Is It English or Engelsk?—part 1

Jul 15, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in January 2013]

When it comes to matters of language and linguistics, the popular media’s “scientific” reporting typically sensationalizes studies that make outlandish (and often unsupported) claims, while ignoring other work on the same topic. In the next few posts we will look at several articles on specific Indo-European languages that have recently received much attention in the press and the blogosphere, starting with a revisionist history and classification of the English language.


In the last decade or so, renewed attention has been paid to the history of English in academic circles, leading to the publication of several new textbooks by principal academic presses. Cambridge University Press came out with A History of the English Language, edited by Richard Hogg and David Denison, as well as a much more accessible The English Language. A Historical Introduction by Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal and Philip A. Shaw. Oxford University Press countered with The Oxford History of English, edited by Lynda Mugglestone. Scholarly monographs and trade books in the field have been published in large numbers as well. Yet none of them has received as much public attention as a yet-unpublished manuscript by Jan Terje Faarlund of the University of Oslo and Joseph Emonds, visiting professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, who claim that English is a Scandinavian language. The story was originally broken by ScienceDaily, which justly characterized the claims made in the paper as “sensational”. Other media outlets in the English-speaking world, such as The Economist and Business Insider (which reposted the piece from The Economist under a different headline), were more tempered, formulating the headlines as questions or using the modal may. But Scandinavian websites as well as several English-language blogs came out with resolute headlines. ScienceNordic went so far as to illustrate their piece with a picture of prince William and Kate Middleton wearing traditional Scandinavian sweaters, and Aftenposten, a leading Norwegian daily, simply affirmed that “English is a Scandinavian language”. The title of the k2p blog post is more detailed but equally firm: “Modern English derives from Scandinavian rather than from Old English”.


Unfortunately, I have not been able to get hold of this semi-mythical paper, as it has not yet been published. According to media reports and a detailed interview with Jan Terje Faarlund, the two scholars deny the received wisdom that Modern English descends primarily from Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which was a West Germanic language, most closely related to Old Frisian.* Instead, they propose to classify (Modern) English as belonging to the Scandinavian (or North Germanic) group, together with Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese. Faarlund is cited in ScienceDaily as saying:

“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066. […] We believe it is because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.” [this latter statement is contradicted by another statement quoted from Faarlund, as we shall see below]

As a result, the authors contend, Modern English is quite different from Old English, and also from modern West Germanic languages, such as German, Dutch, Frisian, Afrikaans, and Yiddish. As is well known, many English words do not match their German (or Dutch) counterparts: compare the English die and German sterben, or the English ill and the German übel. These English words derive from Old Norse deyja and illr, which replaced the Old English words steorfan and yfel. (The Old English words did not die completely, however, but survived as starve and evil.) It is well-known that the Norse-speaking Vikings gave the English many words which they took and still use, whether that seems both odd and wrong to some fellows (the boldfaced words in this sentence are all Norse contributions). In a sentence like The guests cut the rotten cake with a knife, only the articles the and a are not traceable to Scandinavian sources.** Among Norse loanwords in English are basic kinship terms (sister, husband), body parts (leg, neck, skin), other common nouns (dirt, sky, window), adjectives (flat, loose, ugly), and verbs (drag, get, smile). Northern English dialects, spoken in areas that once constituted the Viking-dominated Danelaw, contain even more words from Old Norse, such as fell ‘hill, mountain’ (compare with Norwegian fjell) and kenning ‘knowledge’ (compare with Swedish kännedom ‘understanding, cognizance’). In northern English cities like Leeds and York, toponyms with -gate like Briggate and Kirkgate translate as ‘Bridge Street’ and ‘Church Street’, because in Scandinavian gate means ‘street’ (in contrast, in London places such as Aldgate and Newgate actually refer to former gates in the city wall).

But Faarlund and Emonds place emphasis not so much on words that have been borrowed from Old Norse but on English grammatical structures that do not exist in German or Dutch. Their claim is that “wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages—German, Dutch, Frisian—it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages”. Four examples have been cited to bear on this issue:

1) Word order: Both English and Scandinavian place the object (underlined) after the verb (boldfaced), whereas German and Dutch put the verb at the end.

English: I have read the book.

Norwegian: Jeg har lest boken.

German: Ich habe das Buch gelesen.

2) Preposition stranding: In both English and Scandinavian the preposition (boldfaced) can appear at the end of the sentence, with its related noun or pronoun (underlined) placed in the beginning.*** This structure is much more restricted in German or Dutch.

English: This we have talked about.

Norwegian: Dette har vi snakket om.


3) Split Infinitive: In both English and Scandinavian we can insert a word such as an adverb (boldfaced) between the infinitive marker to and the verb (underlined). This structure is also highly restricted in German and Dutch.

English: I promise to never do it again.

Norwegian: Jeg lover å ikke gjøre det igjen.

4) Phrasal (or “Group”) Genitive: The possessive marker in both English (‘s) and Scandinavian (s) can appear after a whole phrase like the Queen of England, not after the main word (i.e. head) of that phrase (here, Queen).

