Reflections 2012
Series 14
August 25
Norse Expansion II a: Southwestward to England


We’ve followed Norse Expansion eastward into Russia on this centuries-by-color map, and also on this date-and-route map. Continue comparing the two. The Norse who were involved in eastward expansion were the Swedes. Now that we’ve laid the basis for our knowledge of early history on the island of Britain, and of Old English, we can turn our attention to Norse expansion southwestward. The Norse in this case were the Danes.


Look again at the 1st map, where we have to clarify something about Britain. For now, disregard the 9C red areas in the north of Scotland, since those were the Norwegians going west, which is a later topic. (Also disregard the red areas in Ireland, where, for example, Norwegians founded Dublin!). Yes, Britain got hit “top and bottom” by the Norse. Note instead the 9C red area expansion on the east coast of Britain, in England, in which case the Norse were the Danes. They started arriving and settling in 866 (2nd map).


Then note on the 1st map the 10C orange area in Normandy, across the Channel from Britain, where the Norse started settling in two decades later, in 886 (2nd map), and where they remained for 180 years, until they invaded England in 1066, and turned the world upside down.


Finally on the 1st map, note the 11C yellow area in the southwest of England, an area that was invaded twice. Early on in the 11C, the Danes expanded their area to include all of England, although for only 26 years. Then the country came under English rule again, but for only 24 years, when it was invaded by the Normans. It seems ya can’t win. The topic has so many interesting twists and turns that we’ll discuss the Danish expansion here as II a and the Norman one in the next posting as II b.


The Danelaw   After the Danes first invaded in 866 and began to settle, they continued to struggle with the English for a couple of decades initially, and then sporadically into the 900’s (10C), as their area grew and the border between their area and the English area continued to vary. Since we’re tracking languages and language history along with regular political history, let’s look at this map of the Germanic languages in the early 10C, perhaps a half-century after the Norse (Danes) arrived in England. The West Germanics are in green--High and Low German, including Dutch--and yellow--Old English, which had already moved aside for the Danes. The North Germanics had started to split to West Old Norse and East Old Norse. West Old Norse, in red, became Norwegian, and we have a preview here of that expansion to Shetland and Orkney, including more of northern Scotland (and elsewhere in the British Isles, including Dublin on the central east coast of Ireland), beyond that the Faroes, and Iceland. East Old Norse, in orange, became Swedish and Danish, and we see the Swedes in Russia and the Danes in England and Normandy, in northern France.


[Lest someone accuse me of incomplete work, I’ll add that the purple on the Baltic island of Gotland, today part of Sweden, is Gutnish (“Gotland-ish”) a minor third branch of Old Norse, and the blue over in the Crimea is nothing other that Crimean Gothic, which belongs to that third, and minor, branch of Germanic known as EAST Germanic. The Goths wandered, just as the Angles and Saxons had. Gothic is now extinct, and therefore East Germanic with it. Gutnish still coexists with Swedish on Gotland.]


We will not go too deeply into the political history of the Danes (or later, the Normans) in England, since we concentrate here more on the language history. But essential to overall understanding is to know where and what the Danelaw was. (In the 2nd of the two maps in the first paragraph above, it was listed by its Danish name, Danelag.) This map shows England in 878, a dozen years after the Danes first arrived in 866, and shows how quickly and how well the Danes became established, and remained so for well over a century and a half, until 1042. The term Danelaw obviously means the area where Danish law applied instead of Anglo-Saxon law, but by extension, the Danelaw (Danelag) was a place, the name of the Danish lands. You lived either IN the Danelaw or in the Anglo-Saxon lands. Note also on this map that York was a major city in the Danelaw, and that the Celtic lands, in gray, continued to remain separate to the west and north.


[It’s ironic that the West Germanic Angles came from the lower end of the Jutland peninsula and settled on England’s east coast, notably in East Anglia, that large bulge, and then the North Germanic Danes came from the upper end of the Jutland peninsula (and islands) and ALSO settled on England’s east coast, including East Anglia. Talk about history repeating itself!]


In the first century of the new millennium, the 11C, great changes came to England. To put the time period into perspective and connect it with later discussions, I’ll mention that the year 1000 is when the Norse reached America. Actually, they were in Vinland for a year or two before, and also after, but it centered on 1000. In England, there were two years of particular significance in that upcoming century, 1016 and 1066, which are exactly a half-century apart. In 1016, the Danes reached their highpoint in England, taking over the whole country (then they lost it all in 1042), and of course, in the famous year of 1066, the Normans came. This is how it went.


1016   The name Knut (pronounce the K) is a Scandinavian name also used in German. The name is related to the word “knot”. As you know, Anglo-Saxon used a C for the K sound, so their form was Cnut, although some went considerably further and Anglicized it to Canute. We mention this, because we’re about to talk about Cnut the Great, Prince of Denmark, and later, King of England, and also King of Denmark.


