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The Vikings: An English Teacher’s Worst Nightmare?

The Vikings: An English Teacher’s Worst Nightmare?

It is the question parents and teachers alike struggle to answer: why does English break all of its own rules? Children are seldom given satisfying answers. In fact, if modern public schools are any indication, most people simply do not know why English is such a mess because (surprise!) the Viking Age is either entirely absent from, or a mere footnote in, the curriculum. To most, English just is what it is. Therefore the following revelation may be come as a surprise to many.

If you’re an English teacher, you owe a great deal of your daily struggles to the Vikings.

Here is why:

The Vikings visited and pillaged the British Isles beginning as early as the 8th Century A.D. and continued this enriching tradition for several decades. By the mid 9th Century, however, their motives changed from plundering to conquering. They invaded a large portion of England and established a territory called The Danelaw, a period in English history that saw the laws of the Norsemen applied widely to the local population (some have even survived in remote parts to this day). This period in the 9th and 10th Centuries A.D. created a melting pot in which swathes of the invaders’ language assimilated into the proto-English language of the time, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Vikings from Norway and Denmark left their most enduring legacy in the British Isles through their language (and DNA).

In 1066 A.D., the Normans, a group of Francophone Danes (former Vikings) from a region across the channel called Normandy, conquered England under the leadership of William the Conqueror. They imposed a strict legal code called Norman Law, and imposed their own form of corrupted early French on their new subjects, which ultimately further confused things. The French language brought with it many new words and a starkly different grammatical structure. What made the Norman conquest one of the most dramatic events to shape the English language was the Normans’ recognition of the need to legitimize themselves to their subjects. This meant that they learned the local language quickly (as they had done with French), and within only a few generations a new language emerged from the mixture.

As a result of these conquests, the people of the British Isles had many words to say the same thing, and many ways to say it. The language that emerged from the Norman conquest drew upon a combination of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French. Suddenly, one could use different words with similar meanings to be more precise, or to sound more intelligent. Using pigs as an example, the words ‘pig’ and ‘swine’ originated from the Anglo-Saxon language and referred to the animal toiling on the farm, but once it was cooked and served, it was called pork, from the French ‘porc’. Other examples include chicken/poultry, deer/venison, snail/escargot, sheep/mutton, among many, many others. Because of the Normans’ station in society, Norman French words became associated with the upper class, and Anglo-Saxon words were associated with the lower class (Ex., Intelligent vs smart). That’s why fancier words in English tend to come from French roots. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

Grammatically, English experienced several major transformations in this early period. The combination of the more germanic Anglo-Saxon language and latin based French created the beginnings of all the fun grammatical exceptions school children so loathe today. Later on, there was another major change at the end of the middle ages known as the Great Vowel Shift, which is responsible for many of the spelling anomalies in the written language and pronunciation differences between similarly constructed words.

English is a tricky language because it borrows from so many sources. Therein also lies its strength: it is arguably one of the most adaptable languages in the world. Its malleability has allowed for today’s major industries to invent entirely new vocabularies to describe their creations, tech being the most obvious benefactor, with science closely behind. This too we owe, in large part, to the Vikings.

Christophe Adrien

A bestselling​ author of Viking historical fiction for young adults.

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