English – a Scandinavian language?

According to an article I came across today, researchers at the University of Oslo believe that English is descended from Old Norse and not from Old English as it is closer in terms of grammar to the modern Scandinavian languages than to the West Germanic languages such as Dutch and German. They say that Old English or Anglo-Saxon is very different from modern English, and believe that Old English died out while Old Norse developed into modern English, with influence from Old English, which is the opposite to the standard model. English grammar and word order certainly has changed a lot over time.

I’m not sure how they came to these conclusions, but I am sceptical. There certainly was Old Norse influence on the dialects spoken in areas of Norse settlement, such as the north of England, and I’ve heard that north eastern varieties of English, such as Geordie, are phonologically similar to Danish.

13 thoughts on “English – a Scandinavian language?

  1. Well, for what it’s worth, the Scandinavian languages (particularly Norwegian) are considered to be the easiest second languages in the world for native English speakers to learn, partially because of how much grammar and syntax they have in common.


  2. Simon – what’s your thoughts on he theory outlined in Michael Harper ‘The History of Britain Revealed’ that English was indigenous to England, or south east England, at the time of the Roman invasion?

    The theory is that Cesar said that the people in that part o Britian (Kent) were Belgae, like their brothers across the Channel. The accepted theory is that the Belgae were a Celtic tribe but he authors of the THB conclude that there were ‘Germanic’ (as the Flemish are today) and that their language was English. The theory then assumes that these English speakers were conquered by the Romans and then conquered by the Anglo-Saxons who spoke a different (albeit, related language).

    Anglo-Saxon, being the language of the conquering class became the state language and language of literature and authority (as Latin had been before it) with English continued to be spoken by the underclass.

    With the demise of this small Anglo-Saxon overclass by the Normans, Anglo-Saxon loses ground at a fantastic pace with us within two centuries (generations) seeing a very different language, what is today called English.

    That is, the underclass spoke English for centuries but that the ruling class spoke Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Norman.



  3. Angles, Saxons and Jutes all came from the very north of Germany. So just based on Geography we’d guess that they spoke Northern dialects. These days North Germany shares a border with Denmark.

    And it is true that we’re SVO along with Swedish, but German and Dutch are SOV. How long does that kind of change take?

    I’ve been aware that modern English is more like modern Swedish than modern German or Dutch for years, just never put two and two together.

    What would constitute evidence in deciding this question? What would be considered proof?

  4. German and Dutch are SVO, or quite often OVS. This applies to main clauses.

    In subordinate clauses, the verb comes at the very end – not just SOV, but S-O-absolutely everything else-V. In compound verbs, infinitives and participles also go to the end of the clause.

    It’s a lot more complicated than the Norwegian journo makes out. The points about split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition, on the other hand, are well made. We need to read the aricle by the researchers themselves.

  5. I am Dutch, know English pretty well, and am learning Swedish at the moment. Knowing Dutch and English sure helps! But although some Swedish pronunciation is not unlike English, I think the Swedish grammar (especially word order) is closer to Dutch than to English. We’re just a few lessons into the course, so there is still a lot to learn.

    Swedish (and Danish and modern Norse) are relatively young languages – a few hundred years or so? I know nothing about the old Norse language so can’t comment on that.

  6. I understand how someone could come to this conclusion, given that some of our most basic words are from Norse (e.g. ‘they’ ‘give’ ‘take’ to name a few). However, I’d say that some basic phonological and grammatical features argue in favor of classifying modern English as derived from Anglo-Saxon – the palatalization of ‘c’ for example, the loss of person in the plural of verbs, the position of the definite article etc.

  7. It reminds me of John McWorther’s book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English”, where he defends the idea that English is essentially a creole comming from the contact between Old Norse and Old English. If I remember correctly, one of the argument is that only the common grammatical structures survived (like the ‘s for genitive, but not the other case endings, whitch where different in both languages.)

  8. Macsen – it’s possible that a Germanic language was spoken in south east Britain before the arrival of the Romans, but what language it was and whether it developed into English is hard to be say.

  9. The article is very convincing indeed, apart from the large number of scadinavian words, the grammar and word order have so much in common woth norwegian, and differs so much from German, that I do agree with the professors.

  10. The Angles and Saxons did indeed come from northern Germany and southern Denmark, and had related Norse languages– In fact, the combined Anglo-Saxon, also referred to as Old English (Englisc) used in the epic poem “Beowulf” is written in a language that is clearly a Norse language, and has much more in common with modern Faroese and Icelandic than southern Germanic languages. The influence of Latin and Norman French, as well as some Celtic influences, gave rise of drastic changes that led to what would be Middle English (Chaucerien English, if you will– It’s readable, in a quirky way, to modern English-speaking readers, but had a more profoundly-Germanic pronunciation that would render it unintelligible to most, today), yet by the time of the first Queen Elizabeth, another sharp pronunciation change (which I haven’t ascertained what would’ve caused, yet) led to a much more intelligible language with many similarities to how we speak English today. This makes English, as we understand it, effectively only around 500 years old– From there, we can track its evolution relatively easily, leaving it not all that unrealistic to say that English as we know it will become unintelligible to us within 2-3 centuries, at most– Language is not a stagnant form of communication- It never has been, and never will be, much to the consternation of linguistic purists!

    I would agree with the assessment, in conclusion, that yes, English is indeed a modern, though highly-evolved, Scandinavian language.


  11. Historic fact:
    Less than three weeks after Stamford Bridge battle at 25 September 1066,
    on 14 October, at the Battle of Hastings, beginning the Norman Conquest of England.

    It suggests that the Old Norse and Old English language, before 1066 AD, was like.

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