http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/12/language-familiesDo you speak a Scandinavian language?
Dec 5th 2012, 15:17 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
IF YOU can read this post, then Jan Terje Faarlund thinks you do. The researcher at the University of Oslo and his colleague Joseph Emmonds of Palacky University in the Czech Republic have claimed that Old Norse didn't influence Old English, but replaced it. They place emphasis not only on the many words (heretofore presumed loaned) from Norse into English, but also grammatical structures. They claim that it is an "almost universal" rule that languages in contact—as Norse and Old English were after the Viking invasions—swap words but not grammar. The story has gotten little pickup in the English press (so far), but a few Scandinavian news websites have passed it on uncritically: "English is a Scandinavian Language" reads the headline in Aftenposten, a leading Norwegian daily.
Before you hoist a Danish or Norwegian flag, though, Sally Thomason has poured a heavy dose of cold water over the notion in Language Log. Languages in close contact over a long period do, in fact, swap grammar as well as words. She cites the Indian town of Kupwar, where the local variety of Urdu (an Indic language) shows grammatical influence from neighbouring Kannada (an unrelated Dravidian language), as well as from Marathi (a more closely related fellow Indic language). Prof Thomason did not have to reach for quite such an exotic example, though. English shows light traces of grammatical influence from French—the word-order of phrases like "attorney-general" and "court-martial", or the productive suffix -ee that can make words like employee, lessee, legatee and the like. No one would claim that this makes English a Romance language.
English is traditionally called a West Germanic language, related closely to Dutch and German, and only more distantly to North Germanic Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. English has many grammatical features of West Germanic. How does Prof Faarland account for this, if English is Scandinavian? West Germanic Old English influenced Scandinavian English before "dying out" in England, he says. But what about his earlier claim that languages do not borrow grammar? If they do borrow grammar (and they do), it is easier to explain the few Scandinavian borrowings into a West Germanic English than to explain the many West Germanic borrowings into a putatively Scandinavian English.
If Prof Faarlund's case falls short, it remains clear that Old Norse had a heavy influence on English. He cites an example—He took the knife and cut the steak—and notes that all the words but he, the and and are Scandinavian. And in fact if he'd chosen she or they and not he, he'd have chosen pronouns that English, strikingly, borrowed from Old Norse. It's surprising just how many ordinary words Old English took from the Danes to replace ordinary words it already had. It is little wonder that the Norman French, bringing their court and their legal system, also brought words related to those elevated spheres of life into English. But the Scandinavians gave us ordinary words like husband, shirt, anger and egg. An English-speaking learner of German will notice how many English words seem to come from German: water/Wasser, bread/Brot, house/Haus. But some such earthy words do not match their German cousins: die/sterben, call/rufen, again/wieder. But the Danish-learner will see that this is because we got those words from Norse: die/dø, call/kalde, again/igen. If you can bother to learn French, too, you can reconstruct rather a lot of English etymology.
I hope to return to Prof Faarlund's examples of grammatical borrowings in a future post.