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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter June 22, 2017

Norse Loans in Middle English and their Influence on Late Medieval London English

  • Angelika Lutz EMAIL logo
From the journal Anglia


Most of the Norse legal and administrative terms attested in Old English were replaced by equivalents from the French superstrate soon after the Norman Conquest, whereas a remarkable number of more basic terms are known to have become part of the very basic vocabulary of modern Standard English. This paper focuses on Norse lexical loans that survived during and beyond the period of French rule and became part of this basic vocabulary. It explores (1) the regional and textual conditions for the survival of such loans and (2) their expansion into late medieval London English and into the emerging standard language. Based on selective textual evidence it is argued that they were not quite as basic originally, that they typically survived and developed in regional centres far away from the French-dominated court, and eventually infiltrated the area in and around late medieval London owing to its growing attraction as an economic and intellectual centre. Both the survival of Norse loans and their later usage expansion are shown to be in harmony with the principles of comparative contact linguistics.

1 An Introductory Sketch of Characteristics of the Norse Influence on Old English

Much of our evidence for Norse influence on Old English is attested in the late West-Saxon standard language that had become a written standard also for the Midland and northern regions including the Danelaw. This applies particularly to the legal and religious texts attributed to Archbishop Wulfstan of York that reflect his role as lawmaker and political and spiritual leader under two kings, Ethelred and Cnut (see Wormald 2004 and Keynes 2007). It is Norse terms particularly from the legal and administrative sphere that we find in such texts which otherwise use this Old English standard (see Peters 1981; Pons-Sanz 2007, 2013: 128–130). Truly northern texts such as the interlinear gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels form only a fraction of the Old English evidence (see Campbell 1959: §§ 1–21 and Sauer and Waxenberger 2012).

The textual evidence for Norse influence on Old English mostly reflects the special situation in the Danelaw from the 9th until the 11th century but some of it also betrays the expansion of Danish rule under Cnut (1016–1035), e.g. the usage extension of OE lagu and eorl (< ON jarl) beyond the Danelaw.[1] It is known that the distinction between words inherited from West Germanic and words borrowed from closely related Old Norse is occasionally difficult and sometimes impossible (for detailed discussions, see Peters 1981; Townend 2002: chs. 2, 3; and Durkin 2014: ch. 10). Nevertheless, most of the late Old English lexical evidence for Norse influence can be shown to reflect an asymmetrical contact between a Norse superstrate and an Anglo-Saxon substrate. This linguistic assessment is in harmony with the historical evidence for the period before the Norman Conquest, in particular with regard to the Danelaw and to Cnut’s reign (see Mack 1984; Keynes 1994, 1997; Brink 2008; and Treharne 2012).

Cross-linguistically, language contact between a conquering power and a subjected population is known to be asymmetrical: Lexical borrowing occurs mostly from the superstrate into the substrate, typically from lexical fields having to do with the execution of power, e.g. in warfare, in legal and administrative acts, and in all sorts of daily affairs; see Vennemann (1984, 2003), where numerous parallel examples for such superstratal influences are presented, among them for Old French influence on English, Visigothic and Arabic influences on Spanish, and Turkish influences on several Balkan languages. In Lutz (2012: sections 1–3, 2013: sections 3–4), I have argued that the lexical influence of Old Norse on English is likewise superstratal, not adstratal,[2] and as such similar to the influence of Old French. It reflects foreign rule in the period before the Norman Conquest in England, particularly in the Danelaw. As the most obvious lexical evidence for superstratal influence from Old Norse on Old English, I adduce legal and administrative terms that are attested in Old English texts as detailed word families, e.g. those of OE lagu ‘law, right, legal privilege’ and OE māl ‘suit, cause, agreement’, but also the etymologically unrelated terms denoting ranks of society in the Danelaw hierarchy from OE eorl ‘ruler and administrator of a region’ down to þrǣl ‘serf’ and þīr ‘female servant’ (Lutz 2012: 21–24). Thus, lexical borrowing from Old Norse into Old English reflects organized and extended foreign rule. The large number of such words listed by Pons-Sanz (2013: 128) under “B. Legal world” and “G. Social status” likewise demonstrates the importance of this type of influence on Old English.

Obviously superstratal lexical evidence for the Norse conquest of England is less likely to have survived into Modern English than such evidence for the Norman Conquest, since the evidence for the latter conquest tends to supplant the evidence for the foregoing conquest. Thus, many Old English legal and administrative terms borrowed from Old Norse can be shown to have been replaced by synonymous superstratal terms borrowed from Norman French later on, as their Middle English and Modern equivalents (typically Norman French loans) betray, or to have gone out of use due to changing political conditions; both types of development are attested, e.g. for most of the lagu-family and the entire māl-family (Lutz 2012: 18–24). Consequently, the legal terminology of Modern English is largely Frenchified but nevertheless preserves some Old Norse loans and also some inherited Old English (West Germanic) terms.[3]

2 Old Norse vs. Norman French Loans: Some General and Statistical Observations

Most loans from Old Norse that have survived into Middle English and Modern English do not belong to the legal and administrative language but have more basic, non-technical meanings, as is well known (see e.g. Jespersen 1938: §§ 75–78; Barber et al. 2009: 140–144; and Durkin 2014: chs. 2, 9). Scholars have tended to believe that they reflect contact on equal terms between speakers of Old Norse and Old English.[4] By contrast, in the case of Old French influence, scholars have focused their attention on loans that reflect Norman rule and French courtly culture, and they have largely overlooked the fact that English also contains many loans from Old French with very basic meanings and forms, as is shown in Lutz (2013: section 4). Very early on, Leonard Bloomfield had pointed out that the lexical influence resulting from a conquest “very often extends to speech-forms that are not connected with cultural novelties” (Bloomfield 1933: 461). And indeed, many loans from both Old Norse and Old French can be adduced to illustrate the fact that the two languages have contributed many culturally “unnecessary” loans to English – very basic words for which Old English can be shown to have had adequate inherited equivalents. Structurally parallel lists of examples for such words from both contact languages, drawn from Baugh and Cable (2013: §§ 75, 130), can be found in Lutz (2012: 25); other examples for French loans of a very basic character could be adduced from Hughes’ (2000: 121) list of French loans that “displaced basic native terms for ordinary things”. However, until very recently, only Manfred Scheler’s (1977) study of the English lexicon could be adduced to support Bloomfield’s (1933: 461) assumption with comparative lexico-statistic material and not only with such selective lists of examples. His book provides a differentiated assessment of the foreign influences on English based on three very different types of dictionaries of modern Standard English: the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED), with ca. 80,000 words representing the entire lexicon, the Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (ALD), with less than 30,000 words representing the average active and passive lexicon of an educated speaker, excluding professional and technical terms, and the General Service List (GSL), which contains ca. 4,000 high-frequency words.[5] That way, his percentages enable us to distinguish in particular between the widely differing contributions of a donor language to the entire lexicon of modern Standard English and to its basic vocabulary: The percentages for basic vocabulary resulting from post-Conquest contacts of a donor language are much higher than the percentages for the contributions of the same donor language to the lexicon as a whole. In the case of French influence, Scheler notes 38.00 % for the basic vocabulary but only 28.37 % for the entire lexicon.

