Monday 13 September 2010

The influence of Old Norse on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Dr Richard Dance writes about his current research project, an etymological survey of words derived from Old Norse in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

The language of the Scandinavians who settled in Viking Age England had a profound influence on the history of English, including its vocabulary. A number of important, everyday Modern English words have been traced back to Old Norse (e.g. die, egg, ill, law, leg, low, seem, sky, take, window, not to mention the pronouns they, their and them), and there are hundreds of other likely instances in texts written during the Old and Middle English periods. The sociolinguistic context of the contact between speakers of Old English and Old Norse in the Viking Age, and the mechanisms by which material was transferred from one language to the other, have been the subject of important research in the last several decades (see notably M. Townend, Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations Between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (Turnhout, 2002)). But there is still much work to do in order to understand the loaned vocabulary itself, particularly the Scandinavian influence on the lexicon of the great medieval English literary monuments composed in the North or North Midlands. My current research project explores one important work, the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

A view of 'Lud's Church', Staffordshire (possible inspiration for the 'Green Chapel'
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Photo: Dr Richard Dance 

Despite its celebrity as one of the pinnacles of Middle English literary achievement, and, what is more, though its vocabulary has frequently been held up as one of the most striking known instances of Scandinavian influence, there has been no complete etymological survey of Norse loans in Sir Gawain. This is perhaps because the identification of a list of these words is a task accompanied by so much uncertainty: the number of lexical items in the text whose development could be attributed to Norse input is very large, but (once we get beyond the obvious candidates) there is surprisingly little consensus about which exactly to include. At a minimum there are just over a hundred different words in Sir Gawain demonstrably derivable from Norse on the basis of comparative formal criteria (these include phonological ‘tests’ like the presence of a distinctively ON /sk/ in words like skete ‘quickly’, to be derived from ON skjótt rather than OE scēot- with its initial palatal, cp. MnE shoot). At the other extreme, taking into account the etymological labels and other remarks of the historical dictionaries, the glossaries (and notes) of the standard editions and assorted other studies, I have so far collected more than 450 total instances for which some influence from Norse has been suggested, including many for which the evidence is much shakier (amongst the more interesting and tentative are words like fysken ‘scamper’, gryndel ‘fierce’, runisch ‘rough, violent’). The disparity between these two extremes is nicely indicative of the difficulties that beset the etymological identification of Norse loans in general, and which result from two basic deficiencies in the pool of evidence: on the one hand the sheer formal similarity of Old English and Old Norse, which has self-evident consequences not only for the relatively easy transfer of material between the two, but for our capacity to identify it after the fact; and on the other the patchiness of the record of both languages in the periods before and during which contact took place. The first step in the investigation of these words cannot therefore be a simple matter of compiling a list of ‘bona fide loans’; but the grounds upon which Scandinavian influence has been identified need careful scrutiny and considered presentation before any further analysis can be undertaken. Taking Sir Gawain as my sample, my project therefore aims to discover not only what can be achieved by a thoroughgoing collection of all the many and various suggestions for Norse input in scholarly publications, it also sets out to be a reassessment of the methodological underpinnings of a subject central to English lexical history, whose principles have seldom been set out or discussed since the magisterial work of Erik Björkman (Scandinavian Loan-Words in Middle English (Halle, 1900–1902)).

I have been working on this material intermittently for a number of years, and my approach to the etymological arguments has evolved as I have collected more and more suggested loans. Over the next few months I intend to prepare the main elements of my research for publication. This task has been greatly facilitated by the generosity of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), whose ‘Fellowships’ scheme has enabled me to take an additional term of sabbatical leave in order to work on Sir Gawain. Looking further ahead, I hope that my survey of the vocabulary of this important text will sow the seeds for a large-scale, collaborative project to collect words of possibly Scandinavian origin from a great many more Middle English texts.


  1. Gawain and the Green Knight has many Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements. The Yuletide hunt may have re-called the 'Wild Hunt' of Odin/Woden, a reaper of dead souls. The poem is likely written in memory of Sir John Chandos, a noteable huntsman, soldier and devotee of the Virgin Mary, whose emblem he wore, see Froissart. As with Odin, Chandos had one eye which he had lost to a stag in 1365. He was also a founding Garter Knight in charge of the three great forests of Cheshire and also High Peak, Derbyshire. Of great significance is that the Perfect Knight, Sir John Chandos, died on New Years Day 1370. -
    Now þat here þe croun of þorne,
    he bryng vus to his blysse! AMEN.

  2. Great piece. Thank you for writing this.