Old Norse -> Articles -> The Norse and English Tongues

The Norse and English Tongues

by skar Gulaugsson and Haukur orgeirsson 2000-2003
As most, or all, anglophone students of Old Norse will be aware of, Norse and English are closely related languages. Apart from a common Germanic ancestry, the languages came in intimate contact later, during the Viking age, when Nordic people invaded and settled the north and east of England in great quantity. Many Old Norse words will appear familiar, or even completely intelligible, to an English-speaker. Such as "g" (good), "bl" (blood), "go" (god), and "taka" (take). The last word, "taka" is an example of a direct Old Norse loan-word in the English language, a word which did not exist in the English language prior to the Viking influence.
There is no need to go into complex etymological comparisons or endless rows of sound changes to make practical use of this; the practically inclined student can easily learn a few handy "equations" without necessarily understanding the whole extent of the phonological development. Also, it is just as much a matter of spelling differences as a matter of pronunciation differences. Many Old English and Modern English words are pronounced alike, though spelled differently, OE featuring "" "" "" and vowel length marks. Whichever reason for the difference, the most practical equations are below. Note that they sometimes contradict and are by no means applicable in all cases. They are not equations in the mathematical sense, but rather a set of reoccuring patterns that are helpful for guessing and remembering ON words.
Key:
C-an initial consonant (or cluster of consonants), i.e. at the start of a word
-C-an intervocalic consonant (cluster), i.e. between two vowels
-Ca final consonant (cluster), i.e. at the end of a word
MnE ON MnE sample ON sample Notes
wh hv what hvat Old English spelled it 'hw'. Norman scribes had it changed to their own fancy. Back in ON and OE times, both languages pronounced it pretty much the same (as the unvoiced 'w' heard in various American English dialects and other English speechforms around the world)
w v wit vit spelling difference
c k call kall spelling difference
th- - thick ykk spelling difference; '' was replaced with 'th' in medieval times in English, because of it resembled too closely another letter in the gothic script of that time
-d red rau to some degree a matter of spelling; ON didn't always use '' and it's use fell out early on.
-th- father fair spelling difference
-ay -ag, -eg day, way dagr, vegr these English words have had the same changes as the 'gh' words, only their spelling doesn't reflect it. 'Day' used to end in a 'g' but then the 'g' become a 'gh' (in pronunciation) and finally a glide ('y'
-nk -kk thank, frank akka, frakkr in ON, the 'n' disappeared and lengthened the 'k'
sh sk ship, shall, fish skip, skal, fiskr this reflects a very old development in English; even in OE it was pronounced as today
y- g- yarn, yard garn, garr a development related to the sk > sh above.
wr- r- wrath rei(i) this cluster had simplified in the (Western) ON studied in this course, though it remains in Eastern Norse even today; it is long gone in English too, though it remains in spelling
w- [nothing] wolf lfr the 'w' disappeared in Norse very early before 'back vowels' e.g. 'o, , u, ' cf. was = var, Woden = inn
y- [nothing] young ungr the same phenomenon as the w- > above, but before any vowel
e- j- earth jr as all j- disappeared in ON (see above), new j- rolled in
-th -nn sooth, tooth sannr, tnn Proto-Germanic 'n' changed to 'nn' in ON and to '' in OE
The following is a similar list of vowel equations; it is to be noted, however, that such equations between languages are much more fickle than what regards consonants, as vowels are the sounds that change most rapidly in languages. These are the general tendencies, or the most useful equations:
oo blood bl may be considered a spelling difference
ou out t the long u became a diphthong in West Germanic (English, Dutch, German) early on, but remained in the northern languages; note the old pronunciation in North England and Scotland
ee tree tr may be considered a spelling difference