In the summer of 1015, Cnut set sail for Britain in 200 longships with perhaps 10,000 men to do battle with the English, a war that lasted 14 months, into the fateful year of 1016. At the time, the King of England was Æthelred II, and the first problem in 1016, given the invading army, is that Æthelred died on 23 April at the age of about 48.


He had a number of children. One son with his first wife was Edmund Ironside; one with his second wife was Edward the Confessor, so the two were half-brothers. Upon Æthelred’s death, Edmund Ironside became king as Edmund II at age 23 or 28 (his birth date is uncertain), and the war with Cnut continued. However on 18 October, Cnut and Edmund agreed to a negotiated settlement in which they divided England between them. In addition to the Danelaw, all of England north of the Thames except London came under Cnut’s rule, and all of England south of the Thames, plus London, remained under Edmund’s rule. England was shrinking and the Danish lands in Britain were growing.


Then, on 30 November, just six weeks after the agreement, Edmund died, after having been King of England for just six months. The circumstances of his death--remember, he was in his twenties--are unknown. But in accord with the agreement, on Edmund’s death, the rest of England went to Cnut. ALL of England was now Danish, so far had the Norse come--or the Vikings, if you will.


Cnut’s fortunes improved further. Two years later, in 1018, he acceded to the throne of Denmark itself, bringing together the crowns of England and Denmark in a unified kingdom. He called his new realm the North Sea Empire, consisting of England, Denmark, Norway, and the Skåne part of Sweden, and an empire it was. He had control of the British Isles and the Scandinavian peninsula, and with them, the North Sea and the Baltic. He was said to be the second most powerful man in the West, after the Holy Roman Emperor.


But Cnut lived only until 1035, when he died at age 40 or 50. One son succeeded him, but lived for only five years more, followed by a second of his sons, who lived only two years after that, and died in 1042. That was the end of the North Sea Empire after only 26 years, since the Danish crown went to one person and the English crown to another. It was also the end of England being part of Scandinavia, and of the Danes ruling over any part of England, since the Danelaw was no more.


The English crown then reverted in 1042 to the English line, and the next in line after Harold II these 26 years later was his half-brother, Edward the Confessor. What goes around, comes around.


1066   We know that that year of 1066 is on its way, so we’d at first think that the Norman invasion that year caused the end of Edward the Confessor’s reign. We’d be half right. Edward’s reign did end that year, but that’s because he died in January, at about the age of 62. We are going to see that 1066 was amazingly parallel to that date exactly a half-century earlier, 1016: the English king dies early in the year, a successor has a short reign during the year fighting off invaders, but an invader takes over England before the end of the year. Did I mention before that history repeats itself?


When Edward died on 6 January, there was no obvious successor, and a nobleman, Harold Godwinson took the throne, as Harold II. But he would have a short reign, as two invaders threatened. He was successful against the first, but famously lost to the second.


In the autumn, King Harald III of Norway (note the spelling difference of the two names, Harold of England and Harald of Norway) invaded northern England and took York, in an attempt to bring Norse rule back to England. However, Harold successfully defeated Harald, who died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on 25 September.


Harold had little time to savor victory. Just 19 days after this battle, during the Normans’ invasion in the south, Harold not only lost, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings to (Duke) William (II) of Normandy, or William the Conqueror, he also lost his life that day at age 44, and with those two losses, all of England was lost in the following two months.


On Harold’s death, there was one last member of the royal line, the young grandson of Edmund (Ironside) II, and officials in London elected him king, as Edgar II. He was however, about 15 at the time. But then, it wasn’t long before William proceeded from Hastings toward London, and so in December, the officials and Edgar met and submitted to William, quietly setting Edgar’s election aside. Therefore, Edgar II had been proclaimed, but never crowned, King of England, so he remains a footnote to history, the end of the bloodline, having been informally king for two months, October to December.


As compelling as 1016 had been (Æthelred, Edmund, Cnut), 1066 was as much or moreso (Edward the Confessor, Harold, even Edgar, and of course William the Conqueror). Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king, but he reigned only nine months, from January to October of that fateful year of 1066. Edward the Confessor is the next-to-last Anglo-Saxon king, but he reigned for a longer period of time, which was the 24 years from 1042 to 1066. These 24 years then ended the Anglo-Saxon era, and was the last time period that an independent England was not subject to either the Danes or the Normans.


The Anglo-Saxon/Old English era lasted in Britain from about 550 to 1066, which is just a few years longer than half a millennium, five centuries. To put the length of time into perspective (and to peek ahead to future postings), the Norse settlement in Greenland lasted for just under five centuries before it disappeared, starting in the 980’s and probably ending in the late 1400’s. If you measure English settlement of America as starting with Roanoke in the 1580’s, that’s only about four-and a quarter centuries. European settlement of Australia started with the First Fleet in 1787, so that settlement is two-and-a-quarter centuries old. Anglo-Saxon England was around for a long time.