This contrasts with the percentages for the influence of Latin, which typically led to cultural borrowing: Latin contributes only 9.57 % of a basic character but 28.29 % to the English lexicon as a whole. Scheler’s percentages for Scandinavian[6] influence (3.11 % of a basic character but 2.16 % altogether) are much lower than those for the respective French and Latin influences, yet the relations between the percentages for the basic portion and the entire lexicon are very similar for Scandinavian (ca. 3:2) and French (ca. 4:3) and differ strongly from those for Latin (ca. 1:3). Thus, taken together, the relations for both French and Scandinavian influences support Bloomfield’s (1933: 461) assumption that the lexical influence resulting from ‘intimate borrowing’ after a conquest differs from that of ‘cultural borrowing’ resulting from an interest of the speakers of a language in the culture represented by the donor language.

Meanwhile, Philip Durkin in his recent book Borrowed Words has confirmed and in various ways refined Scheler’s findings with regard to the very basic character of many Norse and French loans that have survived into Present-Day English (Durkin 2014: chs. 2, 9–13). He characterises Scheler’s figures for different types of dictionaries as “valuable for the perspective they give on the composition of the vocabulary of modern English”, yet quite rightly emphasizes that “they need to be approached with caution” (Durkin 2014: 31), especially on account of the various difficulties of distinguishing clearly between the contributions of French and Latin (for detailed discussions of such difficulties, see Durkin 2014: chs. 11 and 12). On the basis of the data of the British National Corpus (BNC) and select sections of OED3, Durkin shows (a) that the percentages of French, Latin, and Scandinavian in the 1,000 most frequent words are higher than those of any other contact language (2014: 37, Table 2.2.) and that (b), if arranged chronologically, most of the 1,000 most frequent words of Present-Day English can be shown to be loans from French, from French and/or Latin, from Latin, and from Scandinavian first attested between 1150 and 1500 (2014: 39, Fig. 2.8). Durkin also demonstrates that if the focus is narrowed down even further, to the 100 most frequent words in the BNC, the Scandinavian contribution seems even more important than the French contribution, since this list (2014: 40) contains seven items from Scandinavian (they, their, to get, to take, to give, like, to want) and only two from French (people, very) and two from French and/or Latin (just, to use).

Statistical assessments can be biased or flawed in various ways. In the case of Scheler’s percentages, the undifferentiated distinction between French and Latin loans based on the version of the SOED available to him at the time is certainly one cause for such a bias. That way, according to Durkin (2014: 31), Scheler’s percentages lend more weight to the ultimately Latin provenance than to the more directly French provenance of many medieval loans. Durkin, with his own lexico-statistic assessment of French and Latin influences in three instead of two columns (2014: 37, Table 2.2: 220 words from French, 209 from French and/or Latin, and 58 from Latin), tries to avoid this problem but thereby creates a new one, namely by making the distinction between the widely differing impacts on the basic vocabulary of English exerted by French (38 % according to Scheler) and Latin (9 % according to Scheler) more difficult to assess.[7] Durkin’s suggestion (on 2014: 40) to attribute an even stronger influence to Scandinavian than to French, on the basis of the 100 most frequent words listed in the BNC, is somewhat problematical for a different reason: The BNC list contains many closed-class items or function words, among them two Scandinavian ones (they, their).[8] They reflect the Germanic character of English function words until today but are not characteristic of the modern English basic lexicon in the narrower sense. It might have been more appropriate for a study on Borrowed Words to focus on the remaining five Scandinavian loans in this list, namely get, give, like, take, and want. They suffice to demonstrate the importance of the lexical contribution of Old Norse to the very basic vocabulary of modern English compared to the French (and/or Latin) contribution of four words, namely just, people, use, and very, even if we take into account that two of the Norse verbs, get and give, are special insofar as they agree etymologically with their inherited equivalents, OE gietan and giefan. Thus, taken together, the statistics of Scheler and Durkin betray certain weaknesses of lexico-statistic assessments but nevertheless clearly demonstrate that both Scandinavian and French loans have become part of the very basic vocabulary of modern Standard English and that the strongest influences of both donor languages date back to the Middle Ages.

3 Norse Loans under French Rule in Middle English

3.1 Problems with their Stratal Assessment

So far, I have concentrated on two types of Old Norse lexical influence: (a) legal and administrative terms attested in Old English, many of which did not survive beyond Old English; and (b) more basic terms, which constitute a considerable portion of the Norse loans that have survived into modern English. Now that both types of Old Norse loans have been shown to be similar in kind to important influences of Old French, the survival of Norse loans during an extended period of French rule requires some attention. How did these Norse loans survive and develop during this period? Simply as part of a mixed Germanic, i.e. inherited Old English and borrowed Old Norse substrate below the more recent French superstrate? Or was the stratal role of Norse loans in Middle English more complex, namely (1) with regard to their use in particular dialects and text types and (2) with regard to the usage expansion of a remarkable number of them into late medieval London English and into the emerging standard language?

The following six examples are meant to provide a rough idea of (a) when and where such Norse loans are first attested and in which meanings, (b) where they survived and how they developed in Middle English, and (c) when and how they reached late medieval London English and thus eventually became part of the emerging standard language. The first two loans to be discussed are first attested in very late Old English, shortly after the Norman Conquest; the loans of the second group are first attested in early Middle English. Both groups of loans reached London before Chaucer’s time, whereas the loans of the third group replaced their inherited equivalents in London only after Chaucer’s death. The words of all three groups belong to the loans that have developed very basic meanings in modern English. Their use and usage expansion in Middle English should therefore help to explain why Norse loans could become part of late medieval London English and, that way, of the emerging standard language.

3.2 Words that are First Attested in Very Late Old English

The first attestations of the following Norse loans are only slightly later than those of the borrowed legal terms, most of which did not survive the Norman Conquest, as shown in section 1 above. The first example is a noun with concrete meaning:

Example 1: skin

The noun skin (< ON skinn) is one of numerous Norse loans with /sk-/, some of which have very basic meanings and belong to the most frequently used words of modern English (Durkin 2014: 199–200, 213–214). The loanword skin supplants OE hyd in much of its original meaning-range,[9] to a lesser degree also OE fell.[10] Old Norse distinguished between skinn ‘skin; skin of small animals’ and húð ‘hide of cattle’ but originally also ‘skin’ more generally.[11] The narrowing of the Old English meaning-range of the inherited word as a result of borrowing of the Norse loan is characterized as semantically highly remarkable by Grant (2009: sections 5, 7) for hide and skin. The MED, s.v. skin 2. (a) ‘The external covering of an animal’s body’ lists Orrmulum, l. 3210 Hiss girrdell wass off shepess skinn ‘His girdle was made of sheep’s skin’ as the first Middle English attestation, and this was also given by OED2, s.v. skin, n. I. 1. ‘The integument of an animal stripped from the body, and usually dressed or tanned’ as the first attestation of the Norse loan. The Orrmulum is a homiletic poem written by an Augustinian monk in Lincolnshire c. 1175 (see Parkes 1983).

But meanwhile, OED3, s.v. skin, n. I. 1.a. ‘The natural external covering or integument of an animal removed from the body, esp. one which is dressed or tanned (with or without the fur) and used as a material for clothing or other items’, based on Peters (1981: 96–98), provides a much earlier attestation, from the annal s.a. 1075 D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This manuscript version was written by several 11th-century scribes and ends with the annal for 1079. It contains many textual features that exhibit links both with York and Worcester.[12] In the late 10th and early 11th centuries the D-text is closely connected with archbishop Wulfstan of York, who held the archbishopric in plurality with Worcester, like several other archbishops of York.[13]

This earlier attestation of skin brings us close to the time of direct language contact between Old Norse and Old English and, even more importantly, provides an interesting glimpse into the world of the leading circles of the late Danelaw, shortly after the Norman Conquest. The annal reports in detail on the lavish gifts of King Malcolm of Scotland to the king of Francia: myccla geofa manega gærsama [...] on scynnan mid pælle betogen, on merðerne pyleceon, on graschynnene, hearmaschynnene, on pællon, on gyldenan faton, on sylfrenan ‘great gifts and many treasures [...] of skins covered with purple cloth, and robes of marten’s skin and of grey fur and ermine, and costly robes and golden vessels and silver’ (Cubbin 1996: 86; Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 161).

