The Gersum Project: the Scandinavian Influence on English Vocabulary

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic

Abstract

In the early Middle Ages, Scandinavian influence on British life, language and culture was profound. Long before the rise of 'Nordic noir' and Danish haute cuisine, the Vikings had a major and lasting impact, and their legacy still resonates strongly in modern constructions of British identity and heritage. Scandinavian settlement began in earnest in the late ninth century, especially in the North and East of England, and probably its most significant, and certainly its most enduring and pervasive effect, was on the English language.
A large number of important English words have been ascribed an Old Norse (ON) origin, including such basic items as sky, egg, law, leg, call, take, window, knife, die and skin, and even the pronouns they, their and them. These are cultural artefacts which link us directly to the Vikings, and which all English speakers still use on a daily basis; and there are hundreds of other similar borrowings in standard and regional English usage, especially Northern dialects. The nature and contexts of the contact between speakers of Old English and ON in Viking-Age England have been the subject of important research in the last few decades. But there has still been surprisingly little intensive work on the borrowed vocabulary itself, and there is a huge amount about the early histories of these words yet to be discovered. Even identifying which English words really were borrowed from or influenced by ON is a very complex business. And we still know relatively little about how and by whom these words were used in the first few centuries after their adoption into English, especially in the crucial Middle English (ME) period, whose most important texts - particularly those composed in areas heavily settled by ON speakers - have never seen sustained exploration from this perspective. The main aim of the Gersum project (named after the ME word gersum, borrowed from ON gersemi 'treasure') is to remedy this deficiency. Its research will result in a detailed catalogue of up to 1600 words for which an origin in ON has been suggested in a corpus of major, late ME alliterative poems from the North of England - a catalogue which will include words as diverse and intriguing as hernez 'brains', muged 'drizzled', stange 'pole' and wothe 'danger'. The catalogue will be presented as a publically accessible online database, fully searchable by the meanings, distributions (regional and chronological), etymologies and other aspects of the words it contains, and linked to electronic texts of the poems chosen. These will include renowned works of literature like 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', 'Pearl', and the 'Alliterative Morte Arthure'; the project will greatly enhance knowledge and appreciation of their vocabularies, and how the originally ON element contributes to their style and meaning. In short, this will be the fullest survey ever undertaken of words derived from ON in ME, and a lasting platform for all future research into this major area of English language history.
Above and beyond this survey and its related research questions, the project will actively coordinate interest in the fascinating subject of the ON linguistic heritage in English, and communicate it to various beneficiaries. Public engagement will include talks to local groups of people who speak the modern versions of the dialects of the project's texts, exploring and celebrating the local language of the North of England and its role in some of the great literary monuments of the Middle Ages. The project's website will act as a general resource for all those interested in the subject, introducing key issues and contexts to both specialist and non-specialist users. Through an accompanying conference and book, Gersum will also create a cross-disciplinary conversation between the linguistic analysis of the Viking legacy and other aspects of the scholarly study of Anglo-Scandinavian cultural interaction in a way never before achieved.

Planned Impact

The Gersum project will be the fullest survey ever undertaken of the Viking heritage in the English language - a major and iconic subject for all those interested in the history of English, its dialects and its medieval literature. The non- and extra-academic beneficiaries of the project are therefore many, but fall principally into two groups: (1) professional lexicographers (and the non-specialist users of their dictionaries); (2) members of the public interested in their cultural, linguistic and literary heritage.

(1) The findings of Gersum will shed new light on the history of hundreds of English words, and will therefore be of direct relevance to those engaged in commercial English lexicographical projects; it will be of special benefit to historical dictionaries with an etymological component, pre-eminently the Oxford English Dictionary. Through these dictionaries, our research will also have an impact on anyone using them, including students/teachers and those with an amateur interest in language history (hence overlapping with group (2)).

