Wednesday 8 January 2020

The Forgotten Influence of Old Norse on The English Language

Patrik Howgate
BA Film Studies and History
Most of us go about our daily lives without thinking about what we say. We don’t stop to ponder where these words come from. To most people, this simply is of no concern to them. In primary and secondary education, the subject of etymologies of words is never mentioned, not even in passing (at least in my experience). For these reasons it is easy to see why the influence of Old Norse on the English language is often overlooked, or completely dismissed in popular discourse. However, I find the whole topic to be of great interest.

The aim of this article is simply to make the reader more language conscious, and to spur their interest and inspiration in researching this topic themselves. I am by no means an expert on the subject; I simply serve as a mouthpiece for the idea that this is a criminally underappreciated aspect of the English language.
The UK is not considered a Nordic country, and neither are any of the countries within it. This is a fair assessment, but it often leads to people neglecting the Viking influence on this country. The most common thought about the Vikings is that they were savages that raided our Anglo-Saxon coasts; raping and pillaging, killing poor defenceless monks with almost no discretion. Little credence is given to the fact that the Vikings did settle and did, over time mix and mingle with Anglo-Saxon folk. It is through this settlement that Old Norse influenced and enriched English. Of course, English has evolved a lot over the past millennium to the point that Old English is not intelligible to the Modern English speaker. This is why it is so amazing that Norse influence can still be seen prominently around us today.
In York, and Yorkshire in general this is especially potent, as many roads and streets are ‘Gates’. E.g. Skeldergate, Walmgate, Fishergate, and my personal favourite, Whip-Ma-Whop- Ma-Gate. ‘Gate’ means ‘street’ and comes from the Norse word ‘Gata’. What makes this more fascinating is that the modern Norwegian word for ‘street’ is ‘Gate’, albeit pronounced differently to English. The word ‘York’ itself also descended from the Norse word for the settlement: ‘Jórvík’. On a side note, my surname is also of Anglo-Norse origin, originating in the Yorkshire region, featuring the suffix ‘Gate’. Other place names originating from Old Norse include Grimsby, Whitby, Wetherby, Thornaby, Kirkby, and many more. ‘-by’ is an Old Norse suffix meaning village. The modern-day Norwegian word for City is simply ‘By’.
Of course, it’s not just place-names that reflect Old Norse’s influence, everyday slang has its fair share, particularly once again, in the north of England. Here’s a few examples: ‘Bairn’ = Child, compare to Modern Norwegian ‘Barn’. ‘Kirk’ = Church, compare to Modern Norwegian ‘Kirke’. I mentioned Kirkby before in places names, which, as you can now see, means Church Village. Finally, ‘Beck’ = River/Stream/Brook, compares to the Modern Norwegian ‘Bekk’ meaning Brook. There are other examples out there, but I’d be here all day listing them.
So, I hope you found this at least somewhat enlightening or interesting. Maybe now you’ll look up the origin of the name of your home town, or next time you hear a slang word, you’ll delve deep into its origins.

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