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Linguist claims that English Is a Scandinavian language (uio.no)
154 points by mikeleeorg 1783 days ago | hide | past | web | 129 comments | favorite

I have studied linguistics, German, and Norwegian. (I used to live with a roommate during my undergraduate studies who insisted on maintaining a Norwegian-speaking household.) My oldest son the hacker has studied the same languages, as well as Chinese, all of which are family heritage languages for us. I don't buy this press release. English was heavily influenced by Norse, for sure, but at its core it is part of the West Germanic branch of Germanic languages, rather than the North Germanic branch that includes Scandinavian.

[Edit to take into account that the source link has been changed, and thus improved, on this submission.]

>I have studied linguistics, German, and Norwegian. [...] I don't buy this press release.

Apparently this theory's authors have also studied linguistics and multiple languages [1]. So how do you counter their arguments regarding syntax and core vocabulary?

[1] Here's the Amazon publications list for one of them: http://www.amazon.com/Jan-Terje-Faarlund/e/B001HOTQ08

Apparently this theory's authors have also studied linguistics and multiple languages. So how do you counter their arguments regarding syntax and core vocabulary?

So far their publication on the contested point in discussion here is the press release submitted here. The field of linguistics has peer-reviewed journals like any other science, and it has authoritative secondary sources (surveys of world languages) and tertiary sources (encyclopedias of linguistics) and a large scholarly community of people who have more specialized knowledge than (apparently) any participant in this thread, including me, who know English, Old English, modern Scandinavian, Old Norse, and German well enough to dig into the data. What's more, historians have been publishing for generations on the general issue of how Britain was settled by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes after written history had already begun in Britain, and how incursions by "Danes" in Britain were responded to by the local populations. This is not a new field.

A new comment, more recently submitted than your reply to my comment, puts the issue well:

Having studied linguistics I'd say the claim is sensationalist rather than sensational. English is a rather wild crossbreed of many European languages, all of which share the same Indo-European roots.

Old English is very closely related to Old Frisian and Low German. Later on English has been heavily influenced by Scandinavian, Romance (mainly French due the Norman invasion in 1066 - Norman French to be specific, which differed quite a bit from Île-de-France French at that time) and Gaelic languages to some extent.

That's very familiar to all of us who have formally studied linguistics of English. What's also dismaying familiar to anyone who has studied linguistics is the attempt of nationalists who are partisans of one language or another to claim a connection between their language and some language that enjoys great prestige (here, English). I have nothing against Norwegian. I speak it (a little), and Norwegian was my late grandmother's native language. I have nothing against German. I speak it (rather more than I speak Norwegian), and it was the native language and sole language of schooling for two of my grandparents. I also acknowledge, as I did in my original comment, that BOTH the North Germanic and West Germanic branches of Germanic languages influenced English. My uncontroversial and non-extraordinary claim here, agreed to by most linguists, is simply that the weight of influence on English is such, and the history of English is such, that English is better characterized as a West Germanic language than as a North Germanic language. The most frequently occurring word in English, which is "the," is one demonstration of that. The word "the" is a West Germanic word.

Ex-philologist and historical linguist here, and I don't find the heuristics all the improbable. Change in the field is largely generation--the old guard dies and the young turks rise to take their place. Peer review filters out the noise, but is also reactionary, and informed by taste.

Historically, German, French and Latin have all been high-prestige languages, and scholars have focused on their relationship to English. There's been plenty of relation to find, no doubt! No one argues for direct lineage w/ Latin, but German roots have always been plausible and palatable.

Norse, though? Some would have found that scandalous. Borrowings--sure, ok. "Influence", of course. But lineage? No, certainly not.

Doesn't Middle English differ enough from both lineages that it could have been a creol of old norse and old english, that then later developed into a language proper?

So far their publication on the contested point in discussion here is the press release submitted here. The field of linguistics has peer-reviewed journals like any other science ... has authoritative secondary sources ... tertiary sources ... large scholarly community of people who have more specialized knowledge

This certainly gives a lot of fuel and authority to back people up to think they know what they're talking about. The truth is, nobody has a damn clue of how everything really went and trying to impress otherwise all degenerates to mere academic speculation.