The use of the Norse loan in this late-11th-century annal refers to luxury goods, in a way that suggests that the value of such goods was of importance to the authors and readers of the Chronicle in this late northern or Midland version and that the leading circles of that area had access to such goods and knew how to impress their colleagues further south with them as royal gifts.[14] Two centuries earlier, in Ohthere’s report to King Alfred of Wessex, similarly valuable trading goods of the North had been described with the inherited words fell and hyd.[15] If in the late 11th century leading circles in Northumbria had come to use the word skin in their trade and diplomacy, most Anglo-Saxons of that region are likely to have followed them in their speech habits eventually also for such basic items as girdles made of sheep’s skin, as attested in the Orrmulum in the late 12th century. In this religious text it refers to St John’s life in the desert[16] and suggests that this Norse loan had established itself as a very common term. Unlike the textual evidence from the Chronicle, this later attestation offers no clue as to how the remarkable changes of meaning of hide and skin under Norse influence may have come about.

With reference to human skin, the use of the Norse loan seems to have spread much later, long after any direct contact between Norse and English. MED, s.v. 1 a. (a) ‘The outer covering of the human body’ gives examples from 14th- and 15th-century authors, including Chaucer, Monk’s Tale, l. 3122: I vowe to God, thou hast a ful fair skyn (rhyming with kyn) ‘I swear to God, you have a very fine skin’ (cf. Riverside Chaucer 240). But for much of the Middle English period, the inherited word hide remained in use with the meaning ‘human skin’ (see MED, s.v. hid(e (n.) 1. (a)), even in south-western texts such as Ancrene Wisse that otherwise exhibit strong Norse influence (see Dance 2003: 39–48). In alliterative collocations with hue, where hide is attested in Laʒamon’s Brut, the inherited word remained in use throughout the Middle English period (cf. MED, s.v. 1. (b), OED, s.v. hide, n.1 2. ‘The human skin’).

Example 2: take

The verb take (< ON taka) is likewise first attested in the late annals of MS D of the Chronicle, namely s.aa. 1072, 1075, and 1076.[17] The meaning of the verb in most of these attestations is ‘seize, take (prisoner), capture’. In the passage with the very first attestation (s.a. 1072), toc contrasts with nam, whose modern English translation ‘took’ reflects the wider and more general meaning of ModE take: se cyng nam heora scypa wæpna manega sceattas, þa menn ealle he toc ‘And the king took their ships and weapons and plenty of money, and he took all the men prisoner’ (Cubbin 1996: 85; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 159–160).[18]

The attestation s.a. 1075 occurs in a specific legal context: he toc swylce gerihta swa he him gelagade ‘and he received such dues as were appointed him’, or, rather ‘[...] as he granted him’ (Cubbin 1996: 86; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 162).[19] The two attestations s.a. 1076 refer to actions taken (a) by King William the Conqueror and (b) by his Danish adversaries in York: (a) Ac se kyngc [...] hine let syððan tacan ‘And the king [...] then had him captured’ (Cubbin 1996: 87; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 163) and (b) Cnut, Swegnes sunu cynges, Hacon eorl [...] tocon þærinne mycele æhta ‘Cnut [...] and Hakon [...] captured a large amount of property there’ (Cubbin 1996: 87; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 164).[20] Thus, all four attestations of the Norse loan in MS D refer to military and legal actions and are thus examples for superstratal influence.[21] The very first attestation of the Norse loan tacan provides also the first evidence for the lexical and semantic rivalry with inherited niman, in which the inherited verb is eventually superseded by the Norse loan as the standard term and as a verb of particularly high frequency.

The earliest Middle English uses of the verb are attested in MS E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is of the same annalistic text type as MS D. The extant MS E was copied in Peterborough (therefore also called Peterborough Chronicle) in the early decades of the 12th century until s.a. 1121, then continued by the copyist (First Continuation: s.aa. 1122–1131) and after that continued by another scribe (Final Continuation: s.aa. 1132–1154).[22] Only the two continuations count as East-Midland texts.[23] Forms of the verb are attested in annals s.aa. 1127 (First Continuation) and 1135, 1140 (Final Continuation). In the very first attestation, s.a. 1127: se kyng of France brohte þone eorles sunu Willelm of Normandi iæf hine þone eorldom, þet landfolc him wið toc ‘And the king of France brought William, son of the count of Normandy, and gave him the county, and the people of that land accepted him’ (Clark 1970: 48; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 203), the verb is used with the meaning ‘accept, receive’ (cf. MED, s.v. 8.). Further down in the same annal, in eall þet he mihte tacen ‘all that he could take’ (Clark 1970: 49; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 204), the verb is attested with the meaning ‘seize’, as in MS D (cf. Rynell 1948: 53).

For the Final Continuation, Rynell counts seven attestations of the loan and nine for inherited niman, s.a. 1140 two attestations of the loan with two different meanings: (1) as ‘lead’ in þa þe king was ute, þa herde ðat sægen toc his feord besæt hire in þe tur ‘When the king was out of prison, he heard this said and took his army and besieged her [i.e. the empress] in the tower’ (Clark 1970: 59; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 213),[24] and (2) as ‘take on a leading position’ shortly later in this annal in te eorl of Angæu wærd ded, his sune Henri toc to the rice ‘And the count of Anjou died, and his son, Henry, succeeded to the dominions’ (Clark 1970: 59; cf. Douglas and Greenaway 1981: 21). In this latter instance, the Norse loan is employed to replace the long-established Old English expression feng to rice (cf. Rynell 1948: 54). Taken together, the attestations in MSS D and E suggest that the loan had established itself in a range of meanings which reflect various political, military and legal aspects of foreign rule.[25]

Many more 12th-century attestations of the verb are from the Orrmulum. According to Rynell (1948: 61–69), Orm employs the Norse loan taken far more frequently than its inherited lexical rival nimen (339 vs. 23 tokens), and the use of nimen seems to have been reduced to a small number of idiomatic phrases, whereas the meaning-range of taken has spread enormously.[26] Yet, attestations such as Orrmulum, l. 5608 He take hiss rode & bere itt rihht (MED, s.v. tāken 1a. ‘to grip, take hold’) and Orrmulum, l. 16390 Forrþi namm Godd [...] þe firrste stafess (MED, s.v. nimen 1 a. ‘to take (sth.), to pick up (sth.)’) show that the meaning-ranges of the borrowed verb and the inherited verb remained close in this early Middle English text.

