Tag Archives: Icelandic language

Viking contributions to English

There were three interesting Iceland-related events in Seattle recently and I managed to attend them all.

On January 2 a professor of linguistics spoke on “English: language of the Vikings.” The lecture notes that he distributed had a significantly different title but this label attracted a good crowd of non-academics to the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, Seattle’s original Scandinavian neighborhood.

The speaker started his talk by clarifying that his field is linguistics, not languages. Dr. Emonds had written the book with a Scandinavian language specialist but his own contribution was the analysis of language patterns.

The focus of the talk was evidence of Scandinavian languages’ influences on English as it developed from Old English to Middle English after the Norman (northern French) invasion and takeover of England in 1066. For several hundred years before that, Central England had been ruled by “Danelaw” – Viking invaders. When both communities in England were confronted by the French speaking Norman invaders, Old English melded with the language of the Danelaw area, thus forming Middle English which has since evolved into Modern English.

The surprise for the Iceland-oriented people in the audience was the speaker’s assertion that the Scandinavian language contributions came from the mainland-Scandinavian languages only. When asked, Dr. Emond stated that Icelandic and Faroese (language of the Faroe Islands) were not thought to have contributed, as they lacked some of the word order patterns that English and the mainland-Scandinavian languages share.

When I ran this idea past an Icelandic friend in Reykjavik, he disagreed that Icelandic word order differs (stranded prepositions in particular) from other old Scandinavian languages. Others have said, “Well, there have always been a lot of dialects among the Scandinavian languages.” It is hard to draw hard boundaries around language practices.

Ironically, when I noted that the titles the speaker listed as examples of Norse/Old Scandinavian literature appeared to me to be classic Icelandic titles, my Icelandic friend answered that Norwegians often claim Icelandic works as written in the Norwegian language, because of the two languages were so similar when the Icelandic Sagas were written.

Here are the seven titles Emonds listed:
Bandamanna Saga
Finnboga saga hins ramma
Gamal norsk Homiliebok
Heimskringla: Noregs konunga sögur af Snorri Sturluson
Konungs skuggsiá
Laxdæla saga.

If you know Scandinavian languages, you may say that all these titles are clearly written in Danish or Norwegian.  I am happy to agree to that: the editions that the linguistic scholars listed were.  But Njal´s Saga, Laxdalar Saga, the Saga of Finnbogi the Mighty and Snorri Sturluson (although not the title of his listed here) are all included in the authoritative Complete Sagas of the Icelanders as written in Icelandic in that country.  If you are curious about Snorri, I recommend Nancy Marie Brown´s Song of the Vikings; Snorri and the making of Norse myths.


 One of the titles listed as an example of Old Norse/ mainland Scandinavian literature:






But I am not a scholar of linguistics.  You may want to review Emonds’ and Faarlund’s ideas for yourself. The book is English: the Language of the Vikings by Joseph Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund, published by Palacky University Press, Olomouc, Czech Republic, 2014. Emonds is an American, has taught classes at numerous universities in the US, Europe and Japan and resides in England when not a visiting professor elsewhere. He enjoys talking about his work, so keep an eye out for a presentation near you.