07 December 2012

Is English a Scandinavian language?

Two professors in Norway assert that English is a Scandinavian language, a North Germanic rather than a West Germanic one. More specifically, they claim that Anglo-Saxon (“Old English”) is not the direct ancestor of modern English; rather, our language is more closely related to the dialect of Old Norse spoken in the Danelaw (the Viking-occupied part of England) after about 865.

The bolster their claim by pointing at major grammatical traits which English shares with Old Norse rather than West Germanic languages – notably, consistent SVO (subject-verb-object) word order rather than the SOV (subject-object-verb) or V2 (verb-second) orders that dominate in languages like German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. The practical consequence they point out (correctly – I’ve experienced this myself) is that English and Norwegian or Swedish are quite a bit closer in mutual intelligibility than any of this group is with German or Dutch or Anglo-Saxon...

The professors think the reason for this is that rather than evolving into Modern English, Anglo-Saxon actually died out during the two centuries between the invasion of the Great Army in 865 and the defeat of Harold Godwinsson in 1066. They propose that Anglo-Saxon influenced, but was largely replaced by, the Norse dialect of the Anglo-Danish Empire. Which, SVO North Germanic grammar and all, then collided with Norman French and evolved into English as we know it.
I can't personally add any additional insight; my college major was English literature, not English language per se.  There is further detailed explanation (and a very informative comment thread) at Armed and Dangerous.  And a hat tip to reader Wayne Conrad for finding this interesting pair of links.


  1. If you haven't seen Melvyn Bragg's "The Adventure of English" you should check it out. It's available (in parts) on YouTube.


  2. I took a couple of semesters of Norwegian in college, and I remember thinking that it seemed really close to English, especially sentence organization. I also had a few years of French in high school. It seemed like if an English word didn't have a cognate in Norwegian, it had one in French and vice versa.

  3. I always found this timeline of the english language interesting:
    In my uneducated opinion, I think that england was invaded so many times that classifying english into one specific language group is a bit silly.


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