Viking Words in English

Old English manuscriptHow many loanwords from Old Nose are there in the standard English language? Viking origin of the words ‘ransack’ and ‘slaughter’ probably would not surprise anyone, but very “peaceful” words like ‘leg’, ‘sky’ or ‘window’ are also of Scandinavian provenance. The verb ‘get’, one of the most used in English, was actually borrowed from Old Norse. Meaning of the loanwords and the grammatical category to which they belong, if properly interpreted, may be a rich source of information on Viking settlement and subsequent assimilation of Norsemen into the culture of England. This is what the research of Dr Sara Pons-Sanz of the School of English Studies (University of Nottingham) aims at. The project, which is funded by the British Academy, examines all the Viking words that were borrowed from Old Norse to Old English. Words such as ‘husband’ that point to social relationships show that Norsemen integrated quickly. The other sign of cultural assimilation is disappearance of Old Norse as a spoken language in England by the 12th century. How deep the assimilation was is seen in the loanword ‘they’. It is a pronoun, a very difficult word to adapt into a new language. Dr Pons-Sanz researched the texts of legal codes, homilies, charts, literary works and inscriptions. Chronological and dialectal analysis allowed to track the process of integration for certain words. For instance, the word ‘fellow’ (ON félagi ‘business partner’) was first attested in East Anglia.
The list of Old Norse loanwords below is far from being complete. However, it gives rather representative examples of Viking cultural assimilation in England.

anger – (ON angr ‘grief’) [1220-1250]
birth – (ON burðr) [1016-1150]
bleak – (ON bleikr ‘pale’) [1250-1300]
bloom – (ON blóm) [1016-1150]
call – (ON kalla) [before 1016]
cast – (ON kasta) [1016-1150]
crawl – (ON krafla) [c.1350]
crook – (ON krókr) [1016-1150]
die – (ON deyja) [1016-1150]
fellow – (ON félagi) [before 1016]
gear – (ON gervi ‘equipment’) [1300-1450]
get – (ON geta) [c.1250]
hit – (ON hitta ‘to come upon’) [1016-1150]
husband – (ON hús ‘house’ and bóndi ‘householder’) [before 1016]
ill – (ON illr) [1016-1150]
kid – (ON kiþ) [1220-1250]
kindle – (ON kynda) [1016-1150]
knife – (ON knífr) [1016-1150]
law – (ON lag ‘law’)
leg – (ON leggr) [1016-1150]
lift – (ON lypta) [1250-1300]
loan – (ON lán) [1016-1150]
loose – (ON lauss) [1300-1450]
low – (ON lágr) [1016-1150]
meek – (ON mjúkr ‘gentle, soft’) [1016-1150]
rag – (ON rögg) [1016-1150]
raise – (ON reisa to raise) [1016-1150]
ransack – (ON rann-saka ‘to search a house’) [1220-1250]
sale – (ON sala) [1016-1150]
scare – (ON skjarr ‘timid’) [1016-1150]
seem – (ON sæma ‘to conform to’) [1250-1300]
skill – (ON skil) [1016-1150]
skin – (ON skinn) [1016-1150]
skirt – (ON skyrt) [after 1450]
sky – (ON skie ‘cloud’) [1220-1250]
slaughter – (ON sláter ‘butcher’s meat’) [1300-1450]
sly – (ON slœgr) [c.1250]
snare – (ON snara) [1016-1150]
take – (ON taka) [1016-1150]
thrive – (ON þrífa ‘to grasp’) [1016-1150]
trust – (ON traust) [c.1250]
ugly – (ON uggr ‘fear’) [1220-1250]
wand – (ON vöndr) [1016-1150]
want – (ON vanta) [1016-1150]
weak – (ON veikr) [1250-1300]
window – (ON vindauga ‘wind eye’) [1220-1250]
wing – (ON vengr) [1016-1150]
wrong – (ON rangr ‘awry, unjust’) [before 1016]

23 comments… add one
  • Roswald Walton

    I am very interested in the use of old Danish today, one example which is used in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear is bairn, which was barn but pronounced exactly the same, there’s a lot of terms still in use here in Northumberland that a Viking wandering into a town or village here would be able to get the general idea of what was being said

    • Viking Rune

      Roswald, the Northumbrian word bairn (‘child’) is both from Old English (Anglian dialect) bearn and Old Norse barn. If Vikings were able to understand local people, that might be explained by their common Germanic heritage.

  • TCollins

    If “Burnham” means village and “Thorpe” does too, does “Burnhamthorpe” (Nelson’s birthplace , of course) mean the two cultures just made an easy decision?

  • Stephen Redmayne

    Growing up in the North east of England the slang word for sweets was *Ket* which I think is Swedish for pure.

    • Viking Rune

      The word ket is akin to Swedish kött and Danish kjöd. The use of the term ket for ‘sweets’ probably derived from its use to describe sweet meats.

  • Paul Peterson

    Hi, this is an interesting article, however I have to point one mistake I noticed. “raise – (ON rísa to rise)” Yes, raise is a borrowing from Old Norse. However, it is from the causative verb ON reisa “to raise” ( r).

    • Viking Rune

      Thank you, Paul. Corrected.

  • Francis Vessigault

    English is a basic West Teutonic language:
    40% Anglo Saxon with verbs like to forget, to forbid, to speak and common nouns like King, Queen and many others.
    Furthermore, 20% of English comes from Old Danish Norse from Denmark and verbs like to get, to give, to kill, to run, to sprint, to strive, to take, to talk, to thrive, to thrust, to want are purely Viking and the plural pronouns like They, Their and Them are 100% Scandinavian.
    The Normans introduced Teutonic Frankish words in French forms like the word Guardian, similar to warden, from Frankish Wardjann but many Romance words like Castle, from castel in old French.
    The Celtic influence is much much smaller than either Scandinavian and Latin.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Francis. Yes, Celtic influence is rather limited in English as compared to Old Norse.

