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The Scandinavian influence on Anglo-Saxon language and culture, and its parallels with the Dutch influence on American English

Taking a break from the Songs of the Day to post one of my uni essays! This is a short essay I wrote for a first-year Sociolinguistics class.

During the period between the eight and eleventh century England was under the influence of the Vikings. Barbara Fennell marks three stages of Scandinavian attacks; raiding, settlement, and assimilation (57). The first stage started in 787 AD, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports the first Scandinavian invasions. These were followed by attacks by Norwegian Vikings on the northern coast, and Danish attacks in 835. Dennis Freeborn states that “[b]y the middle of the 9th century, large Danish armies regularly ravaged the land and began to occupy and settle permanently in parts of the country” (45). The second stage came to an end when King Alfred of Wessex managed to defeat the Danes in 878, but at the time of his death Wessex was one of the few independent parts of England; large parts in the north and east became known as the Danelaw. This was the third stage, during which many of the Danish settlers converted to Christianity and assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture. Because of this long period of attacks and settlement, the Vikings and the language they brought with them had a unique influence on the Anglo-Saxon people and the Old English language.

The changes that were brought about by the arrival of the Vikings were both social and linguistic. Freeborn mentions the introduction of Scandinavian surnames; while Anglo-Saxons used the suffix –ing to indicate ‘son of’, the Vikings introduced the suffix –son which is still prevalent in English surnames today (55). According to early Middle English records these Scandinavian surnames were mostly found in the north and east, which is to be expected around that time considering the location of the Danelaw (Crystal 26). In that same area there is also an abundance of Scandinavian place names to be found, as is evident from their endings; –by, -thorp(e), -thwaite, and –toft are all Scandinavian suffixes. The linguistic influence on Anglo-Saxon was even bigger. There was a widespread adoption of Old Norse loanwords into English. Words beginning with sk- are derived from Old Norse, as well as many common words like give, take (instead of OE niman), egg, and to be (instead of OE sindon). Crystal suggests that the loss of inflections in OE was partly due to the arrival of the Vikings; because the languages are thought to have been mutually intelligible, a pidgin-like variety emerged which simplified the elaborate use of word endings in Old English (32). This started in the north and slowly spread southward, much like the introduction of the Old Norse th- pronouns did. The Old English plural third person pronouns were hi/hie, hira/heora, and him/heom, and these were still used in the south of England—in combination with the ON pronouns—up until the fifteenth century. The presence of a large Scandinavian population caused a much earlier assimilation of the th- pronouns in the north (Freeborn 165, 177). The variation in the dialects spoken there also shows evidence of a lingering Scandinavian influence. A language known as Norn was still spoken in parts of Scotland during the seventeenth century and this has caused a distinguishable dialectal difference between the north and the rest of the country (Fennell 90). This difference includes vocabulary; in the north east of England and Scotland the word bairns is still used for Standard English children; the resemblance to Swedish barnen is easy to notice (92).

As Fennell stated, the influence of Old Norse on Old English resulted in “a linguistic fusion, which is almost without parallel in the world” (90). However, when looking at the influence of Dutch on American English there are some parallels to be found. The most obvious is the adoption of Dutch place names in the US. Dutch place names were often derived from Dutch words, or named after Dutch colonists and their towns of origin. The most well-known are Harlem and Brooklyn in New York, but Nicoline van der Sijs lists plenty of other place names; the names of the islands surrounding modern day New York (like Coney Island and Staten Island) are all derived from Dutch, and there is a Harlingen in Texas, a Holland in Michigan, and even a Groningen in Minnesota (51, 100). Similarly, Dutch surnames are quite common in the United States and there have been three American presidents with recognizably Dutch surnames; Martin Van Buren, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The wealthy American entrepreneur Cornelius Vanderbilt was also of Dutch descent, as well as actor Dick Van Dyke and guitarist Eddie Van Halen. The influence of Dutch on the American English vocabulary becomes apparent when simply looking at the title of Van der Sijs’ book; words like cookie, coleslaw, and stoop have all been derived from Dutch and are largely unique to American English. Furthermore, in line with the use of Norn in parts of Scotland, up until the nineteenth century descendants of Dutch colonists in the areas of Schenectady, Albany, and New Jersey spoke a Creole of Dutch called Low Dutch—also known as Jersey or Mohawk Dutch. Jan Noordegraaf lists the experiences of nineteenth century tourists with this phenomenon. These tourists, most of them linguists, note that the language was crude and simplified, and often hard to understand for native Dutch speakers. However, Low Dutch was characterized by its tenacity, as it was still an object of study in the early twentieth century when linguist J.D. Prince discovered a small population of Low Dutch speakers still living in New Jersey (8).

As we can see, there is a concordance between Old Norse and Dutch in relation to the English language. Both added to the vocabulary, and both Norse and Dutch place names and surnames are present in modern day English. English won out in both instances, as Old Norse assimilated into Old English and Dutch assimilated into American English. However, unlike the substantial influence that Old Norse had on the development of the English language as a whole, Dutch had no influence on the grammatical system of American English whatsoever. The population of Dutch-speaking colonists was probably too small for that to happen. Additionally, the mutual intelligibility of Old Norse and Old English, evident in their many cognate words, caused an ease in communication unparalleled in any other combination of languages. Even though the Scandinavians and their language were eventually assimilated into Anglo-Saxon language and culture, their extensive influence on the English language is unique and undeniable.

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Works cited

Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Fennell, Barbara. A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Freeborn, Dennis. From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

Noordegraaf, Jan. “Nederlands in Noord-Amerika. Over de studie van het Leeg Duits (Low Dutch)”. Trefwoord, tijdschrift voor lexicografie. 2008. Fryske Akademy. 15 March 2012. <http://www.fryske-akademy.nl/nl/fryske-akademy/utjeften/trefwoord/jaargang-2008/nederlands-in-noord-amerika/>

Van der Sijs, Nicoline. Cookies, Coleslaw, and Stoops: the influence of Dutch on the North American languages. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.