Scandinavian influence on English syntax

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Those interested in the whole "English is a Scandinavian language" kerfuffle should check out the materials available via the site "Sources for the study of Scandinavian influence on Old and Middle English" at Penn, and especially the “Papers on Middle English syntax and language contact”.

Two especially relevant items–

Anthony Kroch, Ann Taylor and Donald Ringe, “The Middle English Verb-Second Constraint: A Case Study in Language Contact and Language Change”, in Textual Parameters in Older Language, Susan Herring et al., eds. 1995. Abstract:

As has long been known, the northern and southern dialects of Middle English differed considerably in their phonology, morphology and lexicon. Many of these differences have been traced to the linguistic influence in the North of the eighth and ninth century Viking invaders who first plundered, then conquered and settled in, large territories in Northumbria, Lincolnshire and East Anglia. In this paper, we will add to the list of known differences between the dialects a hitherto apparently unnoticed syntactic one and will give evidence that it too is an effect of Norse influence. In particular, we will show that the northern and southern dialects of Middle English differed in the way that they implemented the verb-second (V2) constraint common to the Germanic languages and then argue that this difference was a syntactic consequence of contact-induced simplification in the verbal agreement paradigm of the northern dialect.

Anthony Kroch and Ann Taylor, “Verb Movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect Variation and Language Contact”, In Ans van Kemenade and Nigel Vincent (eds.), Parameters of Morphosyntactic Change, 1997. Abstract:

Our goal in this paper is to show that the northern and southern dialects of Middle English differ significantly in their verb-movement syntax. In particular, we will give evidence that these dialects exemplify a recently discovered typological distinction within the Germanic language family in the landing sites of verb movement. Several studies have indicated that the verb-second constraint characteristic of the Germanic languages involves movement to either of two different positions, depending on the language investigated. In the better known languages (German, Dutch, and Mainland Scandinavian), verb-second (V2) word order results from movement of the tensed verb to the COMP (C0) position and concomitant movement of some maximal projection to the specifier of CP. In other Germanic languages (Yiddish and Icelandic), however, V2 word order can reflect movement of the tensed verb to a lower position. In studies using the phrase structure of "Barriers," that position is lNFL (I0). Pintzuk has recently shown that the verb in Old English V2 clauses surfaces in the I0 position; and despite the empirical difficulties pointed out by Kemenade, we will support her conclusion. We will further see that the southern dialect of Middle English preserves the V2 syntax of Old English, despite having become, unlike Old English, overwhelmingly INFL-medial and VO in basic word order. In striking contrast to the southern dialect, however, the northern dialect of Middle English appears to have developed the verb-movement syntax of a standard CP-V2 language and hence to be similar in its syntax to the modern Mainland Scandinavian languages. In this paper, after a brief discussion of the historical context of dialect differentiation between North and South in Old and Middle English, we lay out the complex V2 syntax of Old English. With this background, we proceed to describe the syntax of V2 in the southern and northern dialects of Middle English, respectively, and show that V2 clauses in the two dialects differ in the landing site of the verb. Given the strong and well-known linguistic influence of Scandinavian on northern Middle English, we are immediately led to ask whether the CP-V2 character of northern Middle English could reflect contact with Scandinavian. We give evidence in support of this possibility, and suggest that contact led to the change to a CP-V2 grammar in the North through an induced simplification of the subject-verb agreement pattern of northern English.


  1. richardelguru said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    'kerfuffle' hardly scratches the surface. Over on ANSAX-L (LISTSERV@LISTSERV.WVU.EDU) there was a flurry of postings such as I have not seen this many a year. I lost count after about 120 in one day.
    People were almost impolite!!

  2. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 6, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    Sayre's law:

    In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.

  3. On Scandinavian Roots, the Goodreads Choice Awards, the Publishing Person of the Year, the Business Side of News and Social Media Wars « Project Chiron (Beta) said,

    December 12, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    […] However, Sally Thomason on Language Log refuted Faarlund’s theories and countered his claims that “languages in contact can be counted on to retain their own grammar” and that “the only reasonable explanation for parallelism between syntactic structures of Scandinavian languages and English is that English is a Scandinavian language.” Mark Liberman also listed other materials for those who are “[t]hose interested in the whole ‘English is a Scandinavian language’ kerfuffle.” […]

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