IS IT ENGLISH OR ENGELSK?

GeoCurrents during late 2012 has been publishing on the origins of Indo-European languages, a highly interesting subject but also controversial. On January 6, 2013, an article was published introducing an yet unpublished manuscript by Jan Terje Faarlund of the University of Oslo and Joseph Emonds, visiting professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, who claim that English is a Scandinavian language. Excerpts below:

The story was originally broken by ScienceDaily, which justly characterized the claims made in the paper as “sensational”. Other media outlets in the English-speaking world, such as The Economist and Business Insider (which reposted the piece from The Economist under a different headline), were more tempered, formulating the headlines as questions or using the modal may. But Scandinavian websites as well as several English-language blogs came out with resolute headlines. ScienceNordic went so far as to illustrate their piece with a picture of prince William and Kate Middleton wearing traditional Scandinavian sweaters, and Aftenposten, a leading Norwegian daily, simply affirmed that “English is a Scandinavian language”. The title of the k2p blog post is more detailed but equally firm: “Modern English derives from Scandinavian rather than from Old English”.

…the two scholars deny the received wisdom that Modern English descends primarily from Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which was a West Germanic language, most closely related to Old Frisian. Instead, they propose to classify (Modern) English as belonging to the Scandinavian (or North Germanic) group, together with Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese. Faarlund is cited inScienceDaily as saying:

“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. […] We believe it is because Old English quite simply died out while Scandinavian survived, albeit strongly influenced of course by Old English.”

As a result, the authors contend, Modern English is quite different from Old English, and also from modern West Germanic languages, such as German, Dutch, Frisian, Afrikaans, and Yiddish. As is well known, many English words do not match their German (or Dutch) counterparts: compare the English die and German sterben, or the English ill and the German übel. These English words derive from Old Norse deyjaand illr, which replaced the Old English words steorfan and yfel. (The Old English words did not die completely, however, but survivedas starve and evil.)

In a sentence like The guests cut the rotten cake with a knife, only the articles the and a are not traceable to Scandinavian sources. Among Norse loanwords in English are basic kinship terms (sister, husband), body parts (leg, neck, skin), other common nouns (dirt,sky, window), adjectives (flat, loose, ugly), and verbs (drag, get, smile). Northern English dialects, spoken in areas that once constituted the Viking-dominated Danelaw, contain even more words from Old Norse, such as fell ‘hill, mountain’ (compare with Norwegian fjell) and kenning ‘knowledge’ (compare with Swedish kännedom ‘understanding, cognizance’). In northern English cities like Leeds and York, toponyms with -gate like Briggate and Kirkgate translate as ‘Bridge Street’ and ‘Church Street’, because in Scandinavian gate means ‘street’ (in contrast, in London places such as Aldgate and Newgate actually refer to former gates in the city wall).

But Faarlund and Emonds place emphasis not so much on words that have been borrowed from Old Norse but on English grammatical structures that do not exist in German or Dutch. Their claim is that “wherever English differs syntactically from the other Western Germanic languages—German, Dutch, Frisian—it has the same structure as the Scandinavian languages”.

But Faarlund and Emonds go further than to simply note the similarity between the English and Scandinavian constructions: they claim that the English grammatical morphemes and structures were adopted from Scandinavian and survived to this day, while “Old English quite simply died out”. They seek further support for their theory in geography, noting that “the East Midlands region, where the spoken language later developed into Modern English, coincides almost exactly with the densely populated, southern part of the Danelaw”.

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