren’t English to begin with.

It’s actually a rather amazing evidence of borrowing – in this case, English borrowed from a little language called Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings.

You might be sitting at home thinking that we’re talking absolute BS right now, pronouns are rarely borrowed from other languages because they are so integral in the language’s grammar, right? (Okay, you might not have known that, but now you do!) Bear with us and let’s have a look at the same pronouns in all modern languages that we know comes from Old Norse: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish!


Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

Well, perhaps not so shockingly. After all, they all come from the same thing: the Old Norse plural pronouns.

Why, exactly, English decided to borrow these are somewhat lost in the mysteries of time. Old English, of course, already had the plural pronoun hīe, so why borrow?

Well, while we are still not sure exactly how this borrowing took place, Old English and Old Norse were in close contact for centuries in the area of densest viking settlement (the Danelaw), so forms like these were likely borrowed between the two languages to make communication easier. It might also be that the Old English plural pronoun had grown too similar to the singular pronouns (m.), hit (n.) and hēo (f.) in pronunciation that it started to become an issue. Both of these explanations are possible.

What we do know though: English borrowed a lot from Old Norse, probably more than most native-English speakers realize. As a matter of fact, some of the most common words in English are Norse in origin (for example, egg; knife; skirt; eye; sister, and so on). The nordic languages (except for Icelandic) are making up for it though and borrows extensively from English today (in Sweden, we even have commercials at bus stops using English terminology). So don’t feel bad about it, English, buuut…

Tune in next week when we’ll keep going at it with the English pronoun they – is it always a plural pronoun?

Can’t wait? Check out the etymology of they, them and their in the meantime! 

See you next week!

Is English a creole?

Hi all!

By now, I figure most of you have noticed that when a post shows up at the HLC about the development of the English language in particular, I show up. Today is no exception to the rule (though there will be some in the future)!

Anyway, it’s safe to say that England has been invaded a lot during the last couple of… well, centuries. All this invading and being invaded by non-native people had a tremendous effect on most things English, the English language among them.

This is, of course, nothing new. I’ve previously discussed the question of whether English is a Romance language, but today, we’re going to jump into something different, namely, the question of whether English is a creole.

In order to do that, I’ll first need to say a few words about what a creole actually is, and we’re going to do the basic definition here: a creole is a pidgin with native speakers.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Right, so a pidgin is a form of language that develops between two groups of people who don’t speak the same language but still needed to understand each other for one reason or another.

Typically, in the formation of a pidgin, you have a substrate language and a superstrate language. The substrate is the ‘source’ language. This language is, usually for political reasons, abandoned for the more prestigious superstrate language.

But not completely. Instead, the pidgin becomes a sort of mix, taking characteristics of both the substrate and the superstrate to create a ‘new’ language. A rather distinct characteristic of this new language is that it is typically less grammatically complex than both the sub- and the superstrate language. Another distinct characteristic is that it has no native speakers since it’s in the process of being created by native speakers of two different languages.

But, it can get native speakers. When a new generation is born to pidgin-speaking parents, and the new generation acquires the pidgin as their native tongue, the pidgin ceases to be a pidgin and becomes a creole. So, a creole is a pidgin with native speakers. Typically, a creole becomes more grammatically complex, developing into a new language that is a mix of the two languages that created the pidgin.

But enough of that. Question is: is English a creole?

Well, there are reasons to assume so:

There is a distinct difference between Old English and Middle English, the primary one being a dramatic discrepancy in grammatical complexity, with Middle English being far simpler. As we now know, this is one of the primary features of a pidgin.

There were also politically stronger languages at play during the relevant time periods that just might have affected Old English so much that it was largely abandoned in favour of the other language.

First came the Vikings…


One often thinks about murder and plunder when thinking about the Vikings, but a bunch of them settled in Britain around the 9th century (see Danelaw) and likely had almost daily contact with Old English speakers. This created the perfect environment for borrowing between the two languages.

But see, Old Norse, at least in the Danelaw area, was the politically stronger language. Some people claim that this is the cause of the extreme differences we see when Old English transitions into Middle English.

One of the main arguments for Old Norse as the superstrate is a particular borrowing that stands out. Though English borrowed plenty of words from Old Norse, for example common words like egg, knife, sky, sick, wrong, etc., it also borrowed the third person plural pronouns: they, them, their (compare Swedish de, dem, deras).

