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What happened to Britain’s four ancient languages?

Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland. When: 27 May 2016 - Credit: Archant

Peter Trudgill recounts the story of what happened to one of Britain’s ancient languages, Old Norse

During the first millennium AD, Britain was home to four major languages, each of which had arrived from a different point of the compass. The first was Britonnic Celtic, the ancestor of Breton and Cornish, which had come to the south coast of this island from across the English Channel, perhaps as long as 4,000 years ago.

The next two languages were Old English and Goidelic Celtic. Old English developed from Germanic dialects which were brought to our eastern shores from across the North Sea starting about 1,600 years ago. At about the same time, speakers of Goidelic Celtic, the ancestor of Irish Gaelic and Manx, began to arrive from the west across the Irish Sea.

Finally, starting about 1,200 years ago, Old Norse, the language ancestral to the modern Scandinavian languages, arrived with the Vikings who sailed in on their longships from the north.

Three of these ancient languages are still alive and in various degrees of good health in Britain today. Modern English, the descendant of Old English, is our dominant language. But Britonnic also survives, after very many millennia, in the form of modern Welsh, a language with considerable official recognition in Wales and several hundreds of thousands of speakers. Goidelic, too, lives on as Scottish Gaelic, with its greatest concentration of speakers in the Western Highlands and Hebridean Islands, as well as in Glasgow.

However Old Norse, even though it was spoken in Shetland until the 18th century, now has no British descendants… except that it has left so much of itself behind in English grammar and vocabulary that some linguists have been moved to say that English is as much a descendant of Old Norse as of Old English.

There was so much long-term intimate contact between speakers of Old Norse and Old English in the Danelaw areas that we can regard what happened linguistically as much as a coalescence of the two languages as a replacement of the one by the other.

But Old Norse can also be said to live on to an extent in modern Gaelic in the same kind of way. After the arrival of the Old Norse-speaking Scandinavians on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, a group of people who are often described as the Norse Gaels emerged after Scandinavian settlers in Scotland and Ireland intermarried with Gaelic-speaking people and gradually adopted very many aspects of Gaelic culture. There was once again long-term intimate contact, this time between speakers of Old Norse and Gaelic.

These Norse Gaels, part-descendants of the seafaring Vikings, came to control large areas of the Irish Sea, including the Isle of Man, as well as the seas off the coast of western Scotland, from about 800 AD until perhaps as late as the 1200s.

The Kingdom of the Isles, which included the Hebrides, the Kintyre Peninsula, the Isle of Arran and the Isle of Man, was essentially a political entity founded by mixed bilingual groups of Gaels and Norsemen. The same was true of the Kingdom of Galloway on the far southwestern mainland of Scotland: the name Galloway derives from the Gaelic Gall Ghaidheil, ‘stranger Gaels’.

Scottish Gaelic has a number of words derived from Norse, such as acair, ‘anchor’, from Norse akkeri; bideadh, ‘to bite’ from bita; dorgh, ‘fishing line’ from dorg; nabaidh, ‘neighbour’ from nabua; sgarbh, ‘cormorant’ from skarf; and trosg, ‘cod’ from thorsk.

Some Gaelic personal names have Norse origins, such as Ruairidh [Rory] from Hrodrik, and Tormod from Thormund. It is also possible that the Gaelic word far ‘where’ derives from Old Norse hvar, modern Norwegian kvar, ‘where’.

And most experts suppose that one special feature of Scottish Gaelic pronunciation is the result of intense, centuries-long Old Norse influence. This is the phenomenon which linguistic scientists refer to as “pre-aspiration”, as when, for example, the word Mac, ‘son’, is pronounced with an h-sound before the c, so “mahhc” – all thanks to those Norse Gaels.