Danes & North Germanic   But that Anglo-Saxon period included the period of Danish influence on the culture and on the language. Perhaps one should call Old English by the end of that period Dano-English. There were numerous additions to the language, but they don’t stand out like wealth of French words the Normans later brought. Why not? Although Danish is North Germanic, and Anglo Saxon West Germanic, they are still both Germanic, and the additions and changes are considerably less noticeable. As a matter of fact, the Old East Norse that the Danes spoke and Old English were still somewhat mutually comprehensible, allowing for considerable interchange.


It’s not our purpose here to summarize all the Scandinavian changes to the culture and language, but just to mention a number of the more interesting ones as an illustrative selection.


PATRONYMS Patronyms, often referred to by the adjectivally-based word patronymics, are names based on one’s father’s first name. If your father was Samuel Peterson, and you were Carl, your name was Carl Samuelson, and your son Harold was Harold Carlson. Patronyms change with each generation. A number of languages do this, and North Germanic (Scandinavian) culture is historically rife with them, usually using the suffix -son. When we talk about Iceland, we’ll discuss this thoroughly, because that is the only Scandinavian culture that still does it on a regular basis. All the others have abolished it, and frozen names in time, so that a name like Johanson would stop being a patronym and become a family name, staying generation to generation.


A patronymic system was never a hallmark of West Germanic cultures and never got established in Dutch or German, that is, not until the Danelaw was established in England, at which time the Danes introduced it to English culture. It lasted for a time, and then, too, was frozen, so that today, we have in English-speaking countries huge numbers of Johnsons, Richardsons, Stevensons, Paulsons, and Williamsons, one for just about every common male first name, but the names never change any more between generations. Some of the names get altered. Carlson can shorten to Carson, Davidson to Davison; there’s merely a spelling change between Harry and Harrison; final syllables are lost between Nicholas and Nicholson (also spelled Nicolson), and between Thomas and Thomson, which usually gets a non-historic, intrusive P to become Thompson. It also works for nicknames. William can appear as Will, and so we have Willson, usually spelled Wilson. John can appear as Jack, and so we have Jackson. Richard can be Dick, and so we have Dickson. Some years ago, when I was pondering the name of the town of Dickson, Tennessee, it struck me that most people with that name spell it Dixon, combining the K sound ending the first word with the S starting the second, into an X. Then it struck me what the heritage of Richard Nixon’s name was, Nick+son, and therefore there is a relationship between the names Nicholson and Nixon, obscured by the X spelling. Then, in Florida, I went shopping for Florida oranges at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, and it struck me that a name I’d never heard of before, Mixon, was Mick+son, meaning it had a connection to Michaelson. (I’ve never seen the spelling Jaxon for Jackson, except I see in Wikipedia that an American cartoonist named Jackson did use the Jaxon spelling as a pen name. And the code for Jacksonville airport in Florida is JAX!)


I point all this out to show Scandinavian heritage entering via the Danelaw--and not in this case Anglo-Saxon heritage--affecting something as common as these family names in English. And I just did a tally of the 44 American presidents. 9, or 20%, have -son names: 2 Johnsons, 2 Harrisons, Jackson, Wilson, Nixon, Jefferson, Madison. I could see that Jefferson is based on Jeffrey, but what about James Madison? Back to Wikipedia. It seems that Madison is commonly spelled Maddison in Northeastern England, which brings us right back into the Danelaw. Maddison is based on Maddy, which comes from Matty, which comes from Matt, which is short for Matthew! So just like Williamson and Willson, we have Matthewson and Madison! And to boot, the name Mattson also exists.


Scandinavian-based family names other than those in -son also exist in Britain, particularly in the area of the Danelaw. Early medieval records indicate that at that time, over 60% of personal names in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire showed Scandinavian influence.


TOPONYMS Toponyms, to use a fancy word, are merely place names (think of the TOP in “topography”). The Danes left a huge number of place names in England, some 1500, although they’re largely in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, within the Danelaw.


Some of the less common suffixes are -toft “homestead” as in Blacktoft, Langtoft; -thwaite “clearing” as in Linthwaite; -thorpe “village” as in Olgethorpe, Middlethorpe, Overthorpe, and just simply Thorpe. But by far the winner is -by, of which there are about 600 towns in England using that suffix, and some of the town names have become family names. In Scandinavian, “by” pronounced BÜ, means “village”, but it seems to give the flavor of the quintessential English village. We have Hornby, Ellerby, Selby, Whetherby, Whitby. In Lincolnshire, Grimsby, according to legend, was founded by a Danish fisherman named Grim, hence “Grim’s Village”. In Yorkshire are names like Digby and Utterby (“outer village”). How familiar are names like Rugby, Derby, and Carnaby. The Danes also brought in the word that turned into “kirk”, parallel to “church” (we associate “kirk” more with the North, especially Scotland), but we have a number of villages called Kirkby, which also evolves into Kirby, showing again that village names often become family names.


