The Mother Tongue

If you think it is troublesome and tiring to have to study English as your second language, we can offer you some comfort. Once upon a time, it was the English speakers who had to learn your language –or, more precisely, it was the speakers of Old English who had to adapt to the Scandinavian tongue. That was back in the good old days when you were all Vikings merrily pillaging and burning your way around Europe. In the following excerpt from his book The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson traces the impact of the Scandinavians on the English language. He takes up the story shortly after Old English was first written down, which led to an outpouring of literature and learning in northwest England – or Northumbria, as it was known. Unfortunately, the northwest is also that portion of England that lies closest to Scandinavia …...


Vikings Barely had this cultural revival gotten underway that England and her infant language were under attack again – this time by Viking raiders from Scandinavia. These were people who were related to the Anglo-Saxons by both blood and language. In fact, they were so closely related that they could probably broadly understand each other’s languages, though this must have been small comfort to the monks, farmers, and ravaged women who suffered their pillaging. These attacks on Britain were part of a huge, uncoordinated, and mysterious expansion by the Vikings (or Norsemen or Danes, as history has variously called them). No one knows why these previously mild and pastoral people suddenly became aggressive and adventurous, but for two centuries they were everywhere – in Russia, Iceland, Britain, France, Ireland, Greenland, even North America. At first, in Britain, the attacks consisted of smash-and-grab raids, mostly along the east coast. The famous monastery of Lindisfarne was sacked in 793 and the nearby monastery of Jarrow, where Bede had labored, fell the following year.


Then, just as mysteriously, the raids ceased and for half a century the waters around the British Isles were quiet. But this was, to dust off that useful cliché, the quiet before the storm, a period in which the inhabitants must have watched the coast with unease. In 850 their worst fears were confirmed when some 350 heavily laden Viking ships sailed up the Thames, setting off a series of battles for control of territory that went on for years, rolling across the British landscape rather like two wrestlers, with fortune favoring first one side and then the other. Finally, after an unexpected English victory in 878, a treaty was signed establishing the Danelaw, a line running roughly between London and Chester, dividing control of Britain between the English in the south and the Danes in the north. To this day it remains an important linguistic dividing line between northern and southern dialects.


The Danish influence in the north was enormous. The scale of their settlements can be seen from the fact that more than 1,400 place-names in northern England are of Scandinavian origin. For a long time, the people in some places spoke only Old English while in other places, often on the next hillside, they spoke only Old Norse. Occasionally this arrangement lasted for years – in the Shetland Islands, in the far north of Scotland, it lasted for centuries, with the people speaking a Norwegian dialect called Norn until well into the 1700s, of which some 1,500 dialect words survive to this day – but for the most part the two linguistic sides underwent a relaxed and peaceful merger. A great many Scandinavian terms were adopted, without which English would clearly be the poorer: freckle, leg, skull, meek, rotten, clasp, crawl, dazzle, scream, trust, lift, take, husband, sky. Sometimes these replaced Old English words, but often they took up residence alongside them, adding a useful synonym to the language, so that today in English we have both craft and skill, wish and want, raise and rear, and many other doublets. Sometimes the words came from the same source but had grown slightly different in pronunciation, as with shriek and screech, no and nay, or ditch and dike, and sometimes they went a further step and acquired slightly different meanings, as with scatter and shatter, skirt and shirt, whole and hale, bathe and bask, stick and stitch, hack and hatch, wake and watch, break and breach.


But most remarkable of all, the English adopted certain grammatical forms. The pronouns they, them and their, for instance, are Scandinavian. This borrowing of basic elements of syntax is highly unusual, perhaps unique among developed languages, and an early demonstration of the remarkable adaptability of English speakers.


Anglo-Saxon troops confront Norman cavalryman Anglo-Saxon troops confront Norman cavalryman One final cataclysm awaited the English language: the Norman conquest of 1066. The Normans were Vikings who had settled in northern France 200 years before. Like the Celtic Britons before them, they had given their name to a French province, Normandy. But unlike the Celts, they had abandoned their language and much of their culture and become French in manner and speech. So totally had they given up their language, in fact, that not a single Norse word has survived in Normandy, apart from some place-names. That is quite remarkable when you consider that the Normans bequeathed 10,000 words to English. The variety of French the Normans spoke was not the speech of Paris, but a rural dialect, and its divergence from standard French became even more pronounced when it took root in England – so much so that historians refer to it not as French, but as Anglo-Norman. This, as we shall see in a moment, had important consequences for the English language of today and may even have contributed to its survival.


No king of England spoke English for the next 300 years. It was not until 1399, with the accession of Henry IV, that England had a ruler whose mother tongue was English. One by one English earls and bishops were replaced by Normans (though in some instances not for several years). French-speaking craftsmen, designers, cooks, scholars, and scribes were brought to Britain. Even so, for the common people life went on. They were almost certainly not alarmed that their rulers spoke a foreign tongue. It was a commonplace in the past. Canute from the century before was Danish and even Edward the Confessor, the last but one Anglo-Saxon king, spoke French as his first tongue. As recently as the eighteenth century, England happily installed a German king, George I, even though he spoke not a word of English and reigned for thirteen years without mastering his subjects’ language. Common people did not expect to speak like their masters any more than they expected to live like them. Norman society had two tiers: the French-speaking aristocracy and the English-speaking peasantry. Not surprisingly, the linguistic influence of the Normans tended to focus on matters of court, government, fashion, and high living. Meanwhile, the English peasant continued to eat, drink, work, sleep, and play in English …


Because English had no official status for three centuries it drifted. And yet it survived. If there is one uncanny thing about the English language, it is its incredible persistence. In retrospect it seems unthinkable to us now that it might have been otherwise, but we forget just how easily people forsake their tongues – as the Celts did in Spain and France, as the Vikings did in Normandy, and as the Italians, Poles, Africans, Russians, and countless others all did in America. And yet in Britain, despite the countless buffetings of history, English survived. It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.




  1. What is said about the language used by pillaging Vikings and that of the English whom they attacked?
  2. Who were the Vikings and where did they come from?
  3. Was Britain the only place that the Vikings attacked?
  4. Explain what the Danelaw was about and why it was so important.
  5. If you travel in the northern part of Great Britain today, what evidence can you find of the Vikings’ earlier presence there?
  6. There are many Nordic words in the English language. But what has often continued to exist alongside of these loan words?
  7. What is special about Nordic influence on English? What makes this kind of influence very rare compared to other languages?
  8. What was the connection between the Normans who invaded England in 1066 and the Scandinavian Vikings?
  9. Did the Vikings in Normandy have any linguistic influence on their new country, France?
  10. Who spoke English in England during the Middle Ages? What other languages were spoken and why?
  11. What, from a language point of view, was special about George I?
  12. What reasons are given for the fact that English survived and actually turned into the most important language in the world?