Richard North

title.none: Townend, Language and History (Richard North)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.014 05.01.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard North, University College London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Townend, Matthew. Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English. Series: Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002. Pp. xv, 248. $60.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51292-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.14

Townend, Matthew. Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English. Series: Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002. Pp. xv, 248. $60.00 (hb). ISBN: 2-503-51292-5.

Reviewed by:

Richard North
University College London

This book begins with a sketch of the Vikings' arrival, conquest and submission on English soil, which Townend delivers via a snapshot of entries from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is followed by nine varied cases of Anglo-Scandinavian negotiation, which start with Ealdorman Ælfred's buying back of the Codex Aureus gospel book from Vikings in the mid-ninth century, and end with the hoard of a Danelaw merchant lost some time after 1003. In between are treaties, charter records of the West Saxon repurchase of Danelaw land, a Chronicle entry concerning Æthelstan's gift of his sister's hand in marriage to King Sigtryggr of York in 925, and some increasingly complicated legal provisions of the tenth and eleventh centuries. All these cases beg the same question: how did speakers from one language group make their demands to those of the other? Starkly formulated, it must be a choice between using interpreters, encouraging bilingualism among merging groups, or relying more passively on an existing degree of intelligibility between speakers of English and Danish in the Viking Age.

Favoring the last option, Townend makes a test for dialect intelligibility compositely on the basis of four: (i) empirical: the "Recorded Text Test" (RTT); (ii) anecdotal: "ask the informant"; (iii) philological; and (iv) social. How these may be applied in the case of Anglo-Saxon and Danish Norse, both languages in a state more than a thousand years dead, is not all that improbable. There is (iii) the history of comparative scrutiny in this area as part of Germanic philology and (iv) the abundance of historical-archaeological information concerning Anglo-Scandinavian encounters. There is also (ii) explicit and implicit anecdotal information in both Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse sources about the degrees to which various members of one group could--or thought they should--understand another. Here, in ch. 5 (161, n. 9), I wondered why so little was made out of the Norse elements in the Viking's speech in The Battle of Maldon. Most importantly (i), however, Townend makes it clear that an empirical evidence of mutual intelligibility survives embedded in English place-names, whether these are Scandinavianized versions of Anglo-Saxon ones, or vice versa. In short, these four tests are all applied in Townend's book.

In ch. 2, in order to set out towards this end, there is a brief but trenchant discussion of some well-worn problems: the chronology of Germanic dialect formation, the presence of Norwegians in the fifth-century adventus Saxonum, whether it is a break or continuation in Anglo-Scandinavian trade from then to the arrival of Viking raiders in England in the late eighth century. Then, showing even more remarkable ability to stay within the essentials, Townend leads us gamely through two potentially dense phonological inventories, the lists of sound changes in Old English and Old Norse from the time of their divergence from (and presumably because of) the Anglian and Saxon migrations to Britain in the fifth century. Not all controversies can be settled or even addressed in a summary chapter, but the aim of this one puts such considerations in second place. As well as demonstrating the isolation of the Old English language from Old Norse for some 200-250 years before the Viking Age, ch. 2 allows us to consider "dialect congruity" (41) as a prerequisite for the sound changes in Scandinavianized English place-names in ch. 3. In this chapter, which could be described as a breakthrough, Townend brings on terminology from two modern critical studies of passive dialect intelligibility: particularly C. F. Hockett's "switching code," which enables listeners to convert vowels from one related system to another; and the notion of "dialect congruity" in Margaret and Stuart Milliken, one which allows such conversions to take place without the listener's need to study the speaker's dialect as if this were a separate language. As Townend shows, the conclusions of these modern linguistic scholars illuminate the process whereby Scandinavians converted elements in Old English place-names into congruent Danish forms. As may be studied in a detailed appendix (69-87), there are 228 place-names from Danelaw and Norwegian areas (in the East Midlands, Yorkshire, and the North West) in each of which the Old English form is recorded along with its later Scandinavianization. Out of this number, 36 place-names show a non-cognate substitution of elements (OIce viðr for OE wic, for example), leaving 192 in which Norse arrivals switched their own forms for the cognate indigenous ones (for example, heimr for OE ham). These substitutions cover a wider area than one in which this high success-rate, no less than 84%, could be laid at the door of "a handful of influential linguists" (60). From these 192 names Townend has deduced a list of 15 separate conversion patterns involving both consonants and vowels, one which represents most of the phonemic systems of both Old English and Old Norse (61-3). This success-rate for the Norse version of Hockett's phonemic switching-code goes up to 92% (192 out of 207) if place-names are taken out of the calculation for part of which no Old Norse cognate existed; and even higher, to 99% (128 out of 129), if the sum total includes only cognate substitutions in the stressed first element where a Norse cognate existed (66). Even at 84%, however, Townend's test for ancient partial place-name conversion works like a modern RTT, demonstrating, in his careful words, that "in the contact of speakers of Norse and English in Viking Age England we primarily appear to be dealing with a situation of dialect intelligibility rather than one of bilingualism" (60).