Speaking of Yorkshire reminds me of our 2001 visit to Thirsk (2001/5, in a sparse writeup in the first year of this website). Thirsk is the location in which James Herriot set his “All Creatures Great and Small” series. Some (few) details are in that writeup, but for now I have three comments reflecting that the location was within the Danelaw. The name Thirsk is from the Old Norse þresk, which means “marsh”. Thirsk is surrounded by -by villages, such as Thirlby, Boltby, Borrowby and Sowerby. But most interesting for me, when Herriot renamed Thirsk in his books (all places had pseudonyms), he chose Darrowby, a -by name to make it sound quintessentially English--yet Danish.


[Anglo-Saxon place names were often based on the word town, or ham, a very small village, better known today by its diminutive “hamlet”. “Town” today remains as a suffix, sometimes as is (Newtown), usually in short form (Brighton). Ham is common, as in, for instance, Birmingham. As for -wick and -wich, see below.]


GENERAL VOCABULARY In additional to personal and place names, more than a thousand words of Old Norse origin have entered standard English. Moreover, they are basic words of very frequent use such as: take, go, come, sit, listen, eat, get, give, both, same.


Here are some with their Old Norse sources: cast < kasta “to throw”; clip < klippa “to cut”; club < klubba “cudgel”; egg < egg (compare Norwegian egg, Danish ægg, Swedish ägg); ill < illr; kid < kið “young goat”; knife < knifr; knot < knutr (and remember the name Knut/Cnut/Canute); lad < ladd “young man”; leg < leggr; oaf < alfr “elf”; rotten < rotinn; run < renna; thrift < þrift “prosperity”.


In addition, there are many words that “sound local”, that survive primarily in regional dialects in Northern England and Scotland, yet are recognizable to all. These words often have parallel counterparts in standard English that derive from Old English. One is “kirk”, from Old Norse kirkja, as opposed to “church”--see also Kirkby above. Along with the standard “no”, we also have the regional “nay”, from Old Norse nei (compare Swedish and Danish nej). While Old English fram gave us “from”, Old Norse fra gave us “fro”, used in the expression “to and fro”. Following is another regional word in the North, “fell”.


FELL: Coming from the Lake District in northwest England to Thirsk in the northeast, we crossed over the Yorkshire Dales, a series of valleys (dales) between high mountains. Many of these high mountains are not called such, they are called fells, and “fell” is usually limited to those mountains that are very high, reaching above the treeline. Such mountains referred to as fells are in Scandinavia, including Iceland, and Northern England. The Old Norse word for any sort of mountain was fell/fiall/fjell. The word is related to German Fels “stone, rock”. On a personal note, Beverly’s mother’s family name is Fjellman. (And her father’s is Johnson, earlier Johanson, so I’m covered both ways in Scandinavian connections.) When discussing Iceland, we’ll discuss the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, so examine the middle of that word carefully now.


There are hundreds more words from Old Norse in the standard vocabulary. I’ve picked out a few particularly interesting cases.


WINDOW: Think of a window is a “wind eye”, in other words, an opening (“eye”) to let in ventilation (vent- is a Latinate root that also means “wind” and is related to “wind”). The Old Norse word was vindauga, from vindr + auga, meaning just that, “wind eye”. Old Norse vindauga replaced the Old English eagþyrl, literally an “eye-hole”, and also eagduru, an “eye door”. What we’re talking about was originally a glassless hole in the roof. You may smile at the imagery of an eye. Don’t, because this imagery is not unique. The Latin word for “eye” is oculus, and in architecture, an oculus is a circular window in Classical architecture used most frequently in a roof. This is the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome. Also, the French word for “eye” is oeil and an oeil-de-boeuf (“bull’s eye”) is a decorative window, more likely a vertical one, as this oeil-de-boeuf in the Château de Chenonceau in France. The term, which is a mouthful to pronounce for non-speakers of French, is sometimes Anglicized to “ox-eye window”. But it’s an eye, nevertheless.


LAW/OUTLAW/BYLAW: Old Norse lag meant “layer”, something that you “lay down”. The plural was lagu “law(s)”, in other words, a layers of legislation laid down until you have a complete corpus of law. Lagu then developed to English “law”. Built on that was the Old Norse utlagi, which became “outlaw”. And my favorite: as we know, “by” is Scandinavian for village, so a “bylaw” was originally a village law.


YULE: The name of the winter festival at the time of the solstice in Old Norse was jol, and developed into “yule”, which remains in English as a particularly festive and homey word for the holiday season. Jul is also the present Scandinavian name for the holiday. Again on a personal note, for many years we wrote and received Christmas cards with Swedish relatives, and I got very used to the Swedish holiday greeting God Jul! (“god” rhymes with “mood”). The year we lived in Mainz, Beverly’s parents from Minnesota joined us in Sweden, where we got engaged, to toasts over julöl (jul+öl), which is yule ale, a special Yuletide treat.


