14.05.02, Pons-Sanz, The Lexical Effects of Anglo-Scandinavian Linguistic Contact on Old English

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Roberta Frank

The Medieval Review 14.05.02

Pons-Sanz, Sara Maria. The Lexical Effects of Anglo-Scandinavian Linguistic Contact on Old English . Studies in the Early Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xv, 589. ISBN: 978-2-503-53471-8.

Reviewed by:
Roberta Frank
Yale University

This study looks with exquisite care at the more than three hundred terms attested during the Anglo-Saxon period for which Norse derivation has been claimed. It analyzes their chronological and dialectal distribution (to the extent that this is possible), and probes the semantic and stylistic relationships between these terms and their native equivalents. Pons-Sanz's rigorous skepticism ("is the evidence strong enough?") means that few lexical items get through her interrogation unbattered and unbowed. Some words are rejected altogether as probably of native origin (e.g., OE cal "kale," OE wrang "wrong, injustice"), one new word from Cnut's laws is added. The author has a gift for clarity of presentation, from her exemplary introduction through nineteen sets of tables and four appendices (the first listing all Norse-derived terms attested in Old English texts, the second, of 67 pages, Old English texts recording Norse-derived terms). This volume is a solid contribution to the study of cultural contact between English and Norse speakers during the long Viking Age.

Like the author's two earlier books--Analysis of the Scandinavian Loanwords in the Aldredian Glosses to the Lindisfarne Gospels (2000), and Norse-Derived Vocabulary in Late Old English Texts: Wulfstan's Works, a Case Study (2007)--the current work is up-to-date, methodologically sophisticated, cautious, learned, and judicious, constantly weighing difficult questions of probability and possibility. Pons-Sanz's approach complements a number of recent studies--notably Matthew Townend's Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (2002) and Richard Dance's Words Derived from Old Norse in Early Middle English: Studies in the Vocabulary of the South-West Midland Texts (2003). Her study, which advocates a probabilistic approach, differs profoundly from earlier works that simply provide lists of loan-words, such as Sergeantson's A History of Foreign Words in English (1935), which has served until recently as a standard reference.

The author's opening explanation of terminology is followed by a brief historical survey of the Scandinavian presence in England and of the scholarly tradition devoted to the analysis of (alleged) Norse-derived vocabulary in English. She outlines the many problems facing writers of such studies, including scarcity of sources, closeness of the two languages involved, and distance from the period under consideration. Old Norse records are usually much later than the period of the linguistic contact itself; the Old English materials are patchy at best and particularly scant from the areas where the Scandinavians settled; much of the time we do not know when or where an Old English text was written down, let alone composed. Scholars often end up having to weigh highly problematic factors such as cultural evidence (does the word describe a concept or object new to the recipient language?), the rareness or lateness of an Old English term or meaning known from Old Norse texts, an association with a Scandinavianized area within England, or the presence or absence of cognates in other West Germanic languages. This is not a field for the faint-hearted.

Chapter 2 discusses the Old English words that Pons-Sanz accepts, sometimes hesitantly and with qualifications, as Norse-derived. Phonological criteria are reliable, but often irrelevant since Old English speakers seem to have had a talent for working out phonological correspondences between the two languages and made their own substitutions at the moment of borrowing. The author's skepticism is manifest in the first entry, OE hæil "healthy," traditionally associated with the Viking Age Norse adjective represented by Old Icelandic heill "healthy" (cf. OE hal). Here she notes the possibility, not to be "fully discounted," that the drinking formula in question, scribbles penned by a scribe who may have been trained in a continental scriptorium, did not develop from Anglo-Scandinavian linguistic contact, but rather from contact with the Continent (OHG heil "healthy"). Cultural evidence, the association of a term with the Scandinavian newcomers and their world, turns out to be more problematic. Even OE cnearr "warship," commonly interpreted as a Norse-derived loan-word, withers under the author's gaze: "Neither the form nor the textual attestations of the term are necessarily suggestive of a Norse origin. In this case, the seemingly Norse meaning associated with it may be a stronger indicator that we are dealing with a Norse-derived term. Whether it is a loan-word or a semantic loan has to remain unsolved" (80). Even OE lagu "law," not missing from any list of Norse loan-words, is viewed with suspicion: "it could be the case that we are dealing with a semantic loan rather than a loan-word or with a fully native term" (84). It may be Norse-derived, but other possibilities (and here she goes into details) are not ruled out. OE cnif "knife" is cut down to size: "Given the lack of very strong evidence in favour of its Norse derivation, the term is included in the main body of this study because of scholarly tradition. The possibility that it is not Norse-derived cannot be discounted, though" (108). As for OE baðe "both," "the structure under consideration may be a native formation the popularity of which was increased by the Norse equivalent" (90). The answer to the question "is this word Norse-derived" is more often than not a learned approximation of Sportin' Life's refrain in Porgy and Bess: "I'm preachin' dis sermon to show/ It ain't nessa--ain't nessa...It ain't necessarily so!"

