Episode 51: Norse Words and a New English

During the 10th century,  the English language spoken in northern and eastern England began to change under the influence of Old Norse.  These changes resulted in a north-south linguistic divide which still exists today.  In this episode we examine how modern linguists use sound changes to identify Norse words in Modern English.  We also examine English-Norse synonyms derived from common Germanic root words.


37 thoughts on “Episode 51: Norse Words and a New English

  1. Pingback: Language history – Lesson 1 | Internet och allt

  2. In the Yorkshire dialect passage the words for empty (tom) and jump (laub) pricked my ears. They were in the smattering of Norwegian I picked up as a boy in northern Wisconsin.

    • Looking at the OED, I see the normal spelling of ‘laub’ is loup (pron. /laʊp/). It has a standard english cognate in lope (‘to run with long bounding strides’, but originally just like loup, ‘to leap, jump, spring (obs.)’)

  3. Hi Kevin,
    I just wanted to point to the fact that in German “Mut” corresponds to the original Norse meaning of “mood”.
    Once again let me thank you for your great work!
    Kindest regards,

  4. Hi Kevin,

    You refer to Norse “gang” having lost its meaning in modern times, but it still means a hallway in Norwegian. It also means walk (gange), movement (på gang, høy gang), mechanical workings (gang), gangway/gangplank (landgang), time (en gang, den gang da)

    You also say that the Viking word meant a group of men travelling together. I can’t find that meaning, not even in the Univerisity of Oslo’s Norse dictionary. I had time to look up two places, and neither had anything but the below listed.

    In a Norse dictionary online, I searched for “gang” and only found the following English translations: framganga=advance, samgangr=conflict, atganga=assault, innganga=entrance, ganga=extend, ganga=go, ganga=take place and atganga=violence. To me, they almost all have “gang” in the meaning of movement – fram=forward, sam=together and at=to. All from:

    Road, access-way, passage
    from http://www.edd.uio.no/perl/search/search.cgi
    “gang, n. Vei, Adkomst, Passage som man kan eller skal gaa, følge for at kommefrem; þó með þeim hætti, at vér hafimgöng or lopteno fram í garð þeirraþegar oss líkar DN. I, 9219; gékkhann inn einn saman, því at honumvóru göng kunnig Svarfd. 29; öll her-bergis göng eru honum í nóg kunnigMar. 4307; jvf Fm. IX, 5235; Vallalj.619; ætlaðir þú, at mér mundi kunniggöng at orrostum Fm. VI, 38722.”

    • Hi Marianne. Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. The spam filter requires me to manually approve any comment with inserted links.

      It has been a while since I prepared this episode, but I think my discussion of those Norse words was in regard to the meaning that the words had in early English. The words may have had slightly different meanings within Old Norse itself (or in some cases, the meaning may have evolved over time).

    • Just change the first wovel. Gang to gång – walk. etc., gäng – group of people etc. It is used every day in modern swedish. To find out more about swedish words and origins use the great page http://www.svenska.se //claes Stockholm

  5. I come from the midlands – formerly Mercia – my husband comes from the north east – Northumbria. We speak a sort of northern blend of English but still use different words for certain things. This podcast makes sense of so many linguistic anomalies. Thank you Kevin.

  6. It’s interesting to hear the discussion about the change in pronunciation of the K sound in Old English vs Old Norse, and then taking a look at modern Scandinavian languages which are today undergoing a similar evolution. In Swedish church is spelt ‘kyrka’ but the first k has changed sounds and is now pronounced as a sh- sound, as are many other words beginning with k.

    In some cases the roles have been reversed between English and the Scandinavian languages. Today we say a word like kilometre with a hard k, whilst the Scandinavians say it with the same soft sh- sound i mentioned before.

    • Just to add to what Matt said, speaking just for Norwegian, “K” is usally hard. E.g. “kokk” means and is pronounced like “cook”. But K becomes a fricative before the front vowells i, y, and j. E.g. “ski” is pronounced “schi” in Northern Europe. Except in Finland, where it’s “hiihtää”.

  7. I started listening to The History of English Podcast at the beginning of this year. It has become my daily fix! Wonderfully researched and put together.
    As regards to this episode (51), it’s interesting to note that “bench” is “Bank” in modern German.
    The “k” sound changing to a “ch” sound before front vowels (or “slender” vowels as I remember them when I was a student) has an exact parallel in Italian, e.g. “corto” (k) and “certo” (ch).

    • Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. The “bank/bench” connection is further explored in Episode 108. I should also note that the palatalization of the ‘k’ sound in Italian is mentioned in Episode 5.