This is odd. Why, you ask? Well, pronouns are typically at what we might call the ‘core’ of a language. They are rarely borrowed because they are so ingrained in the language that there is no need to take them from another.

The borrowing of the pronouns from Old Norse implies a deep influence on the English language. Combined with all other things that English borrowed from Old Norse and the grammatical simplification of Middle English, this has led some linguists to claim that English is actually an Old Norse/Old English-based creole.  

We’ll discuss that a bit more in a sec.

After the Vikings, the Brits thought they could, you know, relax, take a deep breath, enjoy a lazy Sunday speaking English…

And then came the French…


Now, here, there’s no doubt that French was the dominant language in Britain for quite some time. The enormous amounts of lexical items that were borrowed from French indicate a period of prolonged, intense contact between the two languages and, again, the grammatical simplification of Middle English in comparison to Old English might be reason enough to claim that Middle English is a creole of Old English and Old French.

And a good number of linguists2 have, indeed, said exactly that. This is known as the Middle English creole hypothesis and it remains a debated topic (though less so than it has been historically).

‘But, Sabina,’ you might ask, ‘I thought you were going to tell me if English is a creole?!’

Well, sorry, but the fact is that I can’t. This one is every linguist (or enthusiast) for themselves. I can’t say that English is not a creole, nor can I say that it is one. What I can say is that I, personally, don’t believe it to be a creole.

And now, I’ll try to tell you why.

It is true that Middle English, and subsequently modern English, is significantly less grammatically complex than Old English. That’s a well-evidenced fact. However, that simplification was already happening before French came into the picture, and even before Old Norse.

In fact, the simplification is often attributed to a reduction of unstressed vowels to schwa (good thing Rebekah covered all of this, isn’t it?) which led to the previously complex paradigms becoming less distinct from each other. Might not have anything to do with language contact at all. Or it might.

The borrowing of Old Norse pronouns is, indeed, unusual, but not unheard of, and studies have shown that the effect of Old Norse on English may not be as significant and widespread as it was believed.

When it comes to French, while an intriguing hypothesis which is well-worth pursuing for leisurely interests, extensive borrowing is not sufficient evidence to claim that a creole has been created. Extensive borrowing occurs all the time among languages in long, intense contact.


Combined with the fact that we have evidence of grammatical simplification before both Old Norse and French came to play a significant role in English, and the trouble we stumble onto when considering the question of when English was ever a pidgin, I personally find both creolization hypotheses unlikely.

However, I encourage you to send us a message and tell us what you think: is English a creole?

Tune in next week when the marvellous Rebekah will dive into the Transatlantic accent!

Sources and references

Most famously Patricia Poussa’s work ‘The evolution of early Standard English: the creolization hypothesis’ (1982).

Most famously Charles-James N. Bailey and Karl Maroldt “The French lineage of English” (1977). The interested reader may also wish to take a look at Dalton-Puffer’s (1995) interesting discussion on the phenomenon in the chapter ‘Middle English is a creole and its opposite: On the value of plausible speculation’ of Fisiak’s (1995) book Linguistic Change Under Contact Conditions

Credits to the creators of the pictures herein used. They have been found on the following pages:



*3 Credits to James Nicoll, no URL offered since the domain has since expired.

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

Today, I’m going to talk about language families! When I say this, I believe that most of you will have, on some level, an intuitive hunch about what I mean. If we were to compare a couple of common words found in, for example, Spanish and Italian, we would find that they are often very similar or, in some cases, even identical. Take a look:

Spanish Italian English translation
vivir vivere live
boca bocca mouth
tu you

Similarly, if we were to look at Swedish, Danish and Norwegian:

Swedish Danish Norwegian English translation
leva leve leve live
mun mund munn mouth
du du du you

You see the similarities? Now, why is that, you might wonder. Well, because they are related!

In the linguistic world, related languages are languages that have so much in common that we cannot claim that it is merely due to extensive contact and/or borrowing. These languages, we say, are so similar that there can be no other reasonable explanation than that they descend from a common source: a mother language, as it were. In the case of Spanish and Italian, the mother is Latin, while in the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, the language is Old Norse.

Now, it would be convenient if it stopped there, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it doesn’t. Like any family, the mother also has a mother and other relatives, like siblings and cousins. Old Norse, for example, has its own sisters: Old High German, Old Frisian, Old English, etc., which all share the same mother: Proto-Germanic. This is the Germanic language family.