[Old Norse jol and its festive nature is believed to have been borrowed by Old French (!!!) in the form jolif, originally meaning “festive”, as at yuletide. Jolif later developed into French joli “pretty”. Joli, in turn, was borrowed by English to become “jolly”. Now you’ll understand why wishing an etymologist a Jolly Yule will make him more pleased than you’d imagined!]


MUG: As a drinking vessel, “mug” comes from Old Norse mugge. The Swedish word is still mugg, and in Norwegian, mugge has a similar meaning, “pitcher”. But what’s unusual is this. The word reached English twice. It was first introduced in the North by the Danes as a regional word. It then also went directly to Normandy and was blended into Norman French. Then, the Normans reintroduced it, particularly to southern England, making the word national.


SKID: The verbal meaning, “to skid”, which we think of first, is secondary. Primary is the noun “skid”, such as when you attach two skids to a sleigh to make it slide, or, well, to skid. The Old Norse word was skið, and meant “stick of wood”, so the image is clear. But it gets better. What if you attach “skids”, or “sticks of wood” to your feet? In Norway, Old Norse skið lost its last sound and became ski, and by 1885, that word went international. So now we have skids and skis, both “pieces of wood” and the descendants of the Old Norse word entered English twice.


[A parallel word had always existed in German with a similar meaning, Scheit, plural Scheiter. In my experience, I’ve only seen the word as part of Scheiterhaufen, literally “sticks heap” or “heap of sticks”, which was used in reference to burning at the stake. When ski entered English, we used the spelling as its pronunciation, but by then, the original Norwegian pronunciation had moved from SK to SH, so ski is SHI. To preserve the pronunciation, the word in German was respelled Schi. Therefore, Scheit and newer Schi have the same relationship as skid and newer ski do in English, although not all the meanings are the same.]


SKY: Old Norse sky meant “cloud”, but became English “sky”. As we noticed earlier, Old English used heofon (F=V) for this, so English ended up with two words, one from each source, “heaven” and “sky”. Although “heaven” became specialized, taking on a religious meaning, that’s not true in the special plural use of these words, where “up in the heavens”, “up in the skies”, and even still “up in the clouds”, can all mean the same thing.


SCORE (=TWENTY); also SHEAR: Old Norse skera “to cut” entered English twice, as two rather different words. It became “to shear” which is a type of cutting. But it also became “to score” as in scoring a notch, or cutting into a piece of wood. How could that have become a number? It is speculated that, if a stick was used for counting, and was “scored” or “notched” every time say, 20 sheep went into the pen, that that’s the association between “to score” and a score of items being twenty.


SK- & SH- WORDS: Proto Germanic SK (two sounds) developed over time to SH (one sound). It seems to have changed first in West Germanic, rather thoroughly, and then later somewhat in North Germanic. It never changed completely in North Germanic--compare modern Danish “dansk” to English “Danish”. (An example of change coming later on in some cases to Scandinavian as well is shown by Norwegian “ski” being pronounced SHI.) But if one sees an SK in English (also spelled SC), it’s very probable it came from Scandinavian. “Sky” above was one, as is skin


This point results in a most interesting pair of words. The Old Norse form of a word describing a tunic-like garment was skyrta (note the SK), and the Old English form was scyrte (remember, SC = SH). Visualize this tunic, perhaps worn by peasants, as reaching from neck to knee, something like an old-fashioned nightshirt. In time, the two words became specialized. The Old English word scyrte came to describe the upper part of the tunic, and became “shirt”. The Old Norse word skyrta came to describe the lower part of the tunic, and became “skirt”, and thus both words survived in specialized meanings.


THEY/THEM/THEIR(S): The Old Norse effects on English were not limited to nouns and verbs, but extended even more deeply, to cover pronouns, specifically the entire third person plural in English. English “they”, “them”, and “their(s)” correspond to modern Danish “de”, “dem”, and “deres” (Norwegian is similar) and Swedish “de”, “dem”, and “deras”, so it’s easy to see the North Germanic (Scandinavian) source of the English words. (Curiously, in Swedish, “de” and “dem” today are both distinguished only in writing, since the pronunciation of BOTH in Swedish is now usually DOM.)


Old English had two words for “they”, but with gender distinction; one was masculine (only for males or mixed groups), one feminine (only for females). This corresponded to the gender distinction we still have today in the singular he/she. Since the word for “he” was “hē” (rhymes with “café”), it had a plural “hiē” (rhymes with “be a[ble]), meaning “they”, but was only for males or mixed groups.


