Three Ways the English You Speak Today Was Influenced by Vikings

When you think of Vikings, what pops into your mind is probably a vague notion of the olden days – fierce conquerors sailing around northern Europe and wearing horned helmets. Well, the horned helmets most likely never existed (sorry!), but there are still plenty of Norse influences around today. Norse raiders known as Vikings made their way to what is now England beginning in the late eighth century C.E., and Norse rule lasted there into the eleventh century. These years left some major marks on the English language. Here are three major components of the Vikings’ linguistic legacy:

Days of the Week

Ever wonder why Wednesday is spelled so confusingly? The word’s pronunciation has changed over time, but its spelling is a relic of its original meaning: Wodin’s day. Wednesday – along with Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday – got its English name from a Norse god. Wodin, or Odin, was the greatest of the Norse gods, although perhaps his consort, Frigg, got the last laugh, since her name was given to the greatest of weekdays: Friday.

No More Case Endings

If you’ve ever studied Latin, you probably know that in that language, nouns take on different endings depending on what they’re doing in a sentence, so that the word for house, for instance, could appear as villa, villae, or villam. But did you know that English used to work in a similar way? Just as English language learners today sometimes speak a simplified version of English, Vikings who settled in England tended to leave off some of the more complex features. One feature they left off was the Old English case endings. Since the case endings weren’t essential to communication – and since there were tons of Norsemen living and raising children in England – they disappeared, and that’s why Modern English doesn’t have any.

No More Grammatical Gender

When native English speakers learn other European languages, they’re often struck by the arbitrary assignment of gender to every object. At first, it might seem odd to think of paper as feminine and books as masculine, but actually, not thinking that way makes English weird. Like the vast majority of other Indo-European languages, Old English gendered its nouns. However, the Vikings didn’t master that part of their new language. Just like case endings, grammatical gender turned out to be inessential for getting one’s point across, so thanks to the Norsemen, English lost that, too.

So, while you may not think of the Vikings as having a huge impact on your own day-to-day life, the truth is that their legacy is all around you – on every page of your planner and in nearly every sentence you speak.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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