  8. I found it interesting that the “g” sound has switched from the English y sound to the Norse G sound. In sSweden now, a g is usually pronounced as a Y. So it has switched around yet again.
    Göteborg is pronounced “yotebury” or yoteboy.
    I LOVE this podcast!!!
    Thanks for the many hours of education.

  9. [Your] history of schedule is pretty funny to me: I’m from Quebec, where there is the word ‘céduler’ – a borrowing from English, and the stiff-shirts frown on its use. The meaning is ‘to schedule,’ of course (and “schedule” is nowhere to be found in the French online dictionary Larousse, for instance ). In any event, the c pronunciation is soft, so that cédule is pronounced pretty much like you report the original English pronunciation to be. From now on, I shall make a point of using the word in French… What goes around comes around.

  10. I enjoyed this episode’s clip from “The Story of English,” which brought back memories of watching the show in the 1980s. The presenter though was not Jim Lehrer as stated, but rather his “PBS NewsHour” partner Robert MacNeil.

    Thanks for the great podcast!

  11. Around 14.30 in this podcast, you talk about “campstead,” with “camp” meaning a place for battle. I wondered whether the German word for struggle, Kampf, famous of course from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, was derived from the same source. According to https://www.dwds.de/wb/Kampf, it is indeed derived from the Latin word campus:

    “Kampf m. ‘Streit, Schlacht’, ahd. kamph (11. Jh., älter kamphheit, 8. Jh., sigikamph, 9. Jh.), mhd. kampf beruht auf einer frühen Entlehnung (vor der ahd. Lautverschiebung) von lat. campus ‘flaches Feld, Schlachtfeld’, mlat. auch ‘Kampf, Zweikampf’; vgl. mnd. nl. kamp, mnl. aengl. camp.
    Thanks as always for the wonderful podcast.

    • Yes, my understanding is that German “Kampf” meaning ‘a struggle or fight’ ultimately derives from the Latin word “campus” meaning ‘a field or battlefield.’

  12. The SK-SH root meaning “to cut” is quite prominent in Russian as well, сек (с is pronounced as s, е is pronounced ye and к is same as latin ) means to cut, one can пересекать границу (cross a border), and the word for insect насекомое, which is a calque of the word insect, shows that shared IE root plainly right there! Fascinating stuff. I absolutely love your podcast, wish I found it earlier!

  13. Enjoying it a lot. I wonder whether “saw” to cut, is related to all those other words. The French is “scier”, roughly see-ay.

    • The word “saw” isn’t related to the specific words I mentioned in this episode, but it does come from an Indo-European root word meaning ‘to cut,’ and it is cognate with many other words in English. This is the etymonline.com entry for the Indo-European root word:

      “*sek- Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to cut.” It forms all or part of: bisect; dissect; hacksaw; insect; intersect; resect; saw (n.) “cutting tool;” Saxon; scythe; secant; secateurs; sect; section; sector; sedge; segment; skin; skinflint; skinny; transect.”

  14. I don’t think the Old English linch cognate of Old Norse link has completely disappeared from Modern English. Isn’t linchpin likely using it?

  15. I am really enjoying this podcast through the coronavirus isolation time. My comment doesn’t have to do with this specific Episode, but how the podcasts have heightened my awareness of words. I love doing crosswords. Now, I am much more aware of how often, in English, there is more than one word for a particular phrase or meaning. Words might have an Old English, Old Norse, Latin, Old French, Germanic origin, but mean something the same or similar, but make their way into English. Texture for the English language and a gift for anyone who likes crosswords.

  16. It’s been a while since I left a comment, but just to say that I really enjoyed this episode, learning about all the connections with Old Norse and other IE languages.

    I wonder if the Nordic word for ‘cloud’ becoming the standard English word “sky” was due to the tendencies of the skies above England to be overcast? 😆

  17. The clip from “The Story of English” brought to my mind a very funny scene from the movie “Hot Fuzz,” where the English police go out to a rural farmstead, and the dialect of the farmer is so far removed from “proper” English they have to take a translator — who is just an old guy that speaks a slightly “better” version of English — to understand him.

    I’m really enjoying this podcast!

  18. At 39 minutes you discuss the word “skid” as originally a noun, not a verb, but it is still used as a noun by shippers and others who use or build wooden crates to ship objects, in exactly the way you describe. The wooden planks at the bottom of a crate, that support the weight, keep the contents off the (possibly wet) ground, and also allow you to slide a forklift or pallet jack between them, are still called skids. So the word has been retained as used, but the people who use it now have become more specialized.

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