“She” was “hēo” (rhymes with “mayo”). It had a plural, meaning “they”, that was ALSO “hēo”, but this plural was only for females. Having the same word for both is typical of West Germanic; to this day, the words for “she” and “they” are BOTH “sie” (rhymes with ze[ro]) in German, and “zij” (rhymes with “bay”) in Dutch.


In sum, in English, the two West Germanic words “hiē” (masculine) and “hēo” (feminine) were both replaced by North Germanic “they”, which to this day remains gender-neutral.


ARE: It will probably amaze to find out that a common word like “are” was added to English by Scandinavian. But the entire story of how “to be” came to have so many different-looking forms is also worth telling. Generally speaking, anytime words that go together, but look different, are the result of two or more different words falling together somewhere in their history as one. If “to go” in French is aller, and has additional forms in allant, allais, and allé, but yet the present tense is je vais, it means that the set of V-forms came from another verb, which inserted itself into the A-forms. This would also be true with “good” having forms like “better, best”. Somewhere in the history of the word, two words fell together. Understanding this will facilitate what happened to “to be”.


In Old English, there were three different verbs “to be”, with similar meanings, but slightly varying uses: sindon, bēon (rhymes with “bayon[et]), wesan. Each had a full present tense. As an example: “I am” for sindan was ic eom; for bēon, ic bēo; for wesan, ic wese. Only wesan had a past tense. Other forms, such as participles or subjunctives, were spottily represented by one verb or another. But in time, slight differences in use and meaning slipped away, and the three words fell together into the modern “to be”, with duplicate forms eventually disappearing.


For instance, the present tense of wesan, and most other forms, fell into disuse, leaving its past tense with the forms “wæs” and “wære”, which remained as “was” and “were”, not only as “I was, we were”, but also in the past subjunctive “if I were, if we were”.


The present tense of bēon fell away, but five of the forms of the verb survived. It’s the only remaining of the three infinitives, so we still have “to be”; plus its forms that developed into “been”; “being”; the imperative, as in “Be [good]!”; and the present subjunctive such as “he be” in “They insist that he be here”.


But all of the forms for wesan started with W, and all for bēon, with B, so they were rather regular, yet the forms for sindon were already irregular--of the four following forms in the present tense, only one started with S--which, it would seem, indicates an even earlier blending of some sort. Anyway, only the present tense of sindon remained (hiding under the alien infinitive name “to be”). Above we saw “eom”, which developed into “am”; “eart” developed into “(thou) art”, which has since disappeared; and “is”, which actually remained the same (!!!) (At least in the written form; while “is” today is IZ, I suspect at that time it was ISS.) But the plural of the present tense of sindon got into trouble. It had been uniformly like the infinitive, sindon, sometimes shortened to sind (which is striking, since that’s one of the forms in German). But then the North Germanics (Scandinavians) influenced the word, and sindon as a plural was replaced at first with Old Norse erun, which developed into earon or earun. The final syllable fell away, and the first syllable developed into “are”.


Here’s the summary for “to be”, which is mostly West Germanic: “was/were” is from wesan; the three uses for “be”, plus “been” and “being”, are from bēon; the only remaining forms from sindon are “am” and “is”, while borrowed from North Germanic is “are”.


Note that the Danish word corresponding to “are” is “er”, and the Swedish is “är”; both so similar to “are”. Then consider that “I am” and “ he/she/it is” are both pure West Germanic (also “thou art”); that “we are” and “you are” are both half West and half North Germanic; and then amazingly, that “they are” is PURE North Germanic, just like Danish “de er” and Swedish “de är”.


There are many examples in English and elsewhere of mismatched pairs (like “bad” mismatched in form from “worse/worst”). These most likely indicate a blending of different words somewhere in the past. In English, aside from “to be”, there’s only one other verb, a common one, with a mismatched pair. Any ideas? While I only learned the story about “to be” when writing this article, I’ve known for some time why the past of “to go” is “went”, and I’ve always enjoyed the story.


The verb “to go” always had trouble with its past tense. In Southern England, the past-tense form was already irregular, eode. The -de was equivalent to -ed in “looked”, but the root eo- had already come from another source. However, in Northern England and Scotland there was Scandinavian influence, and the past tense was gaed, which is as close to something regular like *go-ed as we’ve ever had. But this confused situation was about to change, but not by becoming any more regular.


While the case of the three verbs falling together into “to be” was a ménage à trois, “to go” (that hussy) instead went down the street to her neighbor, “to wend” and stole her husband, “went”.


English has a series of -END words that have an irregular past in -ENT. Those that come to mind right now are: bend/bent; lend/lent; rend/rent; send/sent. (Others do not do this: blended, mended, fended, pended [depended, appended] tended, trended).


