Viking legacy on English language

They’re a firm part of our language and even speak to us of our national culture — but some words aren’t quite as English as we think.

Terms such as ‘law’, ‘ugly’, ‘want’ and ‘take’ are all loanwords from Old Norse, brought to these shores by the Vikings, whose attacks on England started in AD 793. In the centuries following it wasn’t just warfare and trade that the invaders gave England. Their settlement and subsequent assimilation into the country’s culture brought along the introduction of something much more permanent than the silk, spices and furs that weighed down their longboats — words.

Dr Sara Pons-Sanz in the School of English is examining these Scandinavian loanwords as part of a British Academy-funded research project — from terms that moved from Old Norse to Old English and disappeared without trace, to the words that still trip off our tongues on a daily basis.

By examining these words in context, tracking when and where they appear in surviving texts from the Old English period, Dr Pons-Sanz can research the socio-linguistic relationship between the invading and invaded cultures.

The loanwords which appear in English — such as ‘husband’ — suggest that the invaders quickly integrated with their new culture. The English language soon adopted day-to-day terms, suggesting that the cultures lived side-by-side and were soon on intimate terms. This is in marked contrast to French loanwords. Though there are many more of these terms present in the standard English language — around 1,000 Scandinavian to more than 10,000 French — they tend to refer to high culture, law, government and hunting. French continued to be the language of the Royal Court for centuries after the invasion in 1066. In contrast, Old Norse had probably completely died out in England by the 12th century, indicating total cultural assimilation by the Scandinavian invaders.

Another clear indicator of this is the type of loanwords seen in English. The majority of loanwords tend to nouns, words and adjectives, open-ended categories which are easily adapted into a language. But one of the most commonly-seen loanwords in English today is ‘they’ — a pronoun with its origins in Old Norse. Pronouns are a closed category, far more difficult to adapt into a new language, which again indicates a closeness between the two languages and cultures not present in previous or subsequent invading forces.

Dr Pons-Sanz has ‘cleaned up’ the list of loanwords thought to have come to English from Old Norse by painstakingly tracking the origins of each word. Her original texts include legal codes, homilies, charters, literary texts and inscriptions. By comparing the texts chronologically and dialectally, the introduction and integration of words can be tracked. For example, the word ‘fellow’ — which came from an Old Norse word originally meaning ‘business partner’— is first attested in East Anglia.

Dr Pons-Sanz said: “Language is constantly evolving; loanwords are being assimilated into English — and other languages — all the time. By examining the types of words that are adopted, we can gain insight into the relationships between different cultures.”

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Fake Viking swords revealed

viking-sword-ulfberht-inscription-leiden1It must have been an appalling moment when a Viking realised he had paid two cows for a fake designer sword; a clash of blade on blade in battle would have led to his sword, still sharp enough to slice through bone, shattering like glass.

“You really didn’t want to have that happen,” said Dr Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection, the London museum which has one of the best assemblies of ancient weapons in the world. He and Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, have solved a riddle that the Viking swordsmiths may have sensed but didn’t quite understand.

Some Viking swords were among the best ever made, still fearsome weapons after a millennium. The legendary swords found at Viking sites across northern Europe bear the maker’s name, Ulfberht, in raised letters at the hilt end. Puzzlingly, so do the worst ones, found in fragments on battle sites or in graves.

The Vikings would have found it impossible to tell the difference when they bought a newly forged sword: both would have looked identical, and had razor sharp blades. The difference would have only emerged in use, often fatally.

Williams began to test the Ulfberht blades when a private collector brought one into the Wallace, and found they varied wildly. The tests at the NPL have proved that the inferior swords were forged in northern Europe from locally worked iron. But the genuine ones were made from ingots of crucible steel, which the Vikings brought back from furnaces thousands of miles away in modern Afghanistan and Iran. The tests at Teddington proved the genuine Ulfberht swords had a phenomenally high carbon content, three times that of the fakes, and half again that of modern carbon steel.

The contemporary fake Ulfberhts used the best northern metal working techniques, which hardened the metal by quenching – plunging the red-hot blade into cold water. It enabled them to give the blade a keen edge, but made it fatally brittle.

In the 11th century the Russians blocked the trade route, and the supply of crucible steel ended. Evidence is emerging that the swords from burials are the fakes, or the work of less prestigious makers. The genuine Ulfberhts have mostly been found in rivers. “I don’t think these were ritual offerings,” Williams said. “They are mostly from rivers near settlement sites, and I think what you have almost certainly is some poor chap staggering home drunk, falling into the river and losing his sword. An expensive mistake.”

Their work has also proved that many of the Ulfberht swords in some of the most famous weapons collections in the world are fakes. The Wallace’s is the real McCoy, but the one brought in by the private collector which started the hunt turned out to be fake.

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VIKINGS were keen to make an impression

The Vikings are traditionally known for leaving destruction in their wake as they traveled around Europe raping, pillaging and plundering.

