Vikings in your vocabulary – Chris Whiteley writes:

The story or Viking hordes rampaging up and down the coastal areas of these islands is a familiar one. Less familiar perhaps is the story of Viking settlement and the existence for a long period of time of a Viking kingdom that occupied a very large part of what is now modern England. You see, having started out by making an ocean-borne nuisance of themselves, rather a lot of these Vikings (mainly Danes, as it happens) decided, not unreasonably, that they would rather like to settle here – so settle they did.

This was not an invasion as we might understand it; the Saxons already living in the north and east of England were not expelled, but rather these two populations lived alongside one another and, as is the way of things, mixed, mingled and traded.

That this was possible was due to fact that the language spoken by our Saxon ancestors was pretty much a first cousin of the Old Norse spoken by the immigrants. And it is this, and the subsequent assimilation of Viking vocabulary into the Saxon language, that provided the subject matter for the lecture, given as part of York’s Viking Festival on February 16 by Dr. Richard Dance and Dr. Sara Pons-Sanz, from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff.

The venue, York’s riverside Guildhall, was filled by a capacity crowd, of which our own modest group from the YTI made up only a small part. Richard Dance began with an illustration of just how similar the languages of the indigenous and immigrant populations were, and why (they had been next-door neighbours back in Mainland Europe, before the Saxons migrated to this island). We learned, for example, that the phrases for “Hello”, “Would you like to buy some fish?” and “Goodbye” were pretty much identical in both languages. It is not beyond the realm of imagination then, to suppose that Saxon and Viking armies, drawn up in a field somewhere and about to engage in regime-changing battle, were able to exchange more than just a few projectiles as a prelude to the main event.

The fighting however was the exception to the rule, and for the most part the two populations in the northern Danelaw (as the area under Viking rule was known) got down to the everyday business of …well, business.

Sara Pons-Sanz then took over to explain the various mechanisms by which Viking terms were incorporated into the Saxon language, including the fact that some of them were just too useful to leave out, and also the magpie-like inclination common to many other languages to appropriate the foreign and exotic.

This process is usually described as “borrowing”, but Richard Dance then returned to point out our ancestors’ failure to return the borrowed terms to their original owners, as a result of which our modern-day English is still populated with such indispensable items of vocabulary as “sky”, “they” and “gormless”. Furthermore, having originally been borrowed into north-eastern English, Viking vocabulary is over-represented in this region in the form of place names and dialect terms – terms which Richard Dance, himself a son of Yorkshire, was at pains to point out are no less a part of English for being regionally specific.

There was time afterwards for questions from the floor, and then we were once again out into the Arctic climes of York in February for a quick stroll to Café Concerto for tea and cake. As tends to happen when language professionals get together, we spent the time enjoyably swapping stories of agencies-behaving-badly, discussing changes in the industry and debating the respective qualities of various CAT software solutions. An even smaller sub-group then continued on to the York Tap at the railway station for further discussion facilitated by artisanal beer, before finally dispersing to board trains and return to our respective homes.

A fiercely cold day then, but an interesting and rewarding one, and I for one look forward to the next such event.