In late Middle English texts of the former Danelaw, taken had nearly or entirely ousted inherited nimen, as shown by Rynell for Morte Arthure, where the inherited verb survives merely in the past participle and only the borrowed verb taken is used for purposes of alliteration (1948: 171–174), and for Barbour’s Bruce and the York Plays, where the inherited verb is not used at all (1948: 131–134, 153–154). In Chaucer’s works, taken is employed for a number of senses, e.g. with the meaning ‘seize, capture’, in Man of Law’s Tale, l. B.438: Custance han they take anon, foot-hoot ‘They captured Constance immediately, instantly’ (cf. Riverside Chaucer 93).[27] For the meaning ‘to take, pick up’, Chaucer used both inherited nimen (e.g. in Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, l. 1.1297: This chanoun it in hise handes nam ‘This canon took it in his hands’; cf. Riverside Chaucer 279; cf. MED, s.v. 1 a.) and borrowed taken (e.g. in Man of Law’s Tale, l. B.728: He tath the lettre, and forth he goth his weye ‘He takes the letter and goes away’; cf. Riverside Chaucer 97; cf. MED, s.v. 1 a.). Thus, unlike contemporary texts of the former Danelaw, Chaucer’s texts in the London dialect had not yet fully reached the stage of the verb in modern English, which Durkin (2014: 213) characterizes as one of seven “verbs that realize very basic meanings”.

As regards the highly complex development of borrowed tacan and inherited niman over the centuries, Rynell’s (1948) comparative study of the two verbs still provides the best qualitative and quantitative analysis of the lexical and semantic rivalry in texts from different dialect areas, because he studies the usages of the two verbs text by text, whereas the OED and the MED aim to distinguish senses of the individual verbs, as is their task.[28] But now that the MED is complete and numerous lexicographical and dialectological tools (HTE, LALME, LAEME) provide additional help, a renewed comparative study of the two verbs might offer new insights.[29]

Thus, taken together, it could be shown that the noun skin and the verb take are both first attested in very late Old English in contexts in which they reflect asymmetrical, superstratal influence in a historical text closely associated with the Danelaw, and that they developed more general and basic uses later, as becomes evident from the rich material of the Orrmulum. By late Middle English, the two words had reached the London area, though not in all meaning-ranges in which they are used today.

3.3 Words that are First Attested in Early Middle English

The first example for this second group of Norse loans is taken from the Orrmulum, which was written near Lincoln in the late 12th century. This text is of great value as an example of early Middle English from the former Danelaw not only on account of its early date but also because, as a religious text, it represents several genres that stand for much of vernacular verse and prose in the high and late Middle Ages.[30] As such, it is more suitable for linguistic comparisons with texts of such types from other dialect areas and periods than the ‘Peterborough Continuations’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Skaffari’s (2009) quantitative study of all foreign influences on early Middle English, which is based on the early Middle English section of the Helsinki Corpus, demonstrates the importance of the text for this period. His “Table 4. Norse-derived words in the HCM1, in order of frequency” (2009: 150) provides figures for several types of words that are most frequently attested in the Orrmulum, and their modern English equivalents illustrate the fact that such loans entered the standard language only in part – among the closed-class items or function words þeʒʒ ‘they’ but not fra ‘from’, among legal terms laʒe ‘law’ but not grið ‘peace’, and among verbs taken ‘take’ but not aunen ‘disclose, appear’. In section 3.2 above, Orm is shown to use the noun skin and the verb taken with very basic meanings.

The following abstract noun has become part of the basic vocabulary of modern Standard English:

Example 3: skill

The noun skill belongs to the most frequently used words of modern English (cf. Durkin 2014: 199–200, 213–214). According to OED, s.v. skill, n.11., this noun is first attested in the Orrmulum with the meaning ‘Reason as a faculty of the mind; the power of discrimination’: ʒiff þu follʒhest skill & shæd & witt i gode þæwess ‘If you follow reason and discrimination and understanding in good habits’ (cf. Holt 1878: l. 1210). In this and several related meanings the Norse loan is well attested in Middle English texts but meanwhile long out of use.[31] In late Middle English texts, examples are found in the works of Chaucer, Gower, Wycliffe, and Caxton.

An argumentative passage from Chaucer’s prose Tale of Melibee, which is cited in the MED, s.v. skil 4. ‘A reason for an observed fact [...] a cause (of sth.)’, provides an interesting glimpse into the competition of synonyms borrowed from Old Norse and Old French in his London English. In this passage, Chaucer links two synonyms borrowed from Norse and French: skile and resoun and injuries and wronges: Ye causelees and withouten skile and resoun, / han doon grete injuries and wronges to me ‘Without any cause or reason, you have injured and hurt me greatly’ (cf. Riverside Chaucer 238, Tale of Melibee, l. 2999–3000). The lexical equivalents in modern English that refer to these intellectual and moral qualities are French and Latin loans.[32]

Of the six Middle English meanings of skill given by the OED, only sense 6, ‘Capability of accomplishing something with precision and certainty; practical knowledge in combination with ability; cleverness, expertness’ has survived. It refers to more practical kinds of expertise, and this is the core meaning of the word today. It is first attested in Cursor Mundi. The wider meaning-range of the noun in Middle English roughly corresponds to the meaning-range of ON skil as listed by Zoëga (1910, s.v.): (1) ‘distinction’, (2) ‘discernment, knowledge’, (3) ‘adjustment’, (4) ‘pleading’.

The example of skill and its French and Latin rivals suggests that some widespread assumptions about language contact of English with Old Norse and Old French may be in need of re-consideration. Barber (et al. 2009: 156, which agrees with Barber 1993: 146) believes that “French words tended to penetrate downwards in society, whereas the Scandinavian words came in on the ground floor”. He also believes that “the French words were on the whole not such homely ones as the Scandinavian words” (2009: 156). Hughes (2000: 112) argues along similar lines: “The Norman vocabulary came down the hierarchy of power from a ruling caste speaking a foreign Romance language quite alien to a population speaking two related Germanic languages, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse”. The semantic range of the Norse loan skill in Middle English was clearly not as basic in the sense of “homely” but acquired that character in English only later, presumably in competition with synonyms such as reason borrowed from French, which no scholar would characterize as “homely”.[33]

The texts represented by the second early Middle English example were written in the South-West Midlands and thus outside the former Danelaw (cf. Dance 2003: ch. 2; Millett 2006: II, xi–xiii; and Skaffari 2009: 140). These texts are from the early thirteenth century, somewhat later than the Peterborough Continuations and the Orrmulum. The attestation of Norse loans in texts of that area must be seen in the context of long-term political and cultural ties between the archbishopric of York and the bishopric of Worcester mentioned earlier on with reference to the 11th-century attestations of the verb tacan in the latest annals of MS D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.[34] The relevant early Middle English textual evidence can be roughly divided into two types, namely one represented by various religious texts written in the area and one represented by Laʒamon’s heroic poem Brut. The attestation of Norse loans in these texts is dealt with in detail by Dance (2003) and Skaffari (2009: 142–144, 148–152).

The numerous words and formations from the following word family are frequently attested both in religious texts and in Laʒamon’s Brut:

Example 4: trust

Skaffari (2009: 150) lists the verb trusten ‘be confident’ in his table of Norse loans as particularly frequent, with eight tokens, from JULME (= Seinte Iuliene, a text belonging to the ‘Katherine Group’ of religious texts; cf. Dance 2003: 48–52). MED, s.v. trusten (v.) 1. (a) ‘to be confident; [...] take heart, take courage’ gives as the first attestation St.Kath. (1) 114/800 Porphire ananriht ferde þider i þe niht ant swucche wið him of his men þet he wel truste on ‘Porphire rode there immediately during the night and such of his men in which he placed great trust’. The root /trVst-/, with a short closed vowel, is not only attested in forms of the verb and the noun but occurs also in several adjectival formations (see MED, s.vv. trustful, trustī; trustīlī, trustlī). Late Middle English London evidence given in the MED includes several attestations from the Wycliffite Bible and from Chaucer’s works, e.g. For if a preest be foule on whom we truste ‘Because if a priest is sinful in whom we trust’ (General Prologue, l. A.501; cf. Riverside Chaucer 31).

