Did Old English Die Out? Or, a Brief Introduction to Late Old English

I wrote this as a response to a friend’s question and decided that, as it’s been well over a year since we updated this poor lonely blog, maybe, just maybe, I could post it here. The question was regarding this article, which reports on some research arguing that Old English couldn’t survive the presence of Old Norse, and that Middle English and then Modern English developed out of Old Norse instead. The follow-up to this was how exactly we might determine this.

First of all, a disclaimer: I haven’t read that full paper, just the summary in that link, but on instinct I don’t agree, because of everything else we know about that period. Also, the line between language and dialect – and what we actually call distinct languages – is nigh-on impossible to define, which adds another layer of difficulty here (this is my flatmate’s PhD topic, incidentally).

The background issues which I’ll try to grapple here are:

Germanic versus Scandinavian languages
The situation in England
Viking presence
The North-South divide
The West-Saxon dominance
The Norman Conquest

So, what do we mean when we talk about language families? Well, this is the traditional model, the Indo-European language family tree.

You can see on the left the Germanic family of languages which branches off into West and North Germanic. This means that at the time, Old English and Old Norse were about as close as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are now. Obviously there are problems with this tree model because it doesn’t allow for later influences such as those we’re thinking about here, like the Viking influence on English, or the Norman influence, or the later cross-pollination with other languages. If you looked at this you’d think English had almost nothing in common with French… Basically what the tree shows is how communities split off and accents and dialects became more and more distinct until they ceased to become mutually intelligible, or until the communities decided that they were speaking different languages even though they could still understand each other (see: the border between Norway and Sweden, I think).

A bit of history: at the time all this was going on, England was a bit unstable, divided up into multiple kingdoms. We divide up the dialects of OE to mirror these kingdoms even though it doesn’t really map sensibly, and leads to problems. When the Vikings settled properly they were basically given the north of the country, and given the rule of it, called the Danelaw. You can still see evidence of that in place-names (and I have another post about place-names in the works), so, for example, any settlement whose name ends in ‘-by’, such as Grimsby, is a Viking settlement, compared with the OE ‘-tun’, such as Withington. The influence is also seen in the different modern accents, and in dialect words. The North obviously came under massive influence from Old Norse, while the South was more influenced by the centre of power at the time, Winchester, and the West-Saxon dialect.

And finally we have the Norman Conquest in 1066, which resulted in a small influx of very important people who restructured everything and flooded the language with new words.

And then to answer the question about how we can conduct these kinds of studies. What evidence are they using?

lexical change [adoption of new words]: happens easily – fandom, for example, picks up new words from other languages, or new coinages, and they get introduced and become widespread incredibly easily. Think of how the OED announces new words each year (whether you like them or not).

However, some words don’t change as easily, words that we use all the time, like pronouns, conjunctions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’.

The article talks about the adoption of lots of Scandinavian words for everyday concepts for which OE words already existed. There’s a fantastic article by Roberta Frank which I recommend everyone read called ‘Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England’ which I can send to anyone who fancies it. It basically compares the Vikings to Jazz musicians – they were cool, they were sexy, the English woman all loved them. They were basically over paid, over-sexed and over here. And of course the English picked up their words. This was helped by the fact that, like British English and American, the two languages were already similar enough to be mutually intelligible. There’s a brilliant passage in the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Malden’ with a conversation between a Viking and an Englishman which has the Viking’s poems in a funny accent – the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Swedish Chef basically.

Pronunciation change: happens all the fucking time. We see different sound changes in areas of Viking settlement to the South, but then, there were different accents before the Vikings. Of course, the presence of the Vikings in the north had an influence on the pronunciation of words which is still evident today. A nice example of the accent difference between Old Norse and Old English is the <sk> <sh>/<k> <ch> sounds. For example, Modern English has ‘shell’ and ‘skull’, and ‘shirt’ and ‘skirt’. These were the same words in Germanic, but when the tribes split off the West Germanic speakers shifted towards the <sh> sound, and the North Germanic speakers went to <sk>. The Vikings brought their new pronunciations back over and they were appropriated as new words alongside the OE pronunciations. Ditto the Old Norse ‘kirk’ alongside ‘church’, although the meaning hadn’t changed here, so they were just appropriated by different groups of speakers as two words for the same thing.

