Vikings in Your Vocabulary
with Dr Richard Dance (University of Cambridge)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, April 22nd 2017

From their first terrifying attacks in the eighth century, to the accession of Cnut ‘the Great’ to the English throne in 1016, the Vikings raided, settled and ruled in Britain for hundreds of years.  One of their most enduring impacts was on the English language.  We can trace hundreds of English words back to the language of the Vikings, Old Norse — and we still use many of them every day, including words as basic as call, die, egg, husband, law, leg, skin, take, window, and even they.  This study day will explore these words and how we know about them, tracing their journey from the languages of the Viking Age to the present day, and discovering what they can tell us about our medieval Scandinavian heritage.  Along the way, we shall take a particular look at the richly expressive vocabulary of some of the most important poetry of the English Middle Ages, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The morning will begin with an introduction to what happened when the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings met each other.  We shall learn some of their words and phrases, and how to pronounce them in Old English and Old Norse.  The second session will trace the massive and sometimes surprising influence of Old Norse on English, including its effects on the distinctive vocabulary of regional dialects.  We shall explore the linguistic reasons why we can identify this influence (including tell-tale ‘Old Norse sounds’), and ponder what the English language might have looked like without it!

Our etymological detective work will continue in the afternoon, when we will puzzle over the forms and meanings of some intriguing and difficult English words which may owe something to the influence of Old Norse, including some tricky examples from medieval texts, like rasse, snitter and grome.  We shall focus in particular on the colourful and stylish language of the Middle English Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose remarkable vocabulary shows a great deal of possible Norse influence, and read sections of this famous poem together.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                Wes haill! When the Anglo-Saxons met the Vikings

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                Finding Vikings in your vocabulary

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 The etymologist vs. the Vikings

14.50 – 15.10:                Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                Sir Gawain and the Vikings

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Dr Richard Dance

Richard Dance is Reader in Early English in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.  He is the author of a number of books and articles about the language and literature of the Old and early Middle English periods, and is especially interested in vocabulary, etymology and the language of early English poetry.  He has lectured widely on these subjects, has read Old English verse on radio programmes such as Poetry Please, and appeared on the recent BBC2 series The Vikings with Neil Oliver.


When asked “What was best about the day?” at a previous Study Day by Richard respondents said:

  • The lecturer’s enthusiasm, encouragement and knowledge of the subject.  Excellent use of voice and presentation style.  Lovely story teller.  Thank you!
  • Excellent lecturer, easy to listen to and easy manner.  Great day…again.  thank you.
  • An erudite yet light hearted speaker who exuded the love of Old English to all and made me want to speak it – permanently
  • The entire day was a joy.  Another superb day at Sutton Hoo.
  • The enthusiasm of the lecturer and the friendly atmosphere in the study group.
  • The lecturer, scholarship, humour, accessibility

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

The Gersum Project:   <>

  1. Armitage, trans., The Death of King Arthur (Faber, 2012)
  2. S. Baker, Introduction to Old English (Blackwell, 2003)
  3. Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge 1995)
  4. V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, 2nd ed., rev. A. R. Taylor (Oxford, 1957)
  5. Horobin, How English Became English: A Short History of a Global Language (Oxford, 2016)
  6. Mitchell & F. C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 8th ed. (Blackwell, 2011)
  7. Mugglestone, ed., The Oxford History of English (Oxford, 2006)
  8. R. R. Tolkien, trans., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, ed. C. Tolkien (Allen and Unwin, 1975)
  9. Townend, Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (Brepols, 2002)