English: the Queen of England’s hat / Mom and Dad’s only child

Norwegian: Dronningen av Englands hatt / mor og fars eneste barn

Roman_Roads_in_Britannia.svg But Faarlund and Emonds go further than to simply note the similarity between the English and Scandinavian constructions: they claim that the English grammatical morphemes and structures were adopted from Scandinavian and survived to this day, while “Old English quite simply died out”. They seek further support for their theory in geography, noting that “the East Midlands region, where the spoken language later developed into Modern English, coincides almost exactly with the densely populated, southern part of the Danelaw”. Indeed, Matthew Townend provides the following description of the linguistic situation in medieval Britain in his chapter in The Oxford History of English:

“Spoken Norse appears to have been both geographically widespread and surprisingly long-lived, no doubt because it formed the first language of a substantial immigrant community. Settled Norse speakers were to be found in England from the 870s onwards, following the Viking wars of the time of King Alfred (who reigned over Wessex 871-99) and the establishment of the so-called Danelaw; that is, the area to the north and east of the old Roman road known as Watling Street […] Norse continued to be spoken in the north of England certainly into the eleventh century, and quite possibly into the twelfth in some places.”

While the influence of Norse-speaking Vikings on the English language is undeniable, there is no solid evidence for the claim that English is a Scandinavian language. The first thing to note is that by comparing Modern English with Modern German and Norwegian (which perhaps was done to get the point across to the general public), Faarlund has committed the cardinal sin of historical linguistics: examining more recent forms of language rather than the oldest available forms. A much more convincing comparison would be between Old English, Old High German, and Old Norse. Such historical investigations show the close affinity of all West Germanic languages, including both Old English and Old High German, as reflected in a number of phonological innovations, such as the development of numerous diphthongs in positions where North Germanic languages have a pure vowel and a consonant. For example, the Old Norse hoggva (and Modern Swedish hugga) correspond to the Old English verb hēawan ‘to cut, hew’ (the diphthong is also evident in the modern German hauen); similarly, Old English brēowan ‘to brew’ corresponds to Old Swedish bryggja, Modern Swedish brygga (and the diphthong is retained in German brauen). A number of lexical items also point in the same direction. According to Barber, Beal and Shaw,

“one lexical form found only in West Germanic is the word sheep (Dutch schaap, German Schaf, Old Frisian skēp), which has no known cognate elsewhere. […] the Old Norse word was fār (Old Swedish) or fǽr (Old Icelandic): the Faores are the ‘Sheep Islands’ (Old Icelandic Fǽreyjar)” [p. 90]


But could Faarlund and Emonds be correct in identifying the four syntactic structures listed above as Scandinavian loans? Curiously, R.L.G., the author of the language blog in The Economist, notes that two of the four patterns mentioned above—namely, split infinitives and preposition stranding—“are controversial in some usage circles”. While most people use these patterns in natural speech and English writers have done so for centuries, some “traditional but half-informed pedants claim that you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition”. Just how pervasive such “incorrect” structures can be is seen from the fact that a leading prescriptivist of his time Robert Lowth, who penned A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, committed the very sin of preposition stranding as he was criticizing it:

“The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs and joined the verb at the end of the Sentence … as, ‘Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with.’ … This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversations, and suits very well with the familiar style if writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.”

The long-established explanation is that prescriptivists thought that English should imitate Latin (or Ancient Greek), where such structures were impossible, but maybe, R.L.G. ruminates, they “rub some people the wrong way because they are bad Anglo-Saxon, not bad Latin”. As tempting as this explanation would be, it does not work. First, not all presumed Scandinavian grammatical imports are problematic for prescriptivists: while the Queen of England’s hat may sound strange to some people, the Queen’s of England hat is much worse. Moreover, there is nothing remotely questionable about the VO order in Modern English; in fact, if you say I have the book read, you are likely to get funny stares. But more importantly, Old English already had the seeds of all four of these constructions. For instance, preposition stranding is attested in a restricted set of contexts such as with personal pronouns (in the following example, ‘me’):

Þa wendon hi me heora bæc to
then turned they me their back to
‘Then they turned their backs on me.’



So the change from Old English to Middle (and hence, Modern) English was not in the introduction of a completely novel structure, but in a change in the range of contexts where it is possible. The Old English option of separating a personal pronoun from its preposition, as in the above example, died out soon after 1200. Around the same time, preposition stranding became possible with passives (as in ‘dealt so cruelly with’), and later extended to relative clauses (e.g. ‘the book which we have talked about’) and questions (e.g., ‘Who did you talk to?’).

In the following post, we will consider the other syntactic structures presumed to be of Nordic origin, as well as the more general issue of whether languages borrow grammar.




*The Gray-Atkinson model (see the image on the left from Bouckaert et al. 2012) incorrectly classifies Frisian as most closely related to Dutch, not to English.

**The word with existed in Old English in the form of wið meaning ‘against, opposite, toward’; this older meaning is preserved in compounds such as withhold, withdraw, withstand. The influence of the Old Norse vidh is responsible for the meaning shift in Middle English to denote association, combination, and union. In this meaning, with replaced the Old English mid ‘with’, which survives only as a prefix, as in midwife, literally ‘woman who is ‘with’’ (the mother at birth). The original sense of wife ‘woman’ (regardless of marital status) is also preserved in the expression old wives’ tale.

***When it comes to preposition stranding, one has to be careful at distinguishing true prepositions (which can be stranded) from particles (whose syntax is quite different, as evident from the humorous hypercorrection This is nonsense up with which I will not put, attributed to Winston Churchill, or alternatively to Bernard Shaw).


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