Episode 42: Beowulf and Other Viking Ancestors

The Viking-era states of Denmark, Sweden and Norway emerged from several North Germanic tribes in Scandinavia.  These tribes also included the Geats who were prominently featured in Beowulf.  In this episode, we explore the early history of these tribes and discuss the historical context of Beowulf.  We also explore how the Old Norse language of the Vikings impacted the Old English language of the Anglo-Saxons.


Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

10 thoughts on “Episode 42: Beowulf and Other Viking Ancestors

  1. hi, first, your podcast is a unique one, u did an awesome job.
    i cannot think about some other audio source in this field comparable to your podcast.

    now, perhaps the name beowulf is actually based on a much older usage of a totem name when you do not promounce the actual name of the worshipped aninal. for example, the modern russian name for a bear literally means the one who eats honey., while the original name for the animal was Rus which resembles ursus and etc.

    anyway great job and thanks a lot again

    • I didn’t know that Russian also had a bear euphemism; great insight! Germanic languages have a similar etymology: from what I gather, “bear” comes from the Proto-Germanic “*bʰer-,” meaning “brown;” this word departs from the PIE root for bear, “*h₂ŕ̥tḱos” (becoming “arktos” and “ursus” in Greek and Latin, respectively).

      While the “brown/*bʰer-” root remains disputed by some (who usually connect the root instead to PIE’s “*ǵʰwer-,” meaning “wild animal”), I favor it; sociolinguistically, calling bears “the brown ones” could point to the “*h₂ŕ̥tḱos” root becoming taboo. In other words, saying the true word for bear could summon the animal and its wrath.

      This explanation goes well with one of my favorite words in Latin: lupus. The root comes from an Oscan-Umbrian language, eventually from Proto-Italic *lukʷos, itself a metathesis of Proto-Indo-European *wĺ̥kʷos. Osco-Umbrian regularly changes Proto-Indo-European */kʷ/ into /p/, which indicates that the word was borrowed rather than directly inherited from Proto-Italic. Really, the Latin word should render as something like “quulquus,” but I like to presume that the use of “lupus” instead comes from another instance of naming taboos.

    • The Oxford English Dictionary says that ‘schooner’ is “of uncertain origin.” So there is no clearly established link to the word ‘ship.’ The word is found in other Western European languages, but those versions appear to be loanwords from English.

      • Just wanted to let you know Kevin that I found your History of English podcast about a week ago and, believe me, I am absolutely hooked. Thank you so so much for your wonderful work. I am fascinated by the history of the English language and am learning so much.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    I love your podcast and share it with my HS students all the time. What a fascinating resource. The maps are amazing too! I actually first heard about your podcast from a student. We’d love to know what sparked your interest in this subject! Thank you

  3. You mention at around 30:00 that the word ‘horse’ is not believed to be of PIE-origin. This is intriguing for 2 reasons:
    1. Horses were one of the main sources of dominance for PIE tribes and usually the reason a language borrows words is that the other language is the source of that item or that the other language was dominant in that field. If the native Norwegians were more proficient in horses then how did the Germanic tribes become dominant there?
    2. Earlier, you mentioned the transformation of a ‘k’ sound into an ‘h’ sound in Germanic languages. Given this linguistic evolution, couldn’t it be plausible that ‘equus’ evolved into ‘horse’ through this process?

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