      • Swede

        There is also evidence for some loanwords into normandic french coming from norse morphing inte french forms, then coming to english that way. William was after all the grandson of a viking.

        Curiously(and I’m no authority thus am not sure of the veracity of this claim) I have heard the case be made that the word castle actually comes from norse through normandic french. The root form being something like kastellr(the word still exists in swedish in the form of kastell meaning something like ramparts) where as the classic frankish word is likely something closer to palace from latin and ultimately palatino from the hill in rome.

        Would be lovely if you could find some research on this though.

  • Ted Relphj

    I am Editor of the LDS JOURNAL. We are interested in the ‘Scandinavian’ element in our dialect, but would like to be more precise and find out if and how the ‘Old Norse’ of the Norweginan Vikings differed from that of the Danish Vikings. It appears the Lake District of Cumbria was mainly attacked/settled/influenced from the Irish sea by Norse Vikings, around 930AD, whereas the Eastern side was ravaged/settled/occupied by the Danes from Yorkshire and the North East some 70 years earlier.
    Many of the ‘Old Norse’ words in our dialect were of course common to Norway and Denmark; do you know of any which were peculiar to one or the other??


    • Viking Rune

      Hello Ted. Old Nowegian developed from the Old West Norse dialect of the Old Norse. Danish developed from the Old East Norse dialect. I am not a specialist in Old Norse dialects, so I can’t be of much help in this area.

  • Jeff Watt

    Hi! Well, me I’m not a linguist or expert in Old Norse (wish I were!) and, in fact, I’ve posted on the ‘viking mottos’ forum (looking for a VERY ELUSIVE translation from modern English) – but I AM a keen amateur philologist

    .. and I do know that English evolved from a kind of amalagam of Anglo-saxon and Old Norse. As some of you may know, the Danes and Norwegians, coming first as plunderers, began to settle down in England – especially in the North-Eastern half of it – from about the ninth century onward. By Knut’s time (circa the 1030’s to 1040’s ) the famous Earldoms (more than half of them former ‘Danelaugh’ territory) had become well established, each pretty much with their own dialect.
    The two languages – Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse – had quite a lot of etymology in common but some important differences of case inflexion, verb conjugations and pronouns – with the result that the amalagam that emerged (which became known as ‘English’) simply threw away a lot of these. English is fairly unique among world languages in having so few verbal conjugations and case inflexions.
    If we read MIDDLE ENGLISH (by Chaucer’s time – i.e. late 13th century) we already see many of these beginning to disappear – for mood and person and for tense, for example.

    But there was some duplication also; ‘Craft’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon, ‘skill’ from Old Norse (add Norman French ‘expertise’ and it becomes still more interesting!); similarly: ‘Sick’ (from Anglo-Saxon), ‘ill’ (from Old Norse), ‘poorly’ (from Norman French) and so on ..
    still more interesting, perhaps, was what happened to names – especially girl’s names: the good old English and Old Norse ones (like Ethel and Thora – to give just one example of each) were all but swept away by the Norman French (essentailly Biblical) ones like: Mary, Anna or Anne, Josephine, Margaret, Matilda, Elizabeth and so on … and for boys; John, Paul, David, George etc. Only a very few pre-Norman ones, like Edward, Eric and William (not Norman-Frenchified to Guiilaume) and Harold survived. And the Old Norse boy’s names??? You tell me! What were they? And where did THEY go?

    Jeff (also known as Edward The Confessor!!)

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Jeff. English is by no means an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Old English was a West Germanic language, while Old Norse was North Germanic.

  • viking james

    Hus – still exists today – the word for house
    Bonde – meaning farmer – as above ‘one who works the land he owns’.. also still in use

    Also ‘Binde’ – to bind or tie may offer further connection

    ‘Krekse’ is a favourite old norse word a friend taught me – means ‘ impossible woman’ – so I’m told!

    Strength & Honour

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for sharing this, Viking James.

  • dana pallessen

    Hus bondi = husband = a man in servitude to the house, as in a bonded servant. Hus is clearly house.

    • Viking Rune

      OE husbonda “male head of a household” from ON húsbóndi “master of the house.” From hús “house” + bóndi “householder, dweller, freeholder, peasant.” Böndr (singular: bóndi) were free men who worked on the land that they owned, see Viking Society in Iceland: Key Concepts.

  • Asgeir Reynisson

    Dear Sir.
    Regarding words of Scandinavian provenance they may also be originated in old English as old English and the Scanidinavian languages are closely related. You will find thiese words also in German which is a W- Germanic language as English. All Germanic languages are of the same root so “new” words in English are often words forgotten reappearing. In Icelandic we use the word “stafróf” for alphabet, it is a old English word “stævrow” or a row of staves. Its a wery see-trough word that you should use again.

    Best regards,

    • Viking Rune

      Dear Asgeir,
      Thanks for your comment. To be sure, both in Old English and Old Norse there are very many words, which were not borrowed but share the same common Germanic or west Germanic root. For example, Old English fæther and Old Norse faðer come from the same root, and the English word father is not a loanword from Old Norse. However, many words are proven to be loans. Old English word for “leg” was sconken, and it was replaces by a loanword, whereas sconken became “shanks”.

Leave a Comment