Scholars agree that the quality and quantity of the root vowels of the attested Middle English forms cannot be derived from the attested forms of the Old Norse source language in a phonologically straightforward manner (noun traust, adjective traustr, verb treysta; see Onions 1966, s.v. trust; and Dance 2000: 377). Durkin (2014: 202–203, based on Dance) therefore sees “strong support for the hypothesis that the English words reflect an unattested native cognate, which was then probably influenced in its subsequent development by association with the well-developed set of words attested in the Scandinavian languages”. However, given the asymmetrical contact-situation between an Old Norse superstrate and an Old English substrate in the Danelaw, a somewhat different line of thought suggests itself which considers not only the attested Middle English forms of /trVst-/ but also the well-attested Old English /trVVw-/-forms with the same range of meanings and with identical syllable-initial cluster followed by a long closed monophthong (or a half-closed diphthong) and the velar semivowel, e.g. OE (ge)trēow/(ge)trūwa ‘trust, faith, confidence’, getrūwod ‘inspired with trust’, (ge)trēow(i)an/(ge)trūwian ‘to trust to, confide’, (ge)trēownes/getrūwung ‘faith, trust’ (TOE I, ‘Trust, faith, confidence’ and ‘Belief, trust, faithfulness’): The phonologically similar roots in the two Germanic languages in contact refer to the same moral values in West-Germanic and North-Germanic medieval societies (for the former see also Kluge 2011, s.vv. trauen, treu).

From a contact-linguistic viewpoint, the replacement of Old English /trVVw-/-forms with Norse-influenced /trVst-/-forms in Middle English dialects of the former Danelaw and in areas closely associated with it seems a likely lexical result of superstratal influence. The South-West Midlands, with their close political and cultural ties with York over a long period, belonged to a contact-area in which such a Norse-influenced root-structure could have been adopted from a Danelaw region or, alternatively, developed in the Worcester region by a process tentatively characterized by Dance (2000: 377) as “analogical remodelling”. The lexical complexity of the entire field ‘morality’ (see HTE I: 1397, 03.05) was increased enormously in Middle English by influences of both Old Norse and Norman French, as can be shown e.g. for the nominal subfield faithfulness/ trustworthiness/ soþfæstness/ trueness/ [...]; it consists of inherited words, Norse loans, Norman French loans, later also Latin loans, and many hybrid formations.

3.4 Words that Came into Use in London Only after Chaucer’s Time

The following two Norse loans, namely the noun egg and the verb give, go back to the same Germanic roots as their inherited equivalents and seem to represent exact synonyms:

Example 5: egg

The noun egg (< ON egg), in the borrowed form closed by a geminate velar plosive, supplants inherited ey (< OE ǣʒ), which ends with a palatal semivowel; cf. MED, s.vv. eg(ge and ei (n.(1)) 1. (a) ‘The edible egg of a domesticated fowl’. The loan is first attested in a late-fourteenth-century recipe: Pegge Cook. Recipes 102 Tak eggys and temper hem wyth Jus of Parcyle ‘Take eggs and blend them with an extract of parsley’, together with the verbal loan take. A different recipe in the same collection employs the inherited equivalents for both the noun and the verb: Pegge Cook. Recipes 92 Nym wytys of eyryn ‘Take the whites of eggs’. Chaucer’s use of the inherited form of the noun is attested in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, l. 4035: Milk and broun breed [...] seynd bacoun, and som tyme an ey or tweye ‘Milk and brown bread [...] broiled bacon and occasionally an egg or two’ (MED, s.v. ei (n.(1), 1 a; cf. Riverside Chaucer 253).

Caxton’s anecdote from the prologue to Eneydos (1490) about the merchant from northern England whose ship had to wait in the Thames estuary for a more favourable wind before it could continue its journey across the Channel suggests that the dialectal distinction between egg and ey in the South-East Midlands still applied for the late 15th century, at least for the rural areas. When the merchant asked a local farmwife for eggys, she believed that he was speaking French (Baugh and Cable 2013: § 151; Durkin 2014: 197–198, 288–289). Scholars have attributed such cases of replacement of inherited words with Norse loans to the close similarity of the two languages and an assumed large number of immigrants. But the fact that a borrowed word referring to this very basic food item supplanted the inherited one seems to call for a contact-linguistically more adequate explanation. For the initial language contact between Old Norse and Danelaw Old English it seems plausible to assume a superstratal influence of Old Norse. In Lutz (2013: 575–577, esp. note 29), the borrowing of the Norse loan egg is compared to the borrowing of Old French words for meats of common farm animals, and both instances of language contact are explained in terms of the prestige of foreign invaders after a conquest. In the case of Norman French, this influence eventually resulted in the well-known divided terminology of French loans referring to the meats and inherited words referring to the farm animals.[35] In the case of Old Norse, this influence resulted in the gradual abandonment of the inherited word by way of progressive dialect borrowing. For the sociolinguistic situation in which such an influence took effect in late medieval London, see below, section 6.Durkin (2014: 213) lists the noun egg among “other familiar items of everyday vocabulary (impressionistically assessed)”.

Example 6: give

The verb give in the borrowed form, with initial velar plosive (< ON gefa; cf. ODan givæ), supplants inherited yeven, with initial palatal semivowel owing to pre-Old English palatalisation (Hogg 1992: § 7.16), but the Norse loan reaches London only after Chaucer’s time. Early Middle English forms with initial plosive are safely attested in the former Danelaw for the Orrmulum, where this pronunciation becomes apparent from Orm’s idiosyncratic, very precise spelling system which distinguishes between /g-/ and /j-/, unlike most Middle English (and Old English) manuscripts that use insular <ʒ> and their later developments for various sound values (Scragg 1974: 29–33). For London and further south, forms with initial plosive are attested only after Chaucer’s time, as shown by LALME (I: dot maps 424–432). Chaucer employs the inherited form, e.g. in the Parson’s Tale, l. I.810: The speces of misericorde ben, as for to lene and for to yeve, and to foryeven and relesse ‘The kinds of mercy are to lend and to give, to forgive and to free’ (see MED, s.v. yēven, 1 a. (a) ‘To give alms, gifts, etc., give something voluntarily’; cf. Riverside Chaucer 316). Unlike in the case of ME taken vs. nimen (see the discussion of take in section 3.2 above), the choice of the borrowed verb at the cost of the inherited one seems not to have been linked with any semantic differentiation. Durkin (2014: 40, 215) lists give among the 100 most frequent words in the BNC and among the “verbs that realize very basic meanings” (2014: 213). The sociolectal factors that may have furthered the borrowed form in 15th-century London will be discussed in sections 5 and 6 below.

3.5 Some Concluding Observations on the Six Examples

The small selection of examples for Norse loans that survived and developed during the long period of French rule and belong among the most frequently used words of today betrays problematic features of various kinds. Many of those problems have to do with the scanty and uneven attestation of Norse loans in some way or another. Rynell’s (1948) comparative and quantitative study of some of those loans, though meanwhile somewhat dated, still provides valuable insights into the usage conditions for the loans and their inherited rivals in texts from different areas. Skaffari’s (2009) quantitative assessment of the early Middle English evidence for Norse and Norman French loans offers a carefully balanced picture of the importance of certain texts for the use of specific Norse loans in this period but does not provide information about semantic and textual details, e.g. the actual range of meanings in which a certain Norse loan was used and whether the word was used in rivalry with its inherited equivalent or with a Norman French loan. Thus, in a sense, recent quantitative studies are invitations to return to texts and take a closer look at the use of a particular loan in the context of a certain text or text group. It is obvious that most of this kind of work remains to be done, though now on the basis of additional and better search instruments such as the TOE and the HTE.

