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English speakers, raise your Viking helmets!

Professor and researcher Jan Terje Faarlund recently caused quite a stir in the -speaking world when he claimed that is in fact a language. According to Faarlund, has its roots in Old Norse, a North Germanic (Scandinavian) language, and therefore belongs in the linguistic family of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese. He draws his conclusion from the hypothesis that Middle – from which contemporary is derived – had its roots in Old Norse, a North Germanic language, as opposed to the commonly-held belief that Middle is derived from Old . For Faarlund, this would explain why Old differs so much from Middle .

Also known as Anglo-Saxon, Old English was a West Germanic language brought from Northern Germany and the Southern Jylland islands (German/Danish peninsula jutting out of Northern Europe into the North Sea) which the Angles and Saxons spoke when they migrated to the British Isles in the 5th century. Concomitantly, waves of Scandinavian-speakers arrived in the British Isles, a situation which produced serious clashes over political control of the land. Scandinavian-speakers controlled the northern and eastern territories of the land, while Anglo-Saxon speakers were limited to the south. This status quo persisted until the Norman conquest of 1066.

As a result of the Norman invasions and the deplorable conditions to which the conquered were subjected, Scandinavian and Old English speakers were forced to live together. According to Faarlund, Old English was extinguished, while Old Norse – heavily influenced by its proximity with Old English after the Norman invasion – survived and eventually gave way to Middle English, from which Modern English is derived. This is the fundamental point: that Middle English was derived from Old Norse (Northern Germanic) as opposed Anglo-Saxon (West Germanic) – as it would challenge the established conceptions about English’s true linguistic roots.

History aside, what concrete linguistic elements lend credence to Faarlund’s hypothesis? One argument involves the way in which languages influence each other. In the vast majority of cases, languages simply borrow words from one another other, but do not borrow grammatical structures. From grammar to the smallest linguistic units (morphemes), English shares fundamental structures that are very similar to Scandinavian languages. Another argument has to do with the words that were borrowed: Old Norse in the British Isles borrowed everyday words from Old English that they already had in their language – this might explain the large Western Germanic influence in Modern English as well as why many linguists mistakenly believe that Middle English was derived from Old English. Finally, it is interesting to note that in general, Norwegians find it relatively easy to learn English, and tend to make the ‘usual’ mistakes less often.

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