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Language Invaders:

Contact and Change

It is a generally accepted idea that one of the most important catalysts for language change is contact with other languages. Contact leads the way to a new system of communication, which, in turn, causes either one or both of the sides of the spectrum to adapt their speech to the speech of the person they are communicating with. In the early days of the English language this happened various times, most prominently during the Viking era and the period after the Norman Conquest. Consequently, the English language has been influenced by the languages of both invaders: Old Norse and French. After the Norman Conquest, French was known as the language of the invaders, of the ruling foreign power. Old Norse, however, had no such connotations, but was present in peaceful everyday life, which allowed it to alter and influence the English language in a much more profound way.

Although both languages have caused a considerable level of change in the English language, the nature of this influence differs: whereas the influence of French did not exert a profound influence than a rather limited lexical level, the contact with Old Norse caused changes in the typology of English, and has even influenced the core vocabulary of the English language. These differences in the level of influence are due to sociolinguistic differences in the status of both languages in Britain.

The influence of Old Norse is manifested not only in the typology, but also, in a most striking manner, in the vocabulary of the English language. The question of whether there has been influence of Old Norse is, according to Paul Christophersen, beyond doubt, in the areas of both vocabulary and grammar of English (5-6). Although there is only a relatively little number of Old Norse borrowings to be found in the English language, the borrowed words are found in the core vocabulary of the language, such as, for example, Modern English call, cast, fellow, gape, happy, hit, husband, ill, leg, loose, low, sister, skill, skin, sky, take, weak, window, and wrong (Christophersen 6). Most striking is that these words include terms that are part of most commonly used, such as words for family relations and the body.

However, the influence of Old Norse is not limited to vocabulary: the language also caused change in English typology, most prominently in the area of inflection. It seems that, under the influence of Norse, inflectional endings were simplified and grammatical gender was lost. It is, however, most likely that these changes were not only a direct result of the Norse influence, but also a result of the grammatically unstable situation due to language contact (Gramley 54). Due to this unstable condition Old Norse would not have directly influenced the typology of English, but rather hastened the already ongoing processes of simplification and levelling of inflectional endings.

The influence of Old Norse is also found in the third person plural pronoun system which began with (Gramley 55). Change would be most prominent in the North, where the Norse invaders settled most densely, and slowly spread southwards (Gramley 55; Christophersen 6). This is why it can be concluded that contact with Old Norse was the cause of these changes.

Contrastively, the influence of French on the English language is purely lexical. English absorbed a great number of Anglo-French terms, and often extended their semantic range. The syntactical patters of French, however, were not adopted (Rothwell 551). The nature of French borrowings reflected the areas where French was most influential, particularly in the fields of religion, law and administration, learning, and the military. French loan-words include, for example, baptist, prophet, dame, sire, prince, treasure, and hostages (Gramley 87). Rothwell states that, especially in the case of legal terms, there simply were no English equivalents to the French borrowings (542).

The rather deep influence of Old Norse on the English language can be attributed to the status of Old Norse in Britain: Old Norse had no connotations of power or prestige, but rather was present in everyday life, and spoken by common people. According to Gramley, Norse and English people “lived close together, and there was probably a fair amount of intermarriage”. Gramley concludes that because of this there must “have been a fair amount of bilingualism” (51). Moreover, according to Christophersen, the adaptation of Norse forms for common, everyday words signals “close social contact between the two peoples” (6). The result of this is that through this extensive contact the English language adopted forms from Old Norse.

That French lexical borrowing terms can mainly be found in the vocabulary of higher social functions indicates that French had a higher social status than the vernacular. Gramley argues that the influence of Norman French was “generally confined to the higher classes” (68). The new leaders (both politically and religiously) were largely of French origin (Gramley 68-9). This meant that native English terms would still be used for everyday occupations. Examples of this are the words baker, smith, weaver, shepherd, and so on (Gramley 86). This is an indication that French was a language of prestige rather than a language of the lower social classes.

Sociolinguistic differences in the nature of influence of French and Old Norse can be explained by the role that the languages had in Britain. According to Bertacca, the proliferation of contact differs “depending especially on social conditions”. Other important aspects are the “length and intensity of contact” and the attitude that native speakers adopt toward the different linguistic system (21). In this light it can be concluded that the influence of Old Norse has resulted in a more profound change in the English language due to the close interaction between the speakers and the high intensity of the contact. The fact that French has only influenced highly specialised language in England, such as terminology in the field of law and religion, indicates that here the intensity of the contact was relatively low. Moreover, because French was the language of the elite, it did not make its way into the everyday speech of the common people, resulting in a rather limited, purely lexical influence on the English language.

by Marlene Cammeraat



Works Cited


Bertacca, Antonio. “Contact vs. Internal Dy-namics in the Typological Shift of English”. Linguistica e Filologia. 25 (2007): 21-39. Print.

Christophersen, Paul. “The Germanic Heritage”. English Today. 6.3 (1990):3-7. Print.

Gramley, Stephan. The History of English: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Rothwell, W. “English and French in England after 1362”. English Studies. 82.6 (2001): 539-559. Print.