Jan Terje Faarlund, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo, and Joseph Emmonds, a visiting professor from Palacký University in the Czech Republic, received publicity in November 2012 for their paper proposing that the West Germanic Old English may not be the root of modern English after all, but that English being close in structure to modern Norwegian (nynorsk) suggests the language may be based on the Old Norse of the Vikings. The Norse influence on English has of course always been acknowledged, particularly in vocabulary and place names. The way people speak in East Yorkshire in England has a striking resemblance to Danish west-coast dialect, whereas some of the northern-most Scottish islands have a lot in common with Norwegian. Scottish people and Geordies talk about “bairns” rather than “children”, for example.

The Faarlund-Emmonds theory, however, looks beyond the similarities in vocabulary. Such similarities are, after all, common in any two languages that come into contact with each other. They claim that it is the syntax and structure that prove their point. As examples, they provide English structures like the stranded preposition at the end of a sentence which are shared with the Scandinavian languages but which do not occur in German or Dutch.

Whether English is a West Germanic language with Scandinavian influences or a Scandinavian language with West Germanic influences may be of consequence only to the scholars. But if this discussion got the public in the UK interested in the Nordic languages and encouraged a few more students to study them at university, then it cannot be a bad thing. Looking at the limited number of English translators graduating with a Scandinavian language degree these days, I am all for promoting Swedish as the first foreign language for British children to learn. Yes, why not give them something familiar to start with; a very closely related language. It might help bury that age-old adage about the British not being able to pick up foreign languages.

Icebreaker, Icebreaker February 2013, Nordic culture