Assimilating culture -- what language tells us about immigration and integration

April 21, 2009

They're a firm part of our language and even speak to us of our national culture — but some words aren't quite as English as we think.

Terms such as 'law', 'ugly', 'want' and 'take' are all loanwords from Old Norse, brought to these shores by the Vikings, whose attacks on England started in AD 793. In the centuries following it wasn't just warfare and trade that the invaders gave England. Their settlement and subsequent assimilation into the country's culture brought along the introduction of something much more permanent than the silk, spices and furs that weighed down their longboats — words.

Dr Sara Pons-Sanz in the School of English is examining these Scandinavian loanwords as part of a British Academy-funded research project — from terms that moved from Old Norse to Old English and disappeared without trace, to the words that still trip off our tongues on a daily basis.

By examining these words in context, tracking when and where they appear in surviving texts from the Old English period, Dr Pons-Sanz can research the socio-linguistic relationship between the invading and invaded cultures.

The loanwords which appear in English - such as 'husband' - suggest that the invaders quickly integrated with their new culture. The English soon adopted day-to-day terms, suggesting that the cultures lived side-by-side and were soon on intimate terms. This is in marked contrast to French loanwords. Though there are many more of these terms present in the standard English language — around 1,000 Scandinavian to more than 10,000 French — they tend to refer to high culture, law, government and hunting. French continued to be the language of the Royal Court for centuries after the invasion in 1066. In contrast, Old Norse had probably completely died out in England by the 12th century, indicating total cultural assimilation by the Scandinavian invaders.

Another clear indicator of this is the type of loanwords seen in English. The majority of loanwords tend to nouns, words and adjectives, open-ended categories which are easily adapted into a language. But one of the most commonly-seen loanwords in English today is 'they' — a pronoun with its origins in Old Norse. Pronouns are a closed category, far more difficult to adapt into a new language, which again indicates a closeness between the two languages and cultures not present in previous or subsequent invading forces.

Dr Pons-Sanz has 'cleaned up' the list of loanwords thought to have come to English from Old Norse by painstakingly tracking the origins of each word. Her original texts include legal codes, homilies, charters, literary texts and inscriptions. By comparing the texts chronologically and dialectally, the introduction and integration of words can be tracked. For example, the word 'fellow' — which came from an Old Norse word originally meaning 'business partner'— is first attested in East Anglia.

Dr Pons-Sanz said: "Language is constantly evolving; loanwords are being assimilated into English — and other languages — all the time. By examining the types of words that are adopted, we can gain insight into the relationships between different cultures."

Source: University of Nottingham (news : web)

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