(2) The idea of 'the Vikings' and their legacy is a very potent one in the public consciousness, and something that resonates strongly in modern constructions of British identity, esp. in the North of England. It has considerable impact for the heritage and tourism industries and in the media, not least for its relevance to debates about multiculturalism and diversity in present-day Britain and Europe. Amongst the most visible recent manifestations are the British Museum's 2014 Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition, and Neil Oliver's 2012 BBC2 TV series Vikings (NB the segment of the programme in which the PI discusses ON linguistic influence on English was used to publicize the series on the BBC History website; see http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/0/19520636). The specifically linguistic aspect of this heritage also taps into a considerable popular interest in the history of words (notice e.g. the BBC TV series Balderdash and Piffle, 2006-7). The other key focus of Gersum, Middle English alliterative poetry, also has a very wide appeal. 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is in particular enduringly popular with the general reader. The profile of this poetry has been raised most recently by poet Simon Armitage's translations of 'Sir Gawain' (Faber, 2007) and the 'Alliterative Morte Arthure' ('The Death of King Arthur'; Faber, 2012), both Gersum texts.
By engaging with these topics, Gersum will therefore appeal to a very wide range of potential beneficiaries, who are described in more detail under Pathways to Impact. Our focus in developing impact strategies will be on two broad (and overlapping) themes which we think will be of special interest and cultural benefit: (a) The significance of the Scandinavian element in the evolution of the English language, inc. some of the most basic words we still use every day. This is a way of promoting understanding of the Viking legacy in particular, and more generally of emphasizing the relevance of the medieval period to the multicultural heritage of Britain. (b) Exploring and celebrating the local language of the North of England, and its role in the great literary monuments of the Middle Ages. We believe that introducing speakers in locales associated with our texts (esp. Cheshire and Yorkshire) to the medieval versions of their own dialects, and to the use of this local language in the internationally important cultural heritage of these poems, can bestow very significant social benefits. In the English regions, too many people still grow up with pejorative attitudes towards their local dialects as marginalized, degenerate versions of 'proper English', esp. when it comes to dialect vocabulary (still rarely heard in the national media); knowing something of the historical depth of these features, and moreover the artistic and intellectual richness of the literature in which they survive, can be enormously validating and socially empowering.

Publications


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Description The non- and extra-academic beneficiaries of the Gersum project are potentially very various, but fall principally into two groups: (1) professional lexicographers (and the non-specialist users of their dictionaries); (2) members of the public interested in their cultural, linguistic and literary heritage. (We will continue to monitor our impact and to identify potential further beneficiaries and engagement strategies as the project progresses. Impact will be a standing agenda item at meetings of the project team and advisory board.) (1) The detailed findings of Gersum are of direct relevance to those engaged in commercial English lexicographical projects. The most significant of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the most important historical dictionary project in the world, with which Gersum is collaborating closely via Dr Philip Durkin (Deputy Chief Editor, and a member of our advisory board) and his colleagues. Our relationship with OED is proving to be mutually beneficial: Gersum is able to draw on the ongoing lexicological research of OED, and in turn the Dictionary's editorial team have been given immediate access to our project's findings (via access to our working database), which they are taking into account when drafting entries for its ongoing third edition. This new, online edition is available to a huge readership through institutional subscriptions (in the university sector and among public and commercial organizations), through public libraries, and through individual subscriptions (see http://www.oed.com). OED has a very wide user base, including sections devised to appeal to students and teachers (http://public.oed.com/resources/for-students-and-teachers/), and its findings often reach an even wider audience through interviews and features in broadcast, print, and online media. (2) There is a variety of aspects of Gersum which we believe are of interest and social benefit to members of the general public, revolving around and tapping into the popular cultural profile (whether nationally or locally) of the Vikings and their legacy, the history of words and medieval English poetry. More specifically, this (very diverse) group of beneficiaries includes (i) those with a relatively casual interest in various aspects of the history of languages, literature and culture in Britain, who occasionally attend exhibitions and events and read popular books/websites; (ii) those with a more developed, amateur interest who regularly attend public lectures or short courses and/or who are members of local history associations or dialect societies; (iii) school-level students and teachers exploring topics relevant to their courses (e.g. the regional and historical aspects of English Language A-levels, such as AQA module 3.A 'Language variation and change', OCR module 02.C 'Dimensions of linguistic variation: Language change'). We have already begun to engage with these beneficiaries via a series of talks aimed at general audiences and in a permanent web presence. Our engagement consists of two broad (and overlapping) strategies: (a) introducing the significance of the Scandinavian element in the English language and its importance to Britain's multicultural heritage, focusing on nationally important events and effects; (b) exploring and celebrating the local language of the North of England, and its role in some of the great literary monuments of the Middle Ages. We have already (in 2016 and so far in 2017) run a series of public events, including: a talk by the PI and CI at the Jorvik Viking Festival in York (February 2016), preceded by an interview on BBC Radio York; a day devoted to Anglo-Scandinavian England at the London Anglo-Saxon Symposium (March 2016); a lecture at the British Library by the PI and CI (November 2016); talks by both the PI and RA at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas (November 2016) and a talk by the PI at the Museum of Cambridge History Festival (February 2017), both preceded by interviews on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. These events have between them attracted audiences in the several hundreds, and we have collected feedback from participants signalling changes in attitudes and perceptions, as well as receiving requests for us to arrange further talks and events. The project has its own website (www.gersum.org), which includes an introduction to the subject of Old Norse loans for the general reader, and a lively presence on social media (including a Twitter following of more than 500 at the time of writing). We have also collaborated with Pearson Publishing (Cambridge) to record Old English and Old Norse for apps aimed at the teaching of school courses about the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, including a blog on this subject by the CI (http://www.pearson.co.uk/blog/viking-language). A range of further events and collaborations is planned, including talks at the Yorkshire Dialect Society and Cheshire History Day (with an accompanying poster exhibition).
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural
 
