A linguistics professor at the University of Oslo has been making headlines with a controversial claim. He believes that English is, in fact, a Scandinavian language, placing it in the North Germanic language family rather the West Germanic family, where it has traditionally been placed.
The professor, Jan Terje Faarlund, explained his hypothesis in an interview with Science Daily:
“Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries, before the French-speaking Normans conquered the country in 1066,” says Faarlund.
This goes against the prevailing scholarly view, which is that Modern English is a direct descendant of the Old English dialects brought to England by the Angles and the Saxons, with a hefty dose of influence from Old Norse as well as from other languages like French.
Instead of merely influencing Old English as it transformed into Middle English, Faarlund believes that Old English was almost completely replaced by the Old Norse dialects carried over the sea by waves of Scandinavian invaders in the 9th and 10th centuries. According to Faarlund, the huge gulf between Old English and Middle English exists
“because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.”
As proof, Faarlund points to changes in both vocabulary and grammar. English undoubtedly borrowed a tremendous amount of words from Scandinavian languages. In many cases, even if there was already an Old English word for the same concept, the Scandinavian word is what we use today.
English also borrowed a striking amount of grammar and syntax from Old Norse. According to Faarlund and his team, in almost every instance where English sentence structure differs from that of other West Germanic languages, it is because the structure is Scandinavian in origin. According to Faarlund,
“The only reasonable explanation then is that English is in fact a Scandinavian language, and a continuation of the Norwegian-Danish language which was used in England during the Middle Ages.”
But is that the “only reasonable explanation?”
According to Sally Thomason at Language Log, the answer is “no.” She points out there have been a number of documented cases of one language borrowing both vocabulary and grammar from another language. She also notes that while Norse may have had all of the prestige in the Danelaw (because the Scandinavians were the ruling class), Old English had the numbers. She writes,
“After the period of Norse rule, when the former Danelaw was once again under English control, the available evidence indicates that Norse ceased to be spoken after just a few generations, about sixty years.”
So, perhaps you’re not reading a Scandinavian language right now after all.