Some of the problems posed by these particular words could merely be touched upon, e.g. in the case of the noun skill, which had established itself in Middle English with a wide meaning-range close to that of its Old Norse source but was eventually narrowed to the more “homely” meaning of today, presumably in rivalry with Old French loans. Another type of problem becomes apparent from the very early and soon richly diversified attestations of the verb take: It betrays a rather specialized and clearly superstratal range of meanings in the early evidence of the two Chronicle manuscripts and a remarkable expansion of its range of uses a few decades later in the Orrmulum, at the cost of inherited nimen; and it seems impossible to say whether the difference between the Chronicle evidence and the Orrmulum evidence can be attributed to their different text types, to dialectal differences or to different degrees of language contact. That we may owe our information about a particular Norse loan to sheer luck even in cases of words with very basic meanings today could be shown for the concrete nouns skin and egg, with highly informative early evidence in the case of skin and very late attestation in the case of egg.

Thus, as was to be expected, the development of Norse loans during the period of extended French influence turned out to be no simple and uniform story. Yet two aspects deserve to be emphasized for the discussion in the remaining sections of this paper:

(1) Many of the Norse loans are likely to have been borrowed and become well established during the time of Norse rule but turned up in written use only during the 12th and 13th centuries, some even later. Compared to late Old English and early Modern English, this long dialectal period offers relatively few vernacular texts. Yet those that we have demonstrate that the survival of English after the Norman Conquest provided comparatively good chances of survival for Norse loans in the regional centres of the former Danelaw and the south-western area associated with York. Their authors and readers or audiences seem to have played important intellectual and social roles in those regions. Therefore, it is sociolinguistically unlikely that the strong Norse influence to be observed in the early Middle English texts entered the language “on the ground floor”.

(2) The usage expansion of numerous Norse loans into late medieval London English and into the emerging standard language suggests that Londoners of that later period who developed preferences for the lexical rivals borrowed from Old Norse to the inherited terms of traditional London speech must have been persons who played similarly important roles. Otherwise their lexical preferences could not have spread in the speech community of late medieval London. Both aspects will be discussed further in the remaining sections of this paper.

4 Dialects and Dialect Awareness in Post-Conquest England and the Role of Norse Loans

It is known that as a result of the Norman Conquest, England experienced a gradual redistribution of the roles of Latin and the vernaculars. Latin regained much of its importance as a supra-regional language for church and state, which it had lost to some degree to Late West Saxon in late Anglo-Saxon England; this vernacular standard had also been used by the Anglo-Norse elites during Cnut’s reign and beyond (see Keynes 1994: esp. 43–44, 47–48 and Treharne 2012: 61–68). The strengthening of the role of Latin made post-Conquest England similar to large parts of continental Europe, not only of those areas where Romance languages served as the oral equivalents of Latin but also of regions where varieties of West Germanic were spoken. Norman French, as the language of the new rulers of England, acquired a role as written language for literary and legal purposes and in various administrative fields only gradually, long after 1066.[36] The resulting functional trilingualism in post-Conquest England relegated the written use of English to the status of a language for which no nationwide linguistic orientation comparable to that of Ælfric’s time was available,[37] with the effect that Middle English was written – if at all – in the form of regional dialects. This remained so for a long time, as pointed out by Benskin (1992: 71):

At the close of the fourteenth century, the written language was local or regional dialect as a matter of course; typically, the area in which a man acquired his written language can be deduced from the form of the language itself.

Yet the fact that Middle English, unlike late Old English and early Modern English, is only attested in the form of regional varieties in some way improved the chances of survival for Norse loans, since the varieties of the Danelaw and the South-West Midlands had experienced considerably stronger Norse influence than the major areas of the Old English standard language especially in Wessex and more generally in southern England. It is particularly the northern and Midland regions for which Burnley’s (1992: 419) statement holds:

Scandinavian words filtered slowly into the written language only after the Conquest, when training in the West Saxon literary standard was terminated and scribes began once more to write on a broader range of topics in the forms of their own local dialects.

This Norse influence in the former Danelaw and the South-West Midlands occurred no longer by way of Norse-English language contact but by way of dialect borrowing (see Dance 2003: 327–330 and Skaffari 2009: 151–152). Several such regions with stronger Norse influence were also the regions that preserved and developed the use of the English vernacular longer and to a higher degree than regions further south. The particularly long continuation of vernacular annal writing in Peterborough in the 12th-century continuations of the Chronicle, with clearly regional features, is but one example for this in the early Middle English period;[38]another is the use of the vernacular for religious writing, particularly in the areas of Lincoln (with the Orrmulum) and Worcester (e.g. with the ‘Katherine Group’). Early Middle English authors in those two areas also made remarkable attempts at standardizing writing.[39] In the Worcester region, the composition of Middle English religious texts is linked with the intense study and copying of Old English homiletic texts mostly of Abbot Ælfric, which interestingly includes the replacement of a considerable number of inherited words with Norse loans.[40] Laʒamon’s early 13th-century alliterative poem, which is likewise clearly attributable to the Worcester region, exhibits many lexical and stylistic features based on the Old English heroic tradition but also employs Norse loans; the use of the noun swain ‘boy; servant’, frequently rhyming with the inherited noun thegn ‘man, warrior’, is a characteristic example (see especially Elsweiler 2011: 57, 113–115, but also Skaffari 2009: 150). At the same time, Laʒamon is the first author to deal with the Arthurian subject matter in English.[41] Such early Middle English texts were generally characterized by relatively little lexical influence of French, whose use was still largely restricted to loans that reflected Norman rule in a very direct manner. In the long run, however, the Old French impact upon English lexis proved enormous and immensely varied.[42] This included professional languages such as Law French and styles of trilingual business documents.[43]

In contrast to Laʒamon’s Brut, courtly romances in England were largely written in French until late,[44]and Cooper (2002: 691) rightly emphasizes: “Many romances that appear newly in fifteenth-century English had been around in French for 200 years or more”. And as long as there was no English standard available, this meant that they were written in the author’s dialect and, more or less consistently, adapted by scribes to other dialects, just like texts of other genres (see LALME I: ch. 3). The dialects of romances composed in the North and Midlands contain a remarkable share of Norse loans and typically use alliteration, besides endrhyme.[45]

This is even more true for the early forms of the drama, e.g. for the York cycle of mystery plays organized and enacted by the guilds of the city from the late 14th to the early 16th centuries.[46] The pageants moved along streets which had preserved their Norse heritage in the name element -gate (< ON gata ‘path, way, road’; cf. OED, s.v. gate n.2 2.).[47] Late medieval York, “the largest and wealthiest market town in England north of the Trent” (Rees Jones 2013: 248), gained its wealth mostly from wool and cloth production and trade (2013: 255–256). Rees Jones (2013: 147) emphasizes: “Cities and their citizens enjoyed two distinctive qualities: a central role in the cultural and economic life of their regions, and a clear sense of their own historic importance as such influential centres”. In the case of York, this obviously included the use of the local dialect with its characteristics of Norse influence for their annual plays (see Beadle 2009, Beadle 2013: xxxvi–xxxix). The example of York may serve to illustrate that below the central government of the very much French-dominated court soon concentrated in Westminster and thus close to London,[48]the citizens of regional centres were able to preserve and develop their regional cultural identities to some degree, and in the former Danelaw and the South-West Midlands the local vernaculars with their Norse loans formed part of such regional identities. Even so, the citizens of York, just like those of other regional centres throughout the country, necessarily adopted many lexical features of the long-established Old French superstrate.