Description BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 4 October 2016, Brittany Schorn (Research Associate, Gersum Project) was interviewed on the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Breakfast Show about the influence of the Vikings on the English language. This was publicity for Dr Schorn's Festival of Ideas talk on 29 October, and for Dr Dance's talk in the same series on 26 October. The radio publicity played a role in generating interest in these talks, both of which attracted very large audiences (about 100 each).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/radiocambridgeshire
 
Description BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interview 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 15 February 2017, Richard Dance (PI, Gersum Project) was interviewed on the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Lunchtime Show about the influence of the Vikings on the English language. This was publicity for Dr Dance's Museum of Cambridge History Festival talk on 18 February. The radio publicity played a role in generating interest in this talk, which attracted an audience of about 60.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04qlrh5
 
Description BBC Radio York interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A short radio interview of Richard Dance on BBC Radio York on 3 February 2016, as part of the publicity for the talk at the Jorvik Viking Festival given by Richard Dance and Sara Pons-Sanz on 16 February. It isn't possible to say whether the interview had direct impact, but the subsequent talk was sold out.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description British Library talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 7 November 2016, Richard Dance (PI) and Sara Pons-Sanz (CI) gave an hour-long talk ('Viking Treasure in the English Language') introducing to a general audience the Old Norse influence on the English language (medieval and modern, including regional dialects). The event was sold out, with 75 attendees (free entry) in the British Library's conference centre. The talk stimulated many interested questions from the audience, and respondents to the feedback questionnaire indicated that it had changed their thinking about the history of English vocabulary.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.bl.uk/events/viking-treasure-in-the-english-language
 
Description Dance talk at Cambridge History Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 18 February 2017, Richard Dance (PI, Gersum Project) gave an hour-long morning lecture ('Vikings in Your Vocabulary: How Old Norse Words Moved In') to introduce the general public to the subject of the Old Norse influence on English vocabulary (both medieval and modern, including regional dialects). This was an event in the annual 'History Festival' organised by the Museum of Cambridge and held in the Castle Street Methodist Church (tickets cost £8 full, £6 concessions). There were many interested questions from members of the audience (total of about 60), and feedback questionnaires were collected indicating that the talk had provoked in the audience new attitudes towards language change and the history of English. Dr Dance has agreed to give a further talk (at a meeting of the Royston local history group, February 2018) as a result of this one.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.museumofcambridge.org.uk
 
Description Dance talk at Festival of Ideas 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 26 October 2016, Richard Dance gave an hour-long evening lecture ('Vikings in Your Vocabulary: How Old Norse Words Moved In') to introduce the general public to the subject of the Old Norse influence on English vocabulary (both medieval and modern, including regional dialects). This was an event in the University of Cambridge's annual 'Festival of Ideas'. There were many interested questions from members of the audience (total of about 100), and feedback questionnaires were collected indicating that the talk had provoked in the audience new attitudes towards language change and the history of English.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/events/vikings-your-vocabulary-how-old-norse-words-moved
 