But Cambridge University has launched a campaign to recast them as “new men” with an interest in grooming, fashion and poetry.

Academics claim that the old stereotype is damaging, and want teenagers to be more appreciative of the Vikings’ social and cultural impact on Britain.

They say that the Norse explorers, far from being obsessed with fighting and drinking, were a largely-peaceful race who were even criticised for being too hygienic.

The university’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has published a guide revealing how much of the Vikings’ history has been misrepresented.

They did not, in fact, wear horned or winged helmets. And they appear to have been a vain race who were concerned about their appearance.

“It seems that the Vikings may not have been as hairy and dirty as is commonly imagined,” the guide says.

“A medieval chronicler, John of Wallingford, talking about the eleventh century, complained that the Danes were too clean – they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday, and changed their clothes regularly.”

The guide reveals that Norsemen were also stylish trend-setters: “Contemporaries who met individual Vikings were struck by the extreme bagginess of their trousers.

“A tenth-century Persian explorer described trousers (of Vikings in Russia) that were made of one hundred cubits of material, and a number of runestones depict warriors with flared breeches.”

The traditional view of the Vikings as “illiterate warring thugs” exaggerates considerably the reality of their life, the academics argue.

“Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.”

The guide points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary list of notable events beginning in the ninth century and running through to the twelfth, records some battles, but not for every year.

“Life can’t have been as violent as we sometimes like to imagine,” it adds.

Dr Elizabeth Rowe, a Viking expert and lecturer in Scandinavian mediaeval history at the university, said it was important that children should not picture the Norse warriors as an aggressive race, preoccupied with raping and looting.

“Many British children are quite likely to have Viking ancestry and we want to make them think about the reality of their past,” she said.

“It’s damaging to think that they were simply a violent society, and easy to undermine them as a people who have no redeeming qualities.

“The truth is that their culture was very artistic and they were keen to make an impression because they want to cultivate a certain look. They were very concerned about their appearance.”

The first burial ground of Viking origin in Britain was located only four years ago. Discoveries at the site have challenged the romanticised picture of a noble savage race, perpetuated most famously in Wagner’s operas and Hollywood films.

Archaeologists in Cumbria unearthed the remains of Viking men and women buried with copper brooches, jewellery, and riding gear as well as swords and spears.

Dr Francis Pryor, an archaeologist and regular on the Channel Four series Time Team, said the discovery had shown the Norse warriors to be part of an advanced society.

He said: “Far from the illiterate warring thugs in horned helmets who brought us to new depths of barbarism after landing by boat to sack monasteries and molest women, they were a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life and joined the property-owning classes.”

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Viking hunting outpost on Greenland

Ruins recently discovered on Greenland may mark the Vikings’ most northerly year-round hunting outpost on the icy island, a researcher said on Monday.

Knut Espen Solberg, leader of ‘The Melting Arctic’ project mapping changes in the north, said the remains uncovered in past weeks in west Greenland may also be new evidence that the climate was less chilly about 1,000 years ago than it is today.

‘We found something that most likely was a dock, made of rocks, for big ships up to 20-30 metres (60-90 ft) long,’ he told Reuters by satellite phone from a yacht off Greenland. He said further study and carbon dating were needed to pinpoint the site’s age.

Viking accounts speak of hunting stations for walrus, seals and polar bears in west Greenland. Inuit hunters also lived in the area.

‘This is the furthest north on Greenland that evidence of year-round Viking activity has been found,’ Solberg said of the finds in an area called Nuussuaq. ‘At the time the Vikings were living here it was warmer than today.’

In a Medieval warm period, trees and crops grew on parts of Greenland. The Vikings disappeared in the 14th century, coinciding with a little-understood shift to a cooler climate.

Solberg said that the expedition, linked to Norwegian climate research institutes and including an archaeologist, reckoned the dock was probably built by Vikings because the Inuit only used small kayaks and had no need for a large quay.

The team, which came upon the ruins during their expedition, also found remains of several small stone buildings nearby. Both Inuit and Vikings had similar building styles.

Christian Keller, a professor of archaeology at Oslo University, was quoted as telling the daily Aftenposten that the buildings were similar to Viking structures in west Norway but that the dock was unlike known Viking quays.

Any carbon dating placing the site between 900-1400 would make it ‘an exciting find’ from the Vikings, he said. A later date could mean it was built by European whalers in the 16th century.

Solberg said Vikings in Greenland were unlikely to have built with wood, traditionally used in Scandinavia for docks. A wooden structure would not have survived thick winter ice.

He also said that modern climate change, blamed mainly on human emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, was bringing erosion to archaeological sites on Greenland.

Warmer summers mean fewer days with ice on the sea, increasing a battering of waves on the shore, while permafrost is also thawing. Seas have also been rising, largely because of a long-term coastal subsidence unrelated to climate change.

Article retrieved from here.