Independently of the genre, late medieval authors and audiences seem to have developed a strong dialect awareness with regard to the vernacular throughout the country.[49] Richard Hogg, in his characterisation of the role of the vernacular in the late Middle Ages, discusses three “comments about dialect variation” (Hogg 2006: 359–361): (a) John of Trevisa’s well-known observations on the strong differences between southern and northern varieties, with particular focus on northern features of pronunciation “especialych at Ȝork”, which he, as a southerner from Cornwall, criticizes as “scharp, slyttyng and frotyng”.[50] (b) The statement by the author of Cursor Mundi from West Yorkshire in his preface that he had to translate the text from a more southerly exemplar into his own dialect. (c) Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of features of a Yorkshire dialect for the passages of direct speech of the two young Cambridge students in his Reeve’s Tale, an example for dialect awareness among his London audience[51] which will be dealt with in more detail in section 6 below. All three examples adduced by Hogg suggest that speakers of late Middle English dialects throughout the country considered the differences between southern and northern varieties to be particularly strong. The number of Norse lexical loans formed part of these differences.

5 The Gradual Norsification of Late Medieval London English Lexis as Part of the Standardization Process

The late fourteenth century was not only a time of particular dialect awareness but also a period in which London English, as the future standard language, developed features that were characteristic of more northerly varieties, as first shown in Lorenz Morsbach’s study of 1888. The authors of LALME were well aware of the difficulties of separating the long dialectal period from the following period of gradual standardization, particularly with reference to the London region, when they had to decide on the temporal limits for their corpus of manuscripts (see LALME I: ch. 1). Among the features that characterize the emerging standard language are Norse loan words that became part of London English during the 14th and 15th centuries (see esp. Rynell 1948). For the purposes of my limited lexical study, it suffices to highlight some parallels between the lexical evidence for Norse loans and other types of evidence for the development of the standard language:

(1) Eilert Ekwall (1956) aims to make sociolinguistic sense of the long-known variational fact that the emerging standard language is more northerly in character than the old-established London dialect (see Morsbach 1888 and numerous later studies discussed in Ekwall 1956: xiv–xxiv). Ekwall’s comprehensive study is based on the evidence from surnames attested in the Lay Subsidy Rolls of the late 13th and 14th centuries for London. On this onomastic basis, Ekwall argues that the change of the London dialect is due “to considerable immigration into London from Midland districts” (1956: xi) and that immigration from more northerly regions increases during the 14th century (1956: lxi). Although his evidence is not suitable for hard-and-fast statistical assessments, he is able to show for numerous individuals who immigrated from Midland and northern counties such as Yorkshire that they prospered in various trades, e.g. as drapers, mercers, skinners, and woolmongers, held civic offices, e.g. as sheriffs or aldermen, or were noted as clerks or lawyers (1956: lvi–lvii). Ekwall comes to the conclusion that “the London language as we find it towards the end of the fourteenth century was a class dialect, the language spoken by the upper stratum of the London population” (1956: lxiii), and he attributes the evidence for “so many prominent Londoners” who came from the Midlands and North to the growth of supra-regional trade, in particular to various aspects of cloth-making (1956: lxiv–lxv).

(2) Recent sociohistorical studies discussed by Keene (2000) support Ekwall’s findings only in part, at least so far. To some degree, this has to be attributed to the fact that these studies do not always focus on the same period, the same region or the same trades as those dealt with in Ekwall’s onomastic evidence. But Keene’s maps of medieval English towns for 1377, which show the numbers of taxpayers (6.4) and their urban potentials (6.5), together demonstrate “the unique power of London as a pole of attraction”, which clearly extended more “to the north and east of the city rather than to the south and southwest” (Keene 2000: 102–103) and thus generally support Ekwall’s sociolinguistic conclusions based on onomastic evidence for the same period. More precisely, with regard to the main regions from which late medieval London received its immigrants, Keene (2000: 106) emphasizes:

The extension of London’s migration field far into northeastern England is striking. Economic contacts with that region seem to have been mediated through urban centres such as York, Beverley and Newcastle.

And with regard to migration to late medieval London, Keene (2000: 105) points out:

In the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, migration to London was associated rather with the search for opportunity and the practice of skill rather than with that for marginal employment or charitable relief. These two types of migration, sometimes characterised as subsistence migration and betterment migration, presumably could have very different linguistic outcomes since their practitioners differed sharply in their status within London and interacted with the mass of Londoners in very different ways.

Thus, the sociohistorical evidence and Ekwall’s onomastic evidence do not contradict each other, and they suggest that late medieval London attracted many skilled immigrants from the former Danelaw.

(3) A study undertaken by Michael Samuels (1963) on the basis of LALME material focuses on spelling characteristics of London documents of the later 14th and earlier 15th centuries. It distinguishes four types of standardization, where “Type IV [...] a form of fifteenth-century London English” is argued to constitute the direct ancestor of the modern written standard (see Benskin 2004: 1, based on Samuels 1963).[52] Of the eight groups of spelling features in which Samuel’s Type IV differs from Type III (Chaucer’s English), two point to an increase of the lexical influence of Old Norse: (a) varieties of pronominal their for inherited hir and (b) preterite gaf with initial plosive for earlier yaf (Samuels 1963: 89), where the latter reflects the spelling and likely pronunciation for two high-frequency words coming closest to that of the modern standard language.[53] According to Samuels (1963: 93), Type IV evolves “from a combination of spoken London English and certain Central Midland elements [...] which was to spread considerably in use by 1470”. Benskin (1992: 77) concludes that the changes of spelling from Type III to Type IV resulted from “rapid changes in the regional balance of London’s immigrant population”. This conclusion seems to be in harmony with Ekwall’s (1956) assumptions based on onomastic evidence and the sociohistorical findings presented by Keene (2000).

(4) Alpo Honkapohja’s recent codicological and linguistic study (Honkapohja 2017 [2013]) of a late-15th-century group of medical texts, the ‘Sloane Group’, supports Samuels’s assumption that the Midland character of late medieval London English became more pronounced in the course of the 15th century. This group of manuscripts, dated to ca. 1450–1490, can be ascribed to London on codicological grounds because it is linked “to the book trade in London or its metropolitan area”.[54] Honkapohja’s application of the dialectological fit-technique, which was developed for LALME as a method to localize texts dated to ca. 1350–1450, to these closely related medical texts of a considerably later date reveals remarkably uniform spellings of a pronounced midlandish character for this scholarly text type. The LALME dialect features adduced by Honkapohja (2017: ch. 7) include the following characteristics going back to Old Norse influence:

(a) For the so-called sibling group of manuscripts (see Honkapohja 2017: 180–182): forms of them (IV), besides occasional hem (III); only forms of give with g- (IV).

(b) For the so-called canonical group (see Honkapohja 2017: 196–197): only forms of their (IV); 236 forms of them/theym with initial th- (IV), one instance of hem.[55]

Thus, Honkapohja’s late-15th-century evidence from medical texts suggests that immigration from more northerly regions into London continued to influence London writing after 1450 and, that way, the incipient standard language.

