In 793, Norse raiders—commonly called Vikings—struck the monastery at Lindisfrarne off the coast of Northumberland in England, The monastery, famous for holding the relics of Saint Cuthbert, had been founded in 635 by St. Aidan. The Norse warriors killed a few monks and captured valuable articles. Alcuin of York, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, recorded the event this way:
“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty years, and never before has such a terror been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of St. Cuthbert is splattered with the blood of the priests of God.”
This raid marked the beginning of the Viking era in Britain. Typically, the Norse raiding groups were small and, aided by the agility of their longships, the raiders would strike suddenly, without warning, capturing valuable goods, and then disappearing quickly. By 840, however, the nature of the raids changed: they were no longer confined to the summer, but the Norse, mostly Norwegians, were also raiding in the winter. In 850 the Vikings over-wintered in England for the first time: they set up their winter camp at the island of Thanet in Kent. In 854, they over-wintered again, this time at the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary.
In 865 the Norse came to stay. The Great Heathen Army under the leadership of the brothers Ubbe Ragnarsson, Ivar the Boneless, and Halfdan, as well as the Viking leader Guthrum, invaded East Anglia. They then crossed England into Northumbria and captured York where they established the Norse community of Jorvik. By 867, Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless installed a puppet English king, Ecgberht, and Northumbria became the northern kingdom of the Danelaw. In 878 a formal treaty is signed which established Danelaw: the boundary is a line that runs roughly between London and Chester. For the next two centuries, the Vikings/Norse, called “Danes” by the Anglo-Saxons, influenced the development of the English language. The line that demarked Danelaw remains as an important linguistic boundary between the northern and southern dialects.
A map showing Danelaw is shown above.
As an aside, Ivar’s designation as “the Boneless” has been the topic of much historical debate. There are some who feel that this indicates that he was sexually impotent, while others argue that it indicated his sexual prowess. There are those who feel it stems from a misinterpretation of the Latin exosus meaning “detested” and confusing it with the Latin exos meaning “boneless.” There are also those who feel it is best interpreted as “The Snake” in reference to his legendary slyness and cruelty.
One of the impacts of Danelaw can be seen in place names: about 1,400 names in the Danelaw area are Scandinavian in origin. Place names ending in –by, -wick, -howe, -thorpe, and –thwaite are indicative of names whose origins lie in Norse. Place names ending in –thorpe seem to indicate lands that the Norse considered to be marginal.
When the Norse arrived, Old English, like many Indo-European languages, was highly inflected. That is, nouns tended to have endings which conveyed their grammatical meaning. In modern English, prepositions such as “to,” “with,” and “from” are generally used to do this. Thus, in Old English “the king” is “se cyning,” and “to the king” is “thaem cyninge.” Under the influence of the Norse-speaking settlers, English became simplified and many of these inflections were terminated.
With regard to pronouns, English has taken “they,” “them,” and “their” from Norse. The Old English third person plural was “hie,” “hiera,” and “him.”
Norse has provided English with at least 900 words. Among the Norse words which were adopted into English are freckle, leg, skull, meek, rotten, clasp, crawl, dazzle, scream, trust, life, take, and sky. The Norse words sometimes replaced the Old English words and sometimes they were incorporated into the language alongside the Old English, leaving us with many useful synonyms: craft/skill, wish/want, and raise/rear. Sometimes, the words came from the same source, but had different pronunciations: shriek/screech, no/nay, ditch/dike. Sometimes these doublets acquired different meanings giving us scatter/shatter, shirt/skirt, stick/stitch, wake/watch, and break/breach.