Could English Be A North Germanic (Scandinavian) Language?

The English language as we know it today is descended from Old English, a Germanic language which was brought by the Angles and Saxons during the Early Middle Ages in Britain, hence being alternatively known as Anglo-Saxon.

In the wake of the Anglo-Saxon settlement, the Norse incursions, and the Norman conquest after the Battle of Hastings (1066), the English language expanded its lexis by incorporating a consistent Scandinavian influence.

Thus, English became quite an eclectic language, absorbing many lexicons within the one of its own. Although English is regarded by mainstream linguists as a West Germanic language (part of this linguistic sub-branch alongside German, Dutch, or the Frisian languages), some academicians make a stunning claim instead, namely that English is, in fact, a North Germanic language.

2D pie chart depicting word origins in the English language. The proportion of Germanic words also includes a considerable amount from Old Norse. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A study made by two professors at the University of Oslo concluded that English pertains, at least according to their research, to the North Germanic sub-branch, rather than to the West Germanic one. They claim the fact that there are many words of Scandinavian origin in the English lexis, quite too many to have actually been mere loanwords.

While it goes without saying that words such as ‘ski’ or ‘ombudsman’ are recent loanwords stemming from Norwegian, from here to ‘them’, ‘their’, ‘anger’, ‘want’, ‘take’ or ‘sale’ (just to name a few of them) is indeed an evident discrepancy (given that these words are derived from Old Norse).

The two professors at the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Jan Terje Faarlund and the American Joseph Emmonds, a visiting Professor from the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, conducted extensive research on the matter and claimed additional facts. While grammar is concerned, the two researchers reasoned that the syntax and word order in English differs very much from the syntaxes of the other West Germanic languages and is very similar to the syntaxes of the North Germanic languages (i.e. Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Elfdalian).

Many words of Scandinavian origin can be used in everyday conversations in English, with their total number amounting to as much as 5,000. Consequently, between 20 to 60 common English words of Old Norse origin can be used in a daily conversation. As such, one can conclude that history does greatly influence the development of a certain language.

From the Anglo-Saxons who had brought the Old English language from northern present-day Germany and southern Jutland, to the tumultuous Viking Age and Danelaw’s emergence, and then once more with the arrival of the Normans, English was indeed shaped in a very unique and original way, with many lexical influences stemming from the Old Norse language and its dialects.

Nonetheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean that being visibly influenced by Old Norse English can be classified as a North Germanic language, and so the recent theories or premises that surround this matter seem quite inaccurate to the vast majority of the scholars. In the end, such claims are more or less contradictory and may potentially trigger heated debates amongst scholars and mere unspecialised people alike.

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4 Responses to Could English Be A North Germanic (Scandinavian) Language?

  1. Laurence Hallewell says:

    Scandinavian postpones its definite article, English does not. Scandinavian does not conjugate finite verbs for person and number. English still does, even if to a very limited degree. English keeps initial W, Scandinavian elides it, cf. Wodin, word, etc. When English has West Germanic, Scandinavian and French alternatives (great/little, big/small, grand/petty) the English is used affectively (i.e. with emotional impact), the Scandinavian solely in a literal sense, and the French to denote status, particularly legal status. When push comes to shove any truely English thought can be uttered using only English words, but you just cannot say anything with Scandinavian, French or Latin words unhelped with English ones. A Danish friend of mine travelling from the Hook to Harwich met a group of people speaking strangely. He took their language for a Geordie, but later learned it was Frisian. He would never have mistaken //////english for a Scandinavian dialect.

  2. Kelly says:

    The Normans didn’t speak Norse, or any other Germanic language. They spoke French, and are the main reason why English has so many words of French origin in its vocabulary.

  3. SM says:

    English is a North Sea Germanic language (formerly called “Ingvaeonic”). This is a group of closely related languages that consists of English, Friesian, and Jutlandish (officially a dialect of Danish). Of these, English and Friesian are commonly classified as West Germanic and Jutlandish is commonly classified as North Germanic. These classifications are incorrect.

    The Jutes, Angles and Saxons that settled in Britain came out of the Jutland, Schleswig and Holstein regions of Denmark and Germany. The Anglo-Saxon language (Old Enlish) actually originated in a part of Denmark. The direct descendants of that language today are Jutlandish and Friesian.

    Does that make English North Germanic? Certainly not. Danish, as spoken on Zealand, is not Ingvaeonic. It has none of the Ingvaeonic markers. It was the Zealanders that were historically called the Danes – not the Jutes, Angles, or Saxons. The Danish dialect on Zealand is closer to Swedish and Norwegian, even closer to Icelandic, than to the Danish dialect on Jutland, speaking in historical terms.

    The reality is that there are FOUR groups of Germanic languages, not three: North Germanic, West Germanic, East Germanic and North Sea Germanic. English is a North Sea Germanic language.

    The North Sea Germanic languages have many shared features with North Germanic that are not found in West Germanic languages. That is why English has features of North Germanic that makes some linguists postulate that it is “Scandinavian”.

    Classifying English as West Germanic is incorrect, as is classifying Jutlandish as North Germanic. Still, that is the “official” grouping today.

    When we classify Germanic languages into only three groups, English are falsely grouped with German and Dutch. This does not make English “Scandinavian”.

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