Norse Linguistic Invasion

The initial Viking incursions into England were violent, but they left a colorful linguistic legacy in their wake.

Victims of the onslaught, like the unfortunate monks of Lindisfarne, paid a steep price, but the Norse eventually became farmers and craftsmen like the people they initially displaced.

Their contribution to the British gene pool was small, as was their donation to the English language, but it was not insignificant.

Some of the words fit the Viking mystique. Klubba becomes club (as in the weapon, not the association). Rannsaka may have initially meant searching the house for something like your missing keys, but the English experienced it as ransack. And slatra transfers into slaughter. The original word means “to butcher,” and one wonders if it originally applied to meal preparation. It so, the decades of Norse raids modified that focus.

Other adopted words arose from the more peaceful pursuits of the Scandinavians. Bylög meant the laws of the village and became bylaw. Law itself comes from the Norse lag. Husband, skill, thrift, litmus and loan have Viking roots. Those who enjoy a great slice of beef can thank them for their “steak” as well, since steik was their term for frying meat.

The Inkling Affection for the Sagas

J.R.R. Tolkien was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He founded a society devoted to the study of Icelandic and Norse sagas called Kolbitar (Coalbiters).* C.S. Lewis joined him in the group, which preceded the development of the Inklings fellowship.

As a young student, Lewis was attracted to Norse myth and experimented with writing his contribution to the tales. He penned over 800 lines of a massive epic he entitled “Loki Bound.” Only fragments have survived, but the following passage is especially intriguing. In it, Loki criticizes Odin for the manner in which he created humanity.

Odin! And who art thou to make a soul

And force it into being? Who art thou

To bring forth men to suffer in the world

Without their own desire? Remember this,

In all the universe the harshest law,

No soul must ever die: it can but change

Its form and thro’ the myriad years

Must still drag on for aye its weary course,

Enduring dreadful things for thy caprice.

The echoes of teenaged angst are clear in this tirade. The words describe (well, I believe) the fatalistic despair of many people. Fortunately, this young man eventually encountered the One who rescues us from “harshest law” and “dreadful things” that are the lot of fallen mortals.

A Few More Norse>English Words

Here are some more of the seven score words that are identified as having a Scandinavian origin.

An interesting collection of verbs include: bark, blunder, choose, crawl, glitter, race, scare, stagger, stammer and whirl.

The following words associated with people: Guest, kid, lad, oaf, foot, leg, skin, freckles, ill, and weak.

The gamut of emotions: anger, awe, and happy.

And, without their Norse contribution, who knows what we would call these articles today.

axle   ~   window   ~   cake   ~   bag

glove   ~   mug   ~   plow   ~   link

they   ~   trust   ~   same   ~   gift

and even Hell

One final example, as quoted in the source of the comprehensive list of Norse words.

Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildr: gunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle.” Only truly [ferocious] Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle.”


*You can read a bit more about Kolbitar here. I have also mentioned Kolbitar in this column.


26 thoughts on “Norse Linguistic Invasion

    1. True. What I find interesting is the combination of the Norse contribution… the mundane and the violent. Of course, for the Vikings, violence actually was mundane… in the sense of being their ordinary, daily occupation.

  1. I just wrote a review of the Poetic Edda for Scrivener journal. In doing so I looked up some of the Old Icelandic phrases to catch their alliteration. Here’s my favourite in English “The giggling gods walked in on you riding your own brother, Freyja, and then you farted.” (Jeramy Dodds). That word, “farted,” is “frata”, and here in Loki’s taunt “rhymes” with Freyja.
    Well done.

    1. Do you have a link to your review, or doesn’t Scrivener make that available online?

      That alliteration lesson you related reminds me of how when we traveled in Europe, my wife kept finding herself unable to read aloud the signs for exits off of the autobahn… being, as they are, ausfahrts…

  2. I’m fascinated by the interesting influences of the Normans and Saxons on the English language. The Norman lords gave us French words from the kitchen (cuisine) like beef (boeuf), poultry (poulet), mutton (mouton)–dishes prepared for their tables, while the Saxon peasants gave us the words for the animals they labored over such as cow, chicken and sheep. When we studied Beowulf in high school, I loved that the word “weird” came from the Old English. One of my high school English teachers loved words, and she made us memorize the prologue in Middle English and recite it in class. I can still remember big chunks of it! :)

    1. Sounds like you had a wonderful education. Kids today graduate without ever knowing who Beowulf was…

      Well, time to head outside and work on a safe kennel space I’m building for when our new puppy is outside enjoying the sunshine… she’s a beautiful dog… from docga used for a powerful breed of canine that displaced the Germanic, Old English hund.

  3. John J Flanagan

    Mussolini ruined Italy, but for a few years he made the trains run on time. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but gosh they certainly do make dependable cars today.

    1. I’m one of those who finds the researching more enjoyable than the writing itself. (Now I am curious about the ratio between people like me and those who can hardly force themselves to invest their time in research because they are so eager to put pen to paper…)

  4. Excellent look at the Norse through language. I love the image of a mother holding a rose-faced little girl asleep in a bunting and saying, “This is Warbattle.” Norse names also tended to mean things like “Elf-counsel” and “Battle-friend”.

    1. It is a fascinating subject, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t an online community devoted to the subject… complete with teaching aids for us novices.

  5. Reblogged this on Stories & Soliloquies and commented:
    Mere Inkling offers up a fantastic overview of the Vikings linguistic legacy. It’s enjoyable and informative, but not too overwhelming – if you’re not already interested in Norse influence on the English language, you will be after reading robstroud’s post from April 14th.

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  10. I must confess that I was enthralled by the recent series “Vikings”, despite its violent and overly sexual content. The culture of the Vikings and the conflict between paganism and Christianity were fascinating.

    1. Yes, the series had some very significant positives–e.g. historical accuracy, strong character development–but it did have far too much sexual content (of the graphic ability).

      I have never had too much problem with violence that is historically accurate. (Not for kids, of course.) Raised on John Wayne heroics, I have to wonder if war films had shown more clearly some of the horrors of the real thing… we may have been more reticent to enter recent conflicts.

      Yes, the Pagan~Christian conflict is fascinating, and enlightening.

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