Chapter 3 examines the chronological and dialectal distribution of the Norse-derived terms recorded in Old English texts and attempts to determine how central they are within their lexico-semantic fields. Nouns are by far the most numerous loans, within which group technical terms are the most numerous; words associated with law, warfare, seafaring, and social status seem particularly prominent. Interesting is the almost exclusive restriction of Norse-derived OE gærsum(a) "treasure, precious object" to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The author is as cautious about semantics as she is about etymology, concluding, for example, that it is not possible to be certain about the military sense of OE dreng in its one occurrence (The Battle of Maldon). She invariably treats her predecessors with respect, no matter how outrageous their views. A few years ago, in a lighthearted tribute to a colleague ("Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool," Representations 100 [2007]: 23-33), I drew unscholarly attention to the Old English verb seor(d/ð)an "to commit adultery" (derived from ON serða "to have sex with"), found only in a gloss in the Lindisfarne Gospels, and quipped: "Perhaps what is referred to was so rare among the northern English that Aldred had to adopt a dirty word from his Danish contemporaries to describe it" (27). Pons-Sanz allows that "Frank's view may indeed be the case, but we could also suggest that...[the term] may be a linguistic pointer of the process of social integration undertaken by the Scandinavian newcomers" (241). Two pages later we read that seor(d/ð)an may have been chosen because of its connotation of foreignness, "although this is not beyond doubt." Reader, I was kidding.

Chapter 4 comprises several case-studies of Norse-derived words in specific works, with regard to dialectal variation and authorship. The author concludes that findings derived from her analysis cannot be definitive because of the difficulty in placing and dating Old English texts and uncertainty as to whether the Norse-derived terms used are original or represent subsequent lexical replacements in line with a later scribe's practice. So much has been lost, the two cultures had so many opportunities to interact over centuries, that any argument for a direct link, lexical or literary, can almost always be challenged on methodological grounds. The author's concluding remarks occupy Chapter 5, the shortest in the volume by far. Among other things, she here points out that, although most Norse-derived terms in English are first attested during the Middle English period, the Old English material analyzed does indicate increasing contact between and mixing of the languages, even if few basic vocabulary items were borrowed. She notes the near-total absence of Norse-derived terms from Old English poetry (262, 278); there is no mention of Beowulf in the six-hundred pages of this book.

Appendix III, which lists Old English terms and structures more likely to be native than borrowed, is absorbing reading. Any objections to the author's individual decisions are muted by her characteristic directness: "Admittedly, though, there may be terms that are actually from Old Norse which have been discussed in this section, just as there may be native terms included in the main body of the study. The uncertainty surrounding the actual etymology of many terms discussed in this study is precisely one of the main problems it faces" (468). Pons-Sanz tends to dismiss Norse-derivation when there is a possibility that the term in question was formed by fully native means. I worry about "fully" native. OE unwine "enemy," a term on her reject list, seems to me a probable Norse-derived loan translation (modeled on ON úvinr "un-friend, enemy"), not only because of its late attestation and dialectal distribution but because OE wine, unlike its Norse cognate vinr, is a poetic word designating not a garden-variety "friend" or "ally" (cf. OE freond) but a "friendly lord, protector," a sense quickly seized on and borrowed by Cnut's skalds in England. A two-century-long process of co-optation and hybridization, of minglings, fusion, feedback loops, and other vertiginous to-ings and fro-ings, is largely lost to us. Pons-Sanz's well executed book, in which the evidence itself, inevitably insufficient, governs conclusions, keeps us on solid ground. Her study will better serve future scholarship than a more dramatic and stirring but perhaps less evenhanded assessment of Norse-derived loanwords in Old English.

The volume has been splendidly produced and proofread. Typographical errors are rare. I note a handful in the Bibliography: s.v. [DOE] read Ashley Crandell Amos; s.v. [OEC] read Antonette diPaolo Healey; s.v. Förster read (2x) Beiblatt; s.v. Roesdhal and Sandhal, reverse the "h" and "a" in each surname

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Author Biography

Roberta Frank

Yale University