256 – Scandinavian Settlement in England

For the last few episodes we’ve been discussing the way life has been changing in Southern Britain. While the dramatic battles and political maneuvering dominated the story of the last season, you’re now learning of the many of the changes that were changing how lives were lived on the island, and some of them weren’t a direct result of the Northmen raiders. Instead, these changes were part of an overall shift in how the Anglo Saxons saw their place in the world. It was a cultural shift as much as it was anything else, and central to it were the changing attitudes towards land.

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  1. Good episode. However, there isn’t a consensus on the mutual intelligibility of Old Norse and Old English. While the languages had drifted apart enough to prevent casual conversation between speakers of the respective languages, they shared enough basic vocabulary that an Viking and an Anglo-Saxon could have possibly communicated on a very primitive level. One reason why a lot of the inflections where dropped and word order became important is because it facilitated communication between the two groups since the roots of a lot of the words were identical but the inflectional endings had drifted.

    1. Interesting. As I recall, that source for section came from D.M. Hadley and… I /think/ Flemming? I think? Anyway, the argument presented was that the sounds were very similar and that’s why they were able to take many place names, but still had to shift them in order to pronounce them. But as for the words, those had drifted too much for them to be able to carry out a conversation without a translator. However, I’m not an Old Norse or Old English scholar, so all I have are sources I can rely on.

      Do you have a source that further illuminates the counter argument that I can look into?

      1. Maybe reach out to Kevin Stroud of the History of English Podcast, which is very good, for help on this one? Another suggestion is to imagine sort of the human experience of this type of linguistic meeting. Have you ever approached someone with a thick accent and a number of different dialectal words that you just can’t understand at first, but after a day and maybe a drink, you start being able to communicate, though partly by dropping colloquialisms and idioms that don’t translate well? On the other side, have you ever spent a few months immersed in a language related to English, like living in Germany or working next to a Spanish speaker or French speaker with no English, and then experienced how cognates are identified for use and grammar is simplified to make that meeting possible? Now, imagine something halfway in between. You might end up with something like the modern encounters of an Italian speaker with a Spanish speaker. Mutual intelligibility will not be available on the first encounter, but after a week of interaction, basic communication becomes possible. This type of experience will not be readily available with a speaker of Russian or Arabic or Chinese; you don’t start with cognates and parallel grammatical formulations. Anyhow, mutual intelligibility is a tricky subject for linguists, because, on the one hand, it is the technical litmus test for whether you’re looking at different dialects or different languages, but on the other hand, it’s a thing that isn’t always even: for example, Nicholas Ostler goes to length in Empires of the Word, describing how difficult that litmus test is when Portuguese speakers sort of automatically understand Spanish (which contains all sounds that Portuguese has) as if it were a dialect, but the reverse is not true because Spanish speakers need training for a number of Portuguese sounds that Spanish doesn’t have.
        The point I’m getting at is that with such closely related languages as old English and Old Norse, the question really shouldn’t be “could they understand each other, yes or no”?, but instead, “what degree of mutual intelligibility was available for a couple of prime aged adults of average learning capacity at first meeting? after 10 hours of close interaction? after 100 hours? 1000?”. If Alfred needed a translator when signing a peace treaty with Guthrum, when exact language was very important, did Ulfrith need a translator to borrow an axe from Haldor to chop down a tree, when the stakes weren’t so high? How easy was it for children, who’s minds have greater plasticity to understand each other?
        Though I’m not a scholar of Old English or Old Norse, my grandfather was a scholar of both, and I’ve talked to him about this sort of thing on a few occasions, used the subject of toponymy in the Danelaw for final paper in a college history course, and I’ve read up considerably on historical linguistics, so I’d consider myself somewhat of an amateur in this field.

  2. Prof. Wm. Chaney, my Medieval North tutor many years ago, recounted an anecdote I recall. He noted that, during WEII, East Anglian British sailors stationed in Iceland, using their own native English dialects, were able to communicate quite freely with the Icelanders. According to Dr. Chaney, modern Icelandic has apparently drifted least among Scandanavian languges from Old Norse, and some isolated East Anglian rural dialects were likewise drift-conservative. I do not know his sources, but recalled the anecdote.

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