The verb “wend” is related to “wind”. It has a similar meaning as “go”, except it means “to go in a winding fashion”, usually because of obstacles. One wends one’s way through the forest, since the path goes around trees; a skier may wend his way down a slalom run. “Wend” originally belonged to the irregular group and had a past in “went”. This is the husband that “go” stole away from her, so today, “go”’s principal parts are mismatched, as “go, went, gone”, a blend of two words. “Wend” then had no choice but to find herself a second husband, and now cohabits with “wended”. The couple has since joined the second group of words and “blended” in quite nicely.


Before we leave this, do not think that this sort of thing happened only in the past. I can cite an example going on as we speak, except that people think subjectively and get very defensive, declaring something as WRONG. I’m sure when “went” was bed-hopping down to the neighbor’s house, people said the same thing. Keep your cool about the following and look at it OBJECTIVELY!


In contemporary English (at least in American English, perhaps also elsewhere, perhaps not), there’s another scandal going on. At the moment, in standard usage, “stay” abides with “stayed”, and “stand” takes up housekeeping with “stood”. Yet it looks like “stood” is having an affair with “stay”, that neighbor up the street.


There are many people--not the reader, I’m sure, and not I--who will say “I was sick and I stood in bed”, avoiding “stayed”. Anathema! Others will cajole, saying that “means” you were standing up in bed! That’s nonsense on the part of the critic. It means exactly what the person intended it to mean, and which everyone understands anyway. It’s just not traditional. I presume that those who say “I stood in bed” will also say “I stood on the chair”. Anathema again! say the critics. How could the same word do double service for two words? (“Stood” does seem to sleep around.) That’s perfectly possible. In Spanish “Fui a casa” means “I went home” and “Fui feliz” means “I was happy”. The same set of F- forms does service as the past tense of “ir/to go” and “ser/to be”.


What will happen with stay/stayed and stand/stood in English? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the boulder will hit a root and stop rolling down the hillside in mid-run. On the other hand, perhaps the husband “stayed” will leave town and be replaced permanently by the lover “stood”, cohabiting with “stay”. If so, “stood” might either continue to sleep around in both houses, or HIS wife, “stand”, might kick him out and get a second husband, which would have to be--don’t scream--*standed. What I’ve just described all happened centuries ago with go/went-wend/wended, and they all lived happily ever after. Let’s all get together in a couple of centuries and review this again to see how this newer neighborhood scandal worked out over the long term.


York (Yorvik)   We mentioned the city of York in Northern England in relation to its importance in the Danelaw. It was also the object of attack by the Norwegian king in 1016. It strikes me that the name of this city embodies the history of the island of Britain from the Celts to today, so it’s worth taking a look at, since we have names for the city from each period. We’ll need to talk about both yews and boars, two images that reek of primitive times in Europe.


There are many types of yew tree around the world, but the original is the English yew, also known as the European yew. It’s a conifer, meaning it bears seeds in cones for reproduction. This illustration shows the yew cones, two immature green ones, and two mature, bright red ones, each containing a single seed. Everything about the yew tree is extremely poisonous, down to the leaves and seeds, but with one exception. The soft red berry-like fruit surrounding each seed is not poisonous, and is actually quite sweet and tasty to birds, who eat them, and then disperse the seeds undamaged in their droppings. The yew is a clever tree.


It can have a extended longevity, often up to 1000 or 2000 years, and more, and is the longest-living plant in Europe. This is the Llangernyw yew in North Wales, estimated to be 4000-5000 years old, having taken root during the Bronze Age, and is the second or third individual living organism in the world.


We can go back first to the Celtic Britons, and their Celtic language, Brythonic, related to Welsh and the other Celtic languages. It is thought that the York started life as the Brythonic word Eborakon, which was a combination of eboros “yew tree” plus the suffix *ako(n) “place”, yielding “place of the yew trees”. Can we improve on that? How about Yewfield? The corresponding roots in Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scottish Gaelic, yield the same result, and the name for York in those languages remains in that ancient form, which in Welsh, is Efrog. Curious, I looked in Wikipedia under “New York” and clicked on “Welsh”, and I got “Efrog Newydd”. Of course it means “New York” but isn’t it literally something like New Yewfield? Fancy that.


Naming after trees reminds me of the capital of Gran Canaria, Las Palmas, and Horta’s island in the Azores, Faial. If you move to shrubs, add Funchal, in Madeira.


After the Celts came the Romans, and they Latinized the Celtic name they found, Eborakon, to Eboracum, essentially only altering the ending. The first mention of this is dated circa 95-104 CE, found as part of an address on a wooden tablet in a Roman fortress in the area. Latinists have jumped on, not the original Celtic, but of course, the Latin version of the name, and refer to York by it. New York City uses it, by extension as Novum Eboracum, in its seal, in a grammatical variation, along with Dutch and Native American symbols, the only parts that actually make sense.


