The Contribution Of The Vikings To The English Language

Credit: Sabio Lantz

As you can see in the chart above , the Germanic settlements in Britain can be traced back to the late 400s when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded the island.  It is an accepted fact that the West Germanic languages became the new language:  Old English (500-1100).  English literature like Caedmon’s Hymn (660s) and Beowulf (700s).  Language historians agree that approximately one percent of the English language today can be traced back to the Old English epoch.

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was a language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons—the first Germanic tribes to settle the British Isles. They were not the first inhabitants, as any Welsh or Gaelic speaker will tell you, but their language did form the basis for the Angle-ish we speak today. But then why can’t modern-day English speakers understand Old English? In terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, Old English resembles its cousins Dutch and German more than it does modern English.

The Viking invasions played an important role in the building of the English language by injecting the Old Norse words into the West Germanic languages already present in Britain.  Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300.

Why is it that Old English is almost impossible to understand to modern English speakers?  So how did English change so drastically?  The short answer is that the English language changed forever after the Norman invasion brought a new ruling class of French speakers to the British Isles in 1066. French was the language of the nobility for the next 300 years—plenty of time for lots of French words to trickle down to the merchant and peasant classes. For example, the Anglo-Saxons already had words for “sheep” and “cows”, but the Norman aristocracy—who usually only saw these animals on the plate—introduced mouton (mutton) and boeuf (beef). Today, nearly thirty percent of English words come from French.  Take another look at the graphic above and locate the period of the Norman invasions (1000s-1154).

Old English and Old Norse were closely related languages. It is therefore not surprising that many words in Old Norse look familiar to English speakers (e.g., armr (arm), fótr (foot), land (land), fullr (full), hanga (to hang), standa (to stand)). This is because both English and Old Norse stem from a Proto-Germanic mother language. In addition, numerous common, everyday Old Norse words mainly of East Norse origin were adopted into the Old English language during the Viking age.


Old Norse is the language of the Vikings.  The Old Norse noun víking meant an overseas expedition, and a vikingr was someone who went on one of these expeditions. In the popular imagination, the Vikings were essentially pirates from the fjords of Denmark and Norway who descended on medieval England like a bloodthirsty frat party; they raped, pillaged, murdered, razed villages and then sailed back across the North Sea with the loot.

But the truth is far more nuanced. The earliest Viking activity in England did consist of coastal raids in the early ninth century, but by the 870s the Danes had traded sword for plow and were settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042. However, the more successful and longer-lasting Norman conquest in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era and virtually erased Danish influence in almost all aspects of English culture but one: its effect on the development of the English language.

Traust me, þó (though) it may seem oddi at first, we er still very líkligr to use the same words as the Vikings did in our everyday speech. Þeirra (their) language evolved into the modern-day Scandinavian languages, but þeir (they) also gave English the gift of hundreds of words.

English is probably too much of a hybrid language to ever neatly classify, but its Old Norse rót is clearly there among the tangle of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin roots. The language of the Vikings may have become subdued over the centuries, but make no mistaka about it – from byrðr (birth) undtil we deyja (die)—Norse’s raw energy simmers under the surface of everything we say.

And now you know that when a humble peasant in Northern England screamed, “The Vikings are coming!” it meant that you should run for your life because pillage, torching, looting and destruction were on the way, and with it a large baggage of English words.  Some of these words are scattered in the picture above.  Good Day.

Source: The Vikings are Coming by John-Erik Jordan


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