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Review of  English: The Language of the Vikings

Reviewer: Bev Thurber
Book Title: English: The Language of the Vikings
Book Author: Joseph E. Emonds Jan Terje Faarlund
Publisher: Department of English and American Studies, Palacky University, Olomouc
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Genetic Classification
Subject Language(s): Dutch
English, Middle
English, Old
Norse, Old
Language Family(ies): Germanic
North Germanic
West Germanic
North Sea Germanic
Issue Number: 26.3512

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The hypothesis presented in this book is that Modern English is, syntactically at least, a descendant of Norse rather than Old English. The authors use syntactic evidence from different periods of English and various Scandinavian languages to show that Middle English is more similar to North Germanic than to West Germanic. The book is available as a free download at

The book begins with acknowledgments and biographical sketches of the authors followed by a Preface by Ludmila Veselovská, the editor of the series. Veselovská explains that this book is Volume 3 of “Olomouc Modern Language Monographs,” a series published with the intention “to bring the level and scope of linguistic research produced in the Czech Republic back to the internationally recognized standard achieved in our First Republic” (15).

Following that material is the book's Introduction, in which the authors provide an overview of their argument. They summarize background material for their main question, “Are Old and Middle English simply different diachronic stages of a single language, or are they two closely related languages that in fact have separate historical sources?” (17). The authors point out that “[a]ny settled community of Germanic speakers that constituted a significant part of England's population has considered its language to be English” (21). This point becomes important later, in the discussion of whether the Norse living in England spoke English or a Scandinavian language.

Chapter One, “The Germanic Language(s) of England,” discusses the linguistic situation in England around the time of the Norman conquest. It contrasts the language of Wessex (Old English) with the languages of the Danelaw (Norse, a North Germanic language that gradually became anglicized, and a dialect of Old English). The chapter ends with a description of how the Norman conquest functioned as a catalyst for the linguistic interactions that resulted in “Anglicized Norse,” a term the authors introduce as a synonym for the twelfth- and thirteenth-century East Midlands dialect of Middle English (34).

Chapter Two, “The Middle English Lexicon: Cultural Integration Creates Anglicized Norse,” is about how words were brought from Old English into the Norse spoken in the Danelaw. This process resulted in what the authors call “Anglicized Norse,” which was essentially Norse with the addition of numerous lexical items from Old English. A key part of the argument in this chapter is that approximately half of the words that survive into Middle English have cognates in both Old English and Old Norse, making it difficult to tell which language they derive from (54--55).

Chapter Three, “Norse Properties of Middle English Syntax Lacking in Old English” is, at 37 pages, the longest chapter in the book. This is the chapter in which the authors lay out most of the evidence for their hypothesis. They begin by asking a series of questions about English syntax with answers that differ forNorth and West Germanic. As the chapter continues, they provide Middle English examples that show that all of these questions are answered in favor of North Germanic. The North Germanic properties described are changes in verb phrase word order, post-verbal particles (used instead of verbal prefixes), subject-to-subject and subject-to-object raising, periphrastic auxiliary verbs, the use of infinitival clauses as predicate attributes, and preposition stranding and sluicing. The common thread among these features is that they appear “to be North Germanic innovations, whose West Germanic (Old English) counterparts are closer to the presumed grammar of Indo-European” (97). That English took part in such innovations is taken as evidence for its North Germanic character. To strengthen their argument, the authors add that Middle English has “essentially no Old English characteristics not shared by Norse” (61).

Chapter Four, “Split Infinitives and the Category of to,” shows how Middle English follows the development of “to” as an infinitive marker in North rather than West Germanic. This chapter, in contrast to the previous one, describes a situation in which English did not participate in what appears to be a West Germanic innovation: “this kind of preposition became a proclitic or prefix adjacent to the verb” (98). The result of this is that split infinitives were disallowed in West Germanic, including Old English. However, split infinitives occur in Gothic and Old Norse (98--99). Split infinitives have been used in English since at least the fourteenth century (106). Therefore, the authors argue, ability to split infinitives is a feature of North, rather than West, Germanic that Middle English shares.

Chapter Five, “Morpho-syntactic Properties of Old English Lacking in Old Scandinavian and Middle English,” describes a set of properties of Old English that were lost in Middle English. These properties “were indisputably absent or already disappearing in Norse” (108). The position of the verb in a sentence is allotted the most space in the chapter. Relativizers, subjunctives, reflexives, and correlative adverbs are also discussed.