Description Faculty of English Medieval Graduate Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact On 9 November 2016, Richard Dance (PI) and Brittany Schorn (Research Associate) gave a 20-minute talk introducing the Gersum Project to postgraduate students in the Faculty of English, Cambridge. This led to a lively discussion, and students and colleagues in English expressed renewed interest in this research area and a desire for future collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Gersum website, Twitter, Facebook 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The initial launch of the Gersum project website includes a section aimed at the general public which introduces the Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary ('Norse terms in English: a (basic!) introduction'), project news, etc. The website content was written by Sara Pons-Sanz and Brittany Schorn, and the site is hosted by HRI Digital at the University of Sheffield. Updates (including the 'word of the week') are posted regularly on Twitter and Facebook. The Twitter feed has a following of more than 500 at the time of writing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://www.gersum.org
 
Description ICEHL Essen 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In August 2016, Richard Dance (PI) and Brittany Schorn (RA, Gersum project) gave a paper introducing the project and its research at the International Conference on English Historical Linguistics (as part of the 'Diachronic approaches to the typology of language contact' workshop) in Essen, Germany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.uni-due.de/anglistik/icehl19/
 
Description ICEHL Essen 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In August 2016, Sara Pons-Sanz (CI, Gersum project) gave a paper (about the etymology of PDE 'bread') at the International Conference on English Historical Linguistics in Essen, Germany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.uni-due.de/anglistik/icehl19/
 
Description ISHLL conference Indiana 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In July 2016, Sara Pons-Sanz (CI, Gersum Project) gave a paper about the project at the conference of the International Society for Historical Lexicography and Lexicology in Bloomington, Indiana.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Jorvik Viking Festival 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk by Richard Dance and Sara Pons-Sanz called 'Vikings in your Vocabulary', held at the York Guild Hall on 16 February 2016 as part of the 2016 Jorvik Viking Festival. It was attended by a paying audience of 100 plus festival volunteers. The talk lasted about an hour, and was followed by lively and interesting questions and discussion afterwards. Attendees filled in a questionnaire: many reported that the talk had increased their awareness of (and their pride in) the Scandinavian origins of their own dialect vocabulary, and shared examples with us of words that they themselves used.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description LASS 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 12 March 2016, Sara Pons-Sanz gave a talk about the Old Norse influence on English to a meeting of the 'London Anglo-Saxon Symposium' (LASS), which she also organised. 62 people attended (there was a charge for registration). The paper was well received, with participants commenting in feedback questionnaires that the event had expanded their appreciation of the Scandinavian impact on English language and culture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Pearson apps and blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact In November 2016, the Gersum project team collaborated with educational publisher and software developer Pearson Publishing (Cambridge) (http://www.pearson.co.uk) to record Old English and Old Norse for apps aimed at the teaching of school courses about the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. This collaboration included a blog on the subject of the Old Norse influence on the English language by the CI (http://www.pearson.co.uk/blog/viking-language).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.pearson.co.uk/blog/viking-language
 
Description Schorn talk at Festival of Ideas 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On 29 October 2016, Brittany Schorn (Research Associate, Gersum Project) gave a 30-minute interactive talk ('Speak Like A Viking') charting the influence of the Vikings on everyday modern English, and introducing the audience to phrases in the Old Norse language. This was an event in the University of Cambridge's annual 'Festival of Ideas'. There were many interested questions from members of the audience (total of about 100), and feedback questionnaires were collected indicating that the talk had provoked in the audience new attitudes towards language change and the history of English.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/events/speak-viking
 
Description Talk at St Mary's Primary School, Bristol 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact On 16 May 2016, Sara Pons-Sanz gave a talk about the Vikings and their influence on English to a group of thirty Year 4 pupils and their teacher at St Mary's Primary School, Bristol. The pupils enjoyed the talk, and their teacher commented afterwards that they 'were really surprised to learn that many of our common everyday words come from Vikings and I think it helped them to view Vikings as explorers, farmers and settlers, rather than just invaders who stole things'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description University of Westminster Research Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact On 2 November, Brittany Schorn (RA, Gersum Project) gave a 50-minute paper introducing the project and its research to the University of Westminster Research Seminar in English Language and Linguistics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.westminster.ac.uk/english-language-and-linguistics