But our yew-tree imagery gets lost between these and the next invaders, the Angles. When people hear an unfamiliar word, they often substitute a familiar one in its place. In the 7C, the name Eboracum was meaningless, but ebor- must have sounded close enough to the Anglo-Saxon eofor, which was substituted for it. Somewhat less elegant, eofor is the word for “boar, wild pig”. However, it also translates as “chieftain”, and I find no explanation for this duality, so I’ll give my own assumption. A lion gives the image of being in charge (“king of the jungle”; King Richard the Lionheart), and since there are no lions in England, but boars were feared and plentiful in this era, that might be the connection with the word for boar also referring to a chieftain. In any case, they called Eboracum Eoforƿīċ, or, for those still wynn-impaired, Eoforwic. But where did they get the ending?


Actually, they got the ending from the Romans in another way. The Latin word for “hamlet” was “vicus”, which, as we know, was pronounced with a W. It was borrowed by Anglo-Saxon, with appropriate shortening and respelling with the Germanic W, as wic, and this became one of the most prolific suffixes to form English place names. It appeared in two forms, -wick and -wich, as in Gatwick, Exwick, Fenwick, Aldwick; and Ipswich, Greenwich, Dulwich (the latter two have lost the W). (The curiously-named Wickham has a name built of two suffixes that mean the same, essentially “Ham-ham” or “Wick-wick”.) In any case - wic was also used as the ending of Eoforwic. What shall we say is the meaning? Boarwick? Chiefwick? (There’s an Ænglisc entry in Wikipedia for Nīƿe Eoforƿīċ. If you’re not wynn-intolerant, figure it out.)


But then the Danes arrived in 866, so we have one more alteration, to Jórvik (J=Y). It didn’t go back to yews, nor did it become a totally new image, since Old Norse had a word that had the same meaning of boar/chieftain, “jofurr”, and it had a short version for compounding, “jór-”. But the rest of the name is a fun alteration, and goes back to that favorite word of mine, “vik”. Remember it means “bay, cove”, appears in names like Reykjavik, Keflavik, Narvik, but is NOT the origin of the word Viking. The Danes slightly altered -wic to -vik (remember, they don’t have a W-sound), and Eoforwic was Scandinavianized to Jórvik. But it no longer meant Boarwick, or Boar Village, it now meant Boar Bay, notwithstanding the fact that the city of York lies inland.


I love the name in the form Jorvik, and regret that its last syllable shortened, since I like the word vik. It was once that the Normans arrived and imported the Y spelling for Y that English still uses, that Jorvik became Yorvik as it collapsed to York, a form first recorded in the 13C. HYPOTHETICAL: Let’s say the name never shortened beyond Yorvik, and today we had the city of New Yorvik, which is indeed on a bay, so the name would fit that way as well. Still, you have to look very closely to see a parallel in the names of Reykjavik and New Yor(vi)k.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle   We leave the subject now on one final note, since we are also leaving the Anglo-Saxon period. Annals are year-by-year summaries, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of almost exclusively, annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript was created late in the 9C, and copies were distributed to monasteries across England, where each one was then updated independently of the others. Monasteries would have been the “public libraries” of their day. The Norman arrival was the doom of much of Anglo-Saxon culture, although the language survived independently for a few generations until those speaking Anglo-Saxon died out. However, in one instance, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154, 88 years, almost a century, after 1066.


Nine of the manuscripts survive, some entirely, others in fragments. The most recent one was written (evidently rewritten) at Peterborough Abbey after a fire there in 1116. As a whole, the Chronicle is the one most important historical record of English history between when the Romans left and the first decades after the Normans arrived. Much of its historical information appears nowhere else. The manuscripts are also an important record of the history of English. For instance, that Peterborough Chronicle, given its 1116 date, is one of the earliest examples of Middle English in existence, as Old English began to blend with Norman French. Of the nine surviving manuscripts and fragments, seven are in the British Library, one is in Oxford at the Bodleian Library, and one is in Cambridge, at Corpus Christi College’s Parker Library.


We end with three items from the Chronicle. This is the first page of the Peterborough Chronicle (click to enlarge). Since the script is hard to follow, it can be seen more clearly in this side-by-side translation of much of this page from Old English to Modern English. In the first few lines on the Old English side, notice again how lower-case script r and s are similar. If you read the modern sentences first, you can actually follow the Old English, given that you recognize some letters such as on the second line, where “twa” (two) is written with wynn. On the fifth line, “fif” (five) is written with F twice, the first for an F and the second for a V. I also wouldn’t believe the part about Armenia.


And we come to a sad end. We again have someone on YouTube reading Old English, but this time, it’s a selection from the fateful annal of the year 1066 of the Chronicle. It only runs 1:21, and you should maximize it to follow both the fleeting text and the fleeting translations. You will understand the first line when you hear it, and a number of phrases throughout, without difficulty, as you witness the end of both Harold and the Anglo-Saxon era.

Back  |   Top  |   Previous Series   |   Next Series