Chapter Six, “Innovations Shared between English and Mainland Scandinavian,” covers seven innovations common to North Germanic and English that West Germanic did not participate in. These are the cliticization of the genitive suffix, the spread of object forms of pronouns to non-object positions (as in “John is better qualified than them” (119)), the use of “more” and “most” to create the comparative and superlative forms of long adjectives, parasitic gaps (as in “that book I returned without having read,” where “it” is missing after “read” (123)), variable tag questions (“...isn't it” vs. German “...nicht wahr?” (124--125), the loss of nominal inflections (accompanied by changes in word order), and the appearance of analytic indirect objects, which were marked by neither case ending nor preposition. The authors conclude that all the syntactic evidence shows that, “by the criterion of syntactic descent (11), Middle and Modern English are indisputably North Germanic” (131).

Chapter Seven, “The Hybrid Grammatical Lexicon of Middle English,” moves away from syntax by describing the sources of lexical items. The lexicon is a mix of forms deriving from Old English and from Norse, and a large number of forms (approximately half of the open class items) come from one of a pair of cognates that are so similar that it is impossible to determine which language these items derive from. The authors claim that the lexical evidence is inconclusive and, therefore, another source of evidence must be used to determine which language was the ancestor of Middle English. They suggest that syntax is the appropriate source (147).

Chapter Eight, “The Sparse Inflection of Middle and Modern English,” provides more details of the loss of inflections first discussed in Chapter Six. The authors conclude that the sparsity of inflection common to English and Scandinavian is not an important source of evidence for their syntax-centered argument (153).

The book ends with a brief conclusion (“The Immigrants' Language Lives On”) followed by an appendix on “Three Phonological Factors Suggestive of a Norse Source for Middle English,” several lists of references, two indexes, and a brief summary of the book. The appendix is the only part of the book that touches on phonology. In its three pages, it addresses palatalization in pre-vocalic velars, which occurred in Old English but not Norse, resulting in the difference between “shirt” and “skirt,” English's loss of low off-glides, which Norse never had, and reductions in vowel-length contrasts, which occurred in English and across North Germanic.


Discussions of the influence of Norse on Old English are not uncommon; one recent example is McWhorter (2004). McWhorter writes, “Generally, discussion of the Scandinavian impact on English is largely restricted to transfer effects: sound changes and lexical borrowings. I have attempted to add possible structural transfers to the relevant discussion” (259). While McWhorter focuses on what English lost, Emonds and Faarlund focus primarily on what English gained. They make a case that, syntactically, Middle English is more similar to the Scandinavian languages than to Old English, taking the discussion of the relationship between the languages one step further with their hypothesis that Norse, not Old English, was the direct ancestor of Modern English.

This book paves the way for a broader discussion of the relationship between English and Norse. The authors' hypothesis suggests that the Germanic family tree has been drawn incorrectly for many years; according to it, Modern English should be a descendant of North Germanic rather than West Germanic. The assumption that this tree is drawn correctly lies behind other discussions of the history of English, making discussions of Norse influences on English like the ones McWhorter describes the standard. Some of the problems in the transition from Old to Middle English can be solved by simply explaining that Old English was not the direct ancestor of Middle English at all; rather, it contributed as Middle English descended from Norse. This explanation requires English to have undergone “essentially no grammatical changes other than those initiated on the Mainland” rather than many changes (44).

A few minor points detract from the book's overall argument. Some of the Modern English examples, such as some of the ones on page 97, sound a bit off to me as a native speaker of English. The use of Wikipedia and the BBC (e.g., page 53, on which both are cited in one footnote) as sources of historical information is somewhat less than ideal. And, while there may be an excellent reason, the authors do not explain why they chose to use older editions of Old Norse texts by such luminaries as Finnur Jónsson instead of the newer Íslenzk fornrit editions. But these are minor issues that do not affect the importance of the hypothesis or its supporting evidence.

Overall, the book makes a good argument for English's descent from North rather than West Germanic. If accepted, this hypothesis will have a significant impact on how the history of the English language is presented. All of the standard books on the subject will have to be revised, and courses will have to be restructured. Like all good hypotheses, the one behind this study leads to more questions. Some of these questions concern the descent of English, but others address broader issues in historical linguistics: What criteria should be used to classify languages? What happens if the evidence is conflicting?


McWhorter, John. 2004. What happened to English? Diachronica 19(2). 217–272.
Bev Thurber is an assistant professor at Shimer College who is interested in Germanic linguistics, especially Old English and Old Norse, and the early history of ice skating.