Spanish and Italian also have sisters: French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., and their common mother is Latin. This is the Romance language family, deriving from Vulgar Latin. But, of course, Latin has its own sisters, for example Umbrian and Oscan, and together with its sisters, Latin forms the Italic language family.

Does it feel a bit confusing? Well, that’s understandable and I’m going to kick it up a notch by adding that the Italic language family, with languages like Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic language family, with languages like Swedish and Danish, actually have the same mother: Proto-Indo-European (or just Indo-European).

The mother in this case is veeeery old, and we actually don’t have any kind of evidence of how it looked! Indo-European is a reconstructed language, more commonly known as a proto-language (as you may have noticed, we call the mother of the Germanic family Proto-Germanic, meaning that it is also a reconstructed language). It has never been heard, never been recorded and no one speaks it. Then how the heck do we know anything about it, right? Well, that has to do with something called the comparative method, which we’ll explain in another post.  

Like human families, language families can be represented in the form of a family tree:*

Clear? Well, hate to tell you this, but this is an extremely simplified version using only examples from these two subfamilies. The “real” Indo-European language family tree looks somewhat more like this:1

You’re kinda hating me right now, aren’t you?

As you can see by the tree above, some languages that you might never expect are actually related. Let’s take as an example Standardised Hindi and German. Here are some common words in both languages:

German Hindi English translation
Mädchen लड़की (ladakee) girl
Hallo नमस्ते (namaste) hello
Hunger भूख (bhookh) hunger

Looking at these words, it is unlikely that you would draw the conclusion that the two languages are related. Looking at the language tree, however, you can see that linguists have concluded they are. Now, you’re probably staring at your screen going “whaaaat?” but, indeed, they are both descendants of Indo-European and are therefore related.

While Indo-European is clearly a large group of languages, it is not the only one (or even the largest). Looking a bit closer at the Indo-European language family, you will notice that languages such as Mandarin and Finnish are not included. These belong to other families, in this case the Sino-Tibetan and Finno-Ugric (or Uralic, depending on your definition) language families respectively.

All in all, there are approximately 130 language families in the world today. Some are related, some are not, just like we are. The largest family is the Niger-Congo language family, having (as recorded in 2009) 1,532 languages belonging to it. (Indo-European comes in a poor 4th place with approximately 439 languages.)2

So, looking at languages is kinda like looking at your own family tree: every mother will have a mother (or father, if you want, but traditionally, linguists call them mothers and daughters). Some branches will have siblings, cousins, second cousins and so on. Some will look nothing like their relatives (or, well, little anyway) and some will be strikingly similar. That’s just the way families work, right?

So, now, we’ve reached a point where I can answer the question in the title: Is English a Romance language?

While this is a much-debated question (do a google search and see for yourself), the simple answer is: no, it’s not. At least, not to a linguist. Now, you might be sitting at home, getting more and more confused because a lot of English vocabulary can be traced back to Latin (the word ‘vocabulary’ being one of those words, actually).

But when linguists say that a language is a Romance language, we are referring to the relationship illustrated in the tree structure, i.e. the language has Latin as its mother. English, then, despite having borrowed a substantial part of its vocabulary from Latin (and later from the Latin language French), it is not in itself a daughter of Latin. English is a daughter of Proto-Germanic, thus, it is a Germanic language.

However, Latin and Proto-Germanic are both daughters of Indo-European. Latin and English are therefore clearly related, but the relationship is more like that of a beloved aunt rather than a mother (if, you know, the beloved aunt refused to recognise you as a person unless you imitated her).

At the end of the day, languages are like any other family: some relationships are strong, some are weak, some are close, some are not.

Tune in next week when Riccardo will delve into another branch of language families: constructed languages.

Notes and sources

*The structure employed here, showing languages as families in family trees, has long been criticized for simply not showing a lot of information like contact-situations, dialect continuums and when the languages were spoken. It has, however, been used to show the beginning student that some languages are related to each other and how they are related in a way that is easy and comprehensible. The Historical Linguist Channel does, however, recognise this criticism and would be happy to discuss it in a separate post or through personal communication.  

1Provided by Ancient History Encyclopedia (Published on 19th of January, 2013).

2Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: (Family index is reached through