Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

The vocabulary of the Vikings

Vikings ahoy. Invading ships are spotted approaching the English coast. From a painting by Herbert A. Bone (late 19th/early 20th century) - Credit: Getty Images

The influence on English of the Old Norse language of the Vikings is still up for debate, says PETER TRUDGILL.

When people are learning English as a foreign language, it is generally very useful for them to learn three main forms of every verb: the present tense, the past tense, and the past participle. Past participles occur in sentences such as “I saw them today but I should have seen them last week”; “You knew him and so I must have known him too; “He has gone away – he went last week”. Some verbs like see, know and go have different forms for each of these three parts.

The verb to bind, however, has only two different forms. The past tense of this verb is bound, as in “he bound the wound with a bandage”; and the past participle form is also bound, as in “he has always bound such wounds with bandages”.

But it was not always so. Richard Harman kindly wrote to The New European letters page recently about this verb after listening to the radio broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. He had heard the choir singing the Christmas carol Adam lay ybounden and was interested in the mediaeval English word ybounden ‘bound, tied’.

In Old English the three major forms of the verb ‘to bind’ were bindanbandgebunden. By the mediaeval period, the three forms to be remembered by anyone studying Middle (mediaeval) English as a foreign language had changed to binden, bound, ybounden.

In his letter, Mr Harman cited a connection between the mediaeval English form, ybounden, and the similar forms in German and Dutch, gebunden and gebonden respectively. And he is of course quite right – the similarities are not a coincidence.

This way of making past participles by using the prefix ge– was inherited from West Germanic, the ancient parent language of English, German and Dutch. Amongst modern Germanic languages, the prefix also occurs in Yiddish gebundn and Afrikaans gebind. In the Swiss German of the southern Swiss canton of Valais, the form is gibundu.

In Modern English, however, ybounden has become bound, although the longer form bounden does survive to an extent in adjectival usage, as in “bounden duty”. But the original ge- prefix, later y-, has disappearedMr Harman quite rightly mentions the theory that this loss from English – but not from German, Yiddish, Dutch or Afrikaans – can be explained by the massive influence of Old Norse on English after the Viking invasions of Britain. In favour of this theory, we can note that the Old Norse of the Vikings did lack the ge– prefix, as do the modern Scandinavian languages: Norwegian has bunde, Swedish bundit and Danish bundet.

This conjecture has especially been espoused by the linguistics professors Joe Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund who, in a book entitled English: the Language of the Vikings, have made the attractive suggestion that modern English is not so much a descendant of Old English heavily influenced by Old Norse, as a descendant of Old Norse which has been heavily influenced by Old English.

There are certainly many respects in which what they say is clearly true. One of the most obvious is that the modern English pronouns they, them, their and theirs are all of Old Norse origin.

Regarding the particular example of Adam “laying bound”, however, we cannot be quite so sure. Did ybounden become abbreviated to bound because of the influence of the Old Norse-speaking Vikings? Well, loss of the same prefix did also occur in a number of other Germanic languages where we have much less evidence for any very great Old Norse influence. The Low German language of northern Germany has the form bunnen, not gebunden; the North Frisian spoken in western Schleswig has bünjen; in the East Frisian of the German Saterland it is búunden, and in the West Frisian of the northern Netherlands it is bûn. These languages are all like English in having lost the prefix – but without any very obvious Viking influence.


A carol was originally a dance, especially a ring dance, but the name was also given to the songs which were sung to accompany the dancing. It was first used specifically of Christmas songs in about 1500. The etymology is not certain, but it may have the same Greek origin as the word choral.