Syntactic change: This seems to be the crux of the argument in this study. Syntactic change happens much less easily. These features become genetic identifiers of languages along with the high-frequency words I mentioned above. Syntax and grammar do change, but as the average speaker is much less consciously aware of them, and they’re so overarching, it’s rare. We might mimic Yoda’s sentence structure but it’s with an awareness that you’re doing something different, it doesn’t become normal usage easily. There are subtle changes – British English is being very influenced by American verb usage at the moment because of America’s cultural dominance (eg. ‘can I get…’). There’s also the addition of a new tense since the early eighteenth century: Jane Austen said “I am come to see my sister”, not “I am coming…” because the present progressive is a new thing. So syntactic changes do happen, even on a massive scale, but they don’t mean a language isn’t a language.

The few examples this paper gives give really aren’t enough to convince me, I’d have to read the full paper. But if they’re talking about the transition from Old to Middle English they’ve completely ignored the Norman influence, which ALSO resulted in loads of new vocabulary items being added, replacing pre-existing Old English words, and it ALSO resulted in syntactic changes. When two languages co-exist, and one is culturally dominant over the other the languages are going to merge and influence each other and adopt convenient things from each other’s language.

In this case the Normans were the upper class (the most well-known illustration of this is that Modern English has the words Beef and Cow, Mutton and Sheep, Pork and Pig, which are Norman (ModFrench Boeuf, mouton and porc) and OE (cū, scēap and *picga) because the French lords saw the meat on the table, while the English peasants had to farm them). The grammatical system of Old English changed – it had a very strong case system, a bit like in Latin, which meant that every word had a different ending on it which agreed with everything else in the sentence. In theory, this means the words can be put in any order, and they often were in poetry, because, like a good Christian nation, they liked to emulate Latin and adopt their rules. French speakers arriving couldn’t deal with this and had a different system, and one of them biggest shifts between Old and Middle English was the loss of the case system and the rise of a system where you know what function a word has in the sentence (e.g. subject or object) by its position. And if you read any Middle English you can’t miss how damn French it is. Seriously.

There were three written languages from 1066 onwards: English, Latin and French (or Anglo-Norman, which was basically a hybrid of the two, showing the influence they had on each other), and they were all as important as each other, Latin and French moreso in formal contexts.

Basically I would be more inclined to conclude that Old English came under massive influences from various waves of Viking settlement and then the Norman Conquest, and it’s the influence of BOTH of those languages which resulted in the weird hybrid we ended up with. Aspects of Old Norse were understandably more easily assimilated due to the similarity between the two languages. Unfortunately, we’re low on evidence for the 11th-13th centuries and very little was written that wasn’t a copy of an earlier text, but Old English texts continued to be copied completely coherently for those centuries, so obviously people still understood the language, and the texts were still understood in that form enough to warrant their being preserved. Happily, this is where my thesis comes in!

NOTE: Since writing this, it’s been pointed out to me that part of the paper’s argument is incorrect. It suggests that certain structures in Modern English are impossible in Dutch or German, but this isn’t the case – German has group genitives, for example.

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5 responses to “Did Old English Die Out? Or, a Brief Introduction to Late Old English

  1. Whoo-hoo! When I read that little newsy tidbit, I thought “that can’t be right. English is too French.” I came to this brilliant conclusion on the strength of one term of OE and one term of ME, twenty years ago, plus a passing knowledge of written French.
    So, you know, I jumped to a conclusion based largely in ignorance.
    But now I feel vindicated, so thanks!

    • The similarity with French is mostly because of the Norman influence, I just brought it up here because it was so important at that point, and its presence was just as likely to have caused the changes that article was using as evidence. The Frenchness of Modern English doesn’t necessarily mean Old English COULDN’T have died out, just that the picture’s not as simple as they made out and the changes to the spoken language don’t necessarily mean Old Norse killed off Old English…

      But yes, instinctively it does seem wrong, doesn’t it! I’m not sure if that’s just because of what we’ve taught and want to believe though… I’d need to see lots of evidence before I believed it was more than just a strong influence. Language death is a pretty bold conclusion.

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  4. It’s a long time since I studied Old (and Middle) English, and I’ve never studied Old Norse, but, having recently learnt Danish and Norwegian, I am struck by how close the grammar is to English, possibly even closer than French grammar is.
    It seems we have little written evidence, but is it not possible that the simplification of the English grammar began in the 9th and 10th centuries during the period of the Danelaw as ordinary people attempted to communicate with each other using two almost mutually intelligent languages, rather than the Norman ruling class having such problems with the structure of English that the English-speaking majority simplified it for them?

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