Old English: The Viking invasions and their consequences

1. Characterize the nature of Viking raids and Viking settlement in England.[1]

Viking raids (787+)

• Reasons for the Vikings leaving their home:

- over-population

- too few natural resources

- primogeniture system

• Nature of the raids = similar like the Anglo-Saxons'

- pillaging and burning of the coast + returning home with gold, silver, slaves etc.

- Monasteries sacked and manuscripts destroyed in Lindisfarne, Jarrow and Iona (793-795)

Viking settlement (850+)

• Less raids, more settling - Danish Vikings in large parts of North and East England, Norwegian Vikings in Western Scotland + parts of Ireland => farms established => territorial conflict between inhabitants + newcomers, BUT no forced removal of Celts as the Anglo-Saxons have done

• West Saxon kings undertook defense against the Danes, ex. Æthelwulf (recorded as a descendant of Seth, the son of biblical Adam) in 854

• Æthelwulf’s son Alfred the Great of Wessex (initiator of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) stopped the advance of Danish Vikings at battle of Edington in 878

• Peace under Treaty of Wedmore:

1) Stable boundary set between kingdom of Wessex and Danelaw (Northumbria, East Mercia & East Anglia)

2) The defeated Danish king of East Anglia Guthrum became Christian (= step towards assimilation of Viking conquerors)

• Æthelstan (Alfred’s grandson) helped the West Saxons reconquer territories in Danelaw and then in whole England

• Settlements of Danes and Anglo-Saxons = relative proximity, similar ways of life, bilingualism

• Eventual renewed attacks by the Danes => establishment of Danish king over all England: Sweyn Forkbeard

- Æthelstan put into exile

- His son Cnut (= king of Denmark and Norway) ended Danish raids, though not Danish claims to the throne

- Official language at court: English, x Danish

Compare OE borrowings from Latin and ON.

• Latin borrowings = mainly religious (bishop, Saturday etc)

• Borrowings/loan words from ON

- War + maritime: ransaka “ransack”, dreng “warrior”

- Legal + administration: laga “law”, hūsting “tribunal”

- Common verbs: get, want, call

- Bodily features: leg, freckles, skin

- Farm & animal terms: bull, egg, axletree

- Life: birth, slaughter, die

- Relations: sister, husband

• BUT ex. ON taka “take” replaced OE niman, but “nim” = “nimble” (= stealing in PDE)

• Most loan words adopted in OE do not appear in writing until ME

- Reason: lack of a literary tradition in Danelaw

2.Characterize the Scandinavian element of English lexicon on phonological level.[2]

Although the words in OE and ON were identical in many cases, the sound changes have led to distinctions:

a. Proto-Germanic /sk/ remained /sk/ in Norse, but became /ʃ/ in OE. Numerous words in ModE with the consonant cluster /sk/ come ultimately from ON: skirt (vs. native shirt), shrub (vs. scrub), scatter (vs. shatter), but also skin, sky, skill;

b. /g/ for /j/ as in give (OE giefan with in initial /j/) or egg (OE ey);

c. /k/ for OE /tʃ/ as in kid (OE cild) or kirk (OE cirice);

d. Proto-Germanic /ai/ became /ei/ in Norse, but /o:/ in OE in the ModE pairs nay-no, hale-whole, raid-road);

e. Proto-Germanic /au/ remained ON /au/ but became OE /e:a/ as in lauss (> ModE loose) vs. lēas (> ModE –less, e.g. hopeless).

Less frequent pronunciation differences: loss of initial w- (cf. Ulf vs. Wulf) or the so called metathesis (ON brenna vs. OE biernan “burn”).