Ch. 4 offers the most thoroughgoing analysis of three cases of Anglo-Scandinavian language exchange. There is firstly the Norwegian skipper Ohthere's terminology in the passage interpolated into Alfred's Orosius's Historia adversus Paganos. Here it is persuasively argued that Ohthere spoke his own form of English without an interpreter. Then a century later, Æthelweard, in his Chronicon, allows his interest in the names of Norse gods to reshape the sequence of their cognates in Anglo-Saxon royal genealogy. Lastly Ælfric, Æthelweard's protege, goes the other way by suppressing all links between native and foreign gods and by altering details of Norse paganism to fit with Roman mythology. The clerical attitude resurfaces in the final stage of ch. 5, which considers dialect intelligibility in Norse, Old English and Anglo-Latin records from the anecdotal point of view. It is firstly surprising to find the Icelandic sagas, notably Egils saga and Haralds saga Sigurðarsonar, supporting the notoriously trite statement in Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu (ch. 7) that English was formerly one with Danish and Norwegian. Yet it becomes ever more plausible through these thirteenth-century memories of the British Isles, that in the Viking Age each community did regard the other's speech as a variant dialect. Consistent with this is the fact that the more contemporary Anglo-Latin and vernacular references to English dealings with Norsemen all omit reference to the wealhstod ("interpreter"), a figure in regular use with other language groups. For once it seems that an argumentum ex silentio may be the right one. At any rate, the vernacular homilists' retention of the biblical topos in the Carta dominica, that Israel (i.e. England) could not understand the speech of northern Chaldean invaders (i.e. the Vikings) is a nice way of showing that the English clergy did not want to be identified with the immigrants now living with them, whose language was so close to theirs.

Townend concludes his book in a characteristically modest style, in ch. 6, before re-entering the fray with a sketch of the history of Norse-English language relations. In general this is defined as "societal bilingualism," a term which acknowledges the pragmatic attempts of Englishmen and Danes to communicate in the tenth and eleventh centuries within a communal understanding of England as truly "Anglo-Scandinavian," a country with two languages (we say Northworthy, you say Derby). The puzzling lack of Norse place-names or inscriptions in Scandinavian areas is traced to the form of the written record, or the fact that Norse here had no literary status of its own. Whether or not it had lost its inflexions by the time it was inscribed (on the Penningon tympanum, for example, in the twelfth century) will remain a matter for debate. Yet the position of Norse words at the core of Middle English vocabulary does suggest, as Townend wants it to, that the same words were imposed on English in the Anglo-Saxon period, probably through mixed marriages (204; cf. 184, n. 2). Finally, the many doublets of English and Norse cognates in the Ormulum, in an autograph manuscript from twelfth-century Lincolnshire, bear out what Townend has been saying: that it is likely the two groups had been able to understand each other's language from the start. In all, his case for a more upbeat view of Anglo-Norse intelligibility is made with such thoroughness, selectivity and range that it succeeds in revising much of the last century's scholarship in favor of the old Edwardian optimism (such as that of Henry Bradley, The Making of English, 1904). This is a skilful and elegant book. One can only hope that historians and archaeologists will make it their new platform for research on England in the Viking Age.