English is a Scandinavian language?

Here’s the most interesting adventure in linguistics I’ve run across in a while. Two professors in Norway assert that English is a Scandinavian language, a North Germanic rather than a West Germanic one. More specifically, they claim that Anglo-Saxon (“Old English”) is not the direct ancestor of modern English; rather, our language is more closely related to the dialect of Old Norse spoken in the Danelaw (the Viking-occupied part of England) after about 865.

The bolster their claim by pointing at major grammatical traits which English shares with Old Norse rather than West Germanic languages – notably, consistent SVO (subject-verb-object) word order rather than the SOV (subject-object-verb) or V2 (verb-second) orders that dominate in languages like German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. The practical consequence they point out (correctly – I’ve experienced this myself) is that English and Norwegian or Swedish are quite a bit closer in mutual intelligibility than any of this group is with German or Dutch or Anglo-Saxon. I had actually noticed this before and been puzzled by it.

The professors think the reason for this is that rather than evolving into Modern English, Anglo-Saxon actually died out during the two centuries between the invasion of the Great Army in 865 and the defeat of Harold Godwinsson in 1066. They propose that Anglo-Saxon influenced, but was largely replaced by, the Norse dialect of the Anglo-Danish Empire. Which, SVO North Germanic grammar and all, then collided with Norman French and evolved into English as we know it.

This isn’t crazy. It may be wrong, but it isn’t crazy. Two centuries is plenty of time for an invading language to reduce a native one to a low-status argot and even banish it entirely; we’ve seen it happen much faster than that when the invaders are as culturally and politically dominant as the Anglo-Danes were in England at the time of Cnut (1016-1035).

Even in the conventional account of the evolution of English, modern English is supposed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon spoken in the East Midlands – which, as the professors point out, was the most densely settled part of the Danelaw!

All of this gave me an idea that may go beyond the professors’ hypothesis and explain a few other things…

Previously on this blog my commenters and I have kicked around the idea that English is best understood as the result of a double creolization process – that it evolved from a contact pidgin formed between Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw Norse. The creole from that contact then collided, a century later, with Norman French. Wham, bam, a second contact pidgin forms; English is the creole descended from the language of (as the SF writer H. Beam Piper famously put it) “Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids”.

This is not so different from the professors’ account, actually. They win if the first creole, the barmaids’ milk language, was SVO with largely Norse grammar and some Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. The conventional history of English would have the girls speaking an SOV/V2 language with largely Anglo-Saxon grammar and some Norse vocabulary.

So I’m thinking about this, and about the political-cultural situation in East Anglia at the time historical linguists suppose it to have been the cradle of modern English, and I thought…hey! Diglossia! Basilect and acrolect!

OK, for those of you not up on your linguistic jargon, these are terms used in modern linguistics to describe the behavior of speakers in a creole continuum. Often, in a contact culture where an invading language has partly or wholly displaced a native one, you get a continuum of dialects between the acrolect (“high” language, of the invaders) and basilectal (“low” dialects) preserving more of a native language which may or may not still be alive in its original form.

A type case for this is modern Jamaica, where there’s a dialect continuum between acrolectal standard English and basilectal Jamaican patois with a lot of survivals from West African languages and Arawak. Outsiders tend to oversimplify this kind of situation into diglossia – one population speaking two languages, one “outside” and prestigious, one “inside”, intimate and tied to home and ethno-cultural identity.

But it isn’t that simple in Jamaica. Individuals are often fluent in both acrolectal and basilectal forms and mix usages depending on social situation. Husband and wife might speak acrolectal English on business, a mesolectal light patois among a mixed-race group of friends, but a deep patois with a grammar significantly different than standard English when cooking or making love. (I have a teenage nephew who lives on St. John’s, another Caribbean island, who – though tow-headed and blue-eyed and perfectly capable in American English – sometimes busts out a deep-black island dialect at family gatherings. It’s mischievous and barely intelligible, but it’s affectionate, too.)

I think, now (and this is where I go beyond those professors in Norway) that East Anglia between the invasions of the Great Army and Willam the Bastard must have been a lot like Jamaica today. Nothing quite as neat as one language dying out, but rather a creole continuum – with Danelaw Norse at the top, a remnant Anglo-Saxon at the bottom, and a whole lotta code-switching going on. There’s your cradle of English! (Well, before the Normans added their special sauce, anyway…)

This would explain much that the conventional Anglo-Saxon-centric account doesn’t, like why I can read a Norwegian newspaper far more readily than a German or Dutch one. It’s more nuanced than the professors’ version, but leads to the same top-line conclusion. English better classified as a Scandinavian rather than a West Germanic language? OK, twice creolized and later heavily infiltrated by Latin and French…but yeah, I’ll buy that description.

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