3. Summarize changes in the system of inflectional morphology (including the pronominal system) in this period.

  1. loss of grammatical gender;
  2. simplification of gender, number and case agreement in adjectives, qualifiers, quantifiers and demonstratives;
  3. the general loss od dative and genetive plural cases.
  • introduction of '-es' ending in 3rd person sg, Present Tense
  • 3rd person pl pronouns now begin with 'th-'
  • feminine sg nominative: hēo > seō, where /s/ was later palatalized into /ʃ/

4. Summarize the main syntactic changes during this period.[3]

  • Mainly relative pronouns/particles
    • Ϸe (that/who) used in OE for all antecedents regardless of case and number
    • ON contributed to the use of relative particle as that came from Norse som
      • As in the man as came yesterday (more common in northern English dialects)
    • Zero relative appears
      • As in the man [zero] I saw yesterday
      • Was probably used even before the Viking invasions, but even though it is a rare construction it appears both in English and Danish, which is interesting
        • The languages also share “preposition stranding”
          • A construction where the preposition can be moved away from the relative
          • E.g. a construction in which the relative is fronted X a construction which the relative is fronted in
  • Verb phrase

In OE complex verb forms (such as the perfect, the progressive, the will-future, auxiliary do) were not common, but they are in ME

  • It is debatable how much was their appearance in ME influenced by ON
  • It might also be caused the disappearance of the West Saxon written standard under the Normans
  • In either case it is also possible that it was influenced by the vernacular during the absence of a unified language form (whether in Danelaw or Norman England)

5. Sum up the argument for and against the creolization scenario of LOE/ME

argument for (Baily and Maroldt):

  • loss of inflection - earlier in the North - speakers of ON made up over 50% of the population there
  • weak status of OE in Danelaw -> many word borrowings

arguments against (Thomason and Kaufman)

  • the loss of final /ə/ which led to loss of grammatical distinctions - occured in the time ON was already dying out in the North
  • the simplification is correspondent to a social upheaval the language change here = internal, rather than external

ME - only 20% ON features

->not creolization, rather biligualism with high degree of borrowing (both lexical and grammatical)

6. Describe the main points of Alfred's cultural reform and its relation to the emerging standard form of English. Summarize the effects of monastic reform[4]

  • King Alfred stopped the cultural decline that was caused by the invasions of the Vikings
  • Alfred instigated a literary revival: number of Latin books were translated into OE, most importantly Cura Pastoralis ("Pastoral Care"), which was a set of religious rules and guidelines for clergymen; by sending the translation to the 12 West Saxon dioceses he established common religious-intellectual ground in his lands
  • Another essential work of King Alfred was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which was based on Bede´s Historia Ecclesiastica); through the chronicle a first common historical tradition was initiated
  • Alfred was clever to use the English translations, for the level of Latin was probably low and not many people would understand the Latin texts; thanks to the English texts the king had more influence
  • As a result of Alfred´s literary revival, Wessex became the most dominant and prestigious part of England
  • Consequently, the West Saxon dialect soon became the basis of written OE even beyond the borders of Wessex

The Monastic reform:

  • it happened in the 10th century thanks to Dunstan, Archbishop of Cantenbury; Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester; and Oswald, bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York
  • it provoked another literary and linguistic revival; as a result of the reform, a number of words was borrowed from Latin, most of them learned in nature: clustor "cloister", istoria "history", terminus "term"; but also words for flora and fauna including fig or tiger
  • about 450 Latin words can be found in OE writings (some before this period)
  • During the monastic reform, Aelfric of Eynsham (c. 955-1010), who was one of Dunstan´s disciples, became an important writer; he produced not only religious writings but he also tried to revived Latin and he wrote Grammar (the first Latin grammar written in English), Glossary (a word-list) and Colloquy (a manual for students of Latin)
  • The Codex Exoniensis, which was probably written by the first Bishop of Exeter, is one of the most substantial manuscripts of OE literature as it contains both religious and everyday texts including "The Wanderer", "The Seafarer", "Widsith" and also 95 riddles


  1. Gramley, Stephan. The History of English: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, p. 46-52
  2. Gramley, Stephan. Tnhe History of English: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, p. 53-54.
  3. Gramley, Stephan. The History of English: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, p. 56
  4. Gramley, Stephan. The History of English: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, p. 60-62.