Taken together, the onomastic and sociohistorical evidence as well as the different stages of scribal regulation seem to be in harmony with the lexical evidence for Old Norse loans which gradually infiltrated late medieval London English and the emerging standard language. They all point to speakers with a relatively high social status who influenced London English “from above” rather than “from below”, both during Chaucer’s lifetime and afterwards.[56]

6 Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale and the Infiltration of London English with Norse Loans

This section deals with the increase of Norse loans in late medieval London with a focus on Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, where his London dialect contrasts with a Yorkshire dialect used for the passages of direct speech of two Cambridge undergraduates. The examples of skin, take, skill, and trust have shown how lexical loans from Old Norse became part of late medieval London English before and during Chaucer’s lifetime, and the examples of egg and give have demonstrated how other loans infiltrated London English only afterwards (see section 3 above). It would be difficult to show for these and other lexical loans to what degree old-established Londoners were actually aware of the northern origin of particular loans, let alone their borrowing from Old Norse. But the fact that Chaucer employed a Yorkshire dialect for the two students suggests that he himself had acquired an awareness of that dialect and assumed a similar dialect awareness for the audiences and readers of his late works.

Chaucer’s decision to situate this fabliau[57] in and near Cambridge and make the two undergraduates speak a Yorkshire dialect “from Strother”, which was not limited to lexical features but also considered phonological and morphological characteristics,[58] was obviously meant to add an element of comic realism to the story, since in his days English students from the Midlands and North preferably went to Cambridge. Scholars are agreed that this use of the Yorkshire dialect contributed to making the two students appear naive and backward, together with their seemingly clumsy behaviour towards the miller in the first part of the tale. Both features contradict the genre cliché of the clever student outtricking the less educated craftsman.

Yet Chaucer’s dialect trick for this tale could not have worked effectively on his audience if the sociolectal constellation in London had not provided a plausible basis for that aspect of the setting of his tale in real life.[59] Thus, we need to assume that Chaucer and his audience were familiar with living examples of newcomers to the established circles of London society from far-up north and were not only able to identify these newcomers dialectally but also to associate them with certain social positions. The latter task was in fact easier in a medieval society with its socially differentiating rules for clothing than it is today. For Chaucer himself, as a social riser within London society, the numerous official positions of his later life, e.g. as controller of the wool tax, must have offered ample opportunities for observing such risers coming from outside and various reactions to them from old-established London citizens.[60]

It was the risers, e.g. lawyers who had received legal training at a university and attained lucrative positions in and around London,[61] who would be observed closely by the established circles both in their roles as competitors and as financially potent customers. Some citizens would gladly make fun of them, as shown in the Reeve’s Tale; others would note their speech and behaviour with resentment, as frequently happens to successful businessmen and lobbyists from the Stuttgart region in present-day Berlin on account of their marked Swabian dialect;[62] again others would aim to imitate dialect features of their customers, as shown by the verbal exchanges of shop assistants of high-ranking department stores with potent customers from the Midwest in mid-20th-century New York (see Labov 1972: ch. 2). Patricia Poussa (1982: 80) plausibly compares the influence on the late Middle English pronunciation of the verbs get and give with initial plosive in London to the pronunciation of post-vocalic /r/ in fourth floor in New York,[63] namely as two parallel examples of sociolectal preferences adopted from the varieties of social risers coming from outside by the native speakers of the old-established city variety.

The influence on the late medieval London variety from more northerly dialects went on much beyond Chaucer’s time, as especially demonstrated by Honkapohja’s evidence from the Sloane Group of medical texts discussed in section 5 above. We can imagine to a certain degree in which situations this influence might have worked in oral exchanges of phrases containing lexical loans such as egg and give, whose borrowing in London resulted in the gradual replacement of inherited ey and yeve, their exact synonyms.[64] In such situations, there was obviously no need for borrowing in Weinreich’s (1953: 56–61) sense; rather, such “unnecessary borrowing” (in Bloomfield’s sense) is likely to have been guided by sociolectal preferences for the more prestigious immigrant variants in everyday verbal exchanges, and the prestige of the borrowed variants of such basic words must have been grounded in the socially superior position e.g. of potent customers. Innkeepers and their staff, in responses to their customers’ wishes, would be smart enough not to insist on using their local forms of such words. And it is likely that it was in such daily verbal exchanges where also the pronominal forms infiltrated London English, as single words in frequently-occurring phrases rather than as forms of a morphological paradigm.

7 The Infiltration of London English with Norse Loans: Some Concluding Considerations

This paper has concentrated on the questions (a) how the surviving lexical loans from Old Norse developed during the long period of French rule following the Norman Conquest and (b) why a considerable number of them managed to infiltrate late medieval London English and, that way, became part of the very basic lexis of modern Standard English. Since both the Old Norse and the Norman French influences were mainly the results of superstratal influence on Old English following a conquest, it was necessary to address these questions also with regard to the stratal role of the Norse loans during and beyond the time of Norman French rule. During the long Middle English period in which the vernacular existed only as dialects, the use of Norse loans developed mainly in regional centres of the former Danelaw but from there eventually also spread to London where they supplanted a considerable number of well-established inherited terms. That is, we have to do with an initial period of Anglo-Norse language contact and with long subsequent phases of dialect contact. Does the assumption of superstratal influence make sense also for dialect borrowing of Norse loans from northern varieties into late medieval London English, 300 to 400 years after the Norse conquest? It may be argued that this dialect borrowing did not result from a conquest and therefore does not meet the sociolinguistic conditions for superstratal influence. However, superstratal influence is not necessarily the result of a conquest, as shown by the intense Middle Low German lexical influence of the Hanse traders on the closely-related Scandinavian languages. This influence was concentrated in the same lexical fields as the Old French influence on English, the Visigothic and Arabic influences on Spanish, and the Turkish influences on several Balkan languages and thus may be characterized as that of an ecomomic superstrate (see Vennemann 2011: 243–244 for the term and the evidence): The Middle Low German loans in Scandinavian languages include examples such as krig ‘war’ from field (a) ‘War, Weapons, and Related Matters’; straff ‘punishment’ from field (b) ‘Law’; hertuc ‘duke’ and hövlighet ‘courtesy’ from field (c) ‘State and Communal Life; and språk ‘language’ and fönster ‘window’ from field (d) ‘Expressions from Numerous Spheres of Everyday Life’.

In Lutz (2012), the superstratal influence of Old Norse was mainly demonstrated for the Norse loans from fields (b) and (c). The present paper has focussed on lexical loans from field (d). Early attestations of these Norse loans show that their meanings tended to be less basic and more obviously superstratal than they became later on and thereby suggest ways in which such loans entered the English substrate. Their establishment and spread within the former Danelaw and their partial infiltration of London speech all point to influences by leading circles of the respective communities. In cases where such influences came from outside, e.g. the lexical influence of the northern immigrant varieties on late medieval London English, it makes sense to explain them in stratal terms. Given the uneven attestation in Middle English texts, it is often difficult to find unequivocal evidence for superstratal borrowing not only from Old Norse but also from Norman French. Supportive evidence for a sociolinguistic explanation, with reference to the economic and social position of the speakers, is similarly difficult to attain. In this paper, I have therefore aimed to bring together numerous types of selective evidence that may help to explain the well-established fact that some Norse loans belong to the most frequent words of the modern standard language.[65]

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Published Online: 2017-6-22
Published in Print: 2017-6-2

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