The only thing of value such a field of study can produce is to connect a single observation or sets of observations that can be refined to something that's pragmatic and useful in actual world where life happens. If the researcher in the article were to be wrong by all academic angles but if what he thinks he has found turns out to have significance in how the English could learn Norwegian more easily or vice versa or how some similarities between English and some other language could be explained with that, then that's something constitutes undisputed value no matter what. If not, it simply doesn't, and any number of generations of academic prestige still doesn't make any difference.

People in science are often so confused about the importance of what's right and wrong, true and false while all they have is theories, and whereas they seem to be far better off whenever they simply follow the if-it-works-then-it-is principle.

> That's very familiar to all of us who have formally studied linguistics of English.

If recitation of conventional wisdom as fact were the response to any new theory, we'd know everything is today exactly what we knew to be fact 500 years ago.

That the Earth does not revolve around the sun "is very familiar to all of us who have formally studied the cosmos" -- once upon a time.

You do realize that the Norman French were Vikings right? The area was settled by a massive group of Vikings under Rollo. They became the Normans and from Rollo would eventually come William the Conqueror? These Normans were in no way French.

They spoke French, having adopted it after their conquest of, and settlement in Normandy. French, not Norse, was their court language both in Normandy, and later, after the 1066 conquest, in England.

Aside from speaking French and having previously lived in France. (We all are Africans using your logic.)

Can I just say on a related note that I'm chuffed to bits to see interesting linguistics stories make it to the frontpage? No linkbait, no inane Silicon Valley inside baseball, and all that usual stuff.

If you're interested in this sort of thing, http://www.reddit.com/r/linguistics is worth subscribing to also. One of the better sub-Reddits.

Subscribed a long time ago. :)

But yeah, it's probably one of the best subreddits I subscribe to.

I agree with your sentiment. My concern is that this is essentially academic linkbait :P

Fair enough, I don't disagree entirely. ;)

> no inane Silicon Valley inside baseball

I think that a lot of this does have value to people on this site. If you're going to be involved in the SV community, it's important to stay up-to-date on the "inside baseball".

Though you have to admit that a lot of the conversation in SV sounds like a lot like armchair quarterbacking, and is about as relevant...

There are quarterbacks in baseball now? Now I'm confused.

(Seriously, though: let me just put in a plug for the Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/) which is full of juicy linguistic discussions. Worth it just for the eggcorns.)

That's why I qualified it with "inane". :)

The usual frontpage hits are often so formulaic that the parodies write themselves.

It's just not true that syntactic borrowing is that uncommon (google it). That means that the historically documented prolonged contact between Scandinavians and the English had some effect on the grammar. No surprise there. Since syntactic borrowing is not uncommon in contact situations, it's a bad way to tell what language is descended from what other languages, so this proposal isn't off to a good start.

You can strand prepositions (or verb particles, as we'd call them when they're not heads of clauses) in final position in German, contrary to their claim: Er stellt es auf "he sets it up".

Off the top of my head I can name many ways that Scandinavian and English differ syntactically (forgive the jargon: you can Google it). 1) Many Scandinavian languages maintain a form of V2, where tensed main verb appears in 2nd position (defined syntactically); English lost it in the Middle English period. 2) Scandinavian lacks do-support (the presence of a dummy tensed auxiliary in certain contexts: "I don't want it", "Do you know?", etc.) where English has it. 3) Some Scandinavian languages have V-to-T movement (where temporal adverbs occur before verbs); English lost that a long time ago.

> It's just not true that syntactic borrowing is that uncommon (google it). That means that the historically documented prolonged contact between Scandinavians and the English had some effect on the grammar. No surprise there. Since syntactic borrowing is not uncommon in contact situations, it's a bad way to tell what language is descended from what other languages, so this proposal isn't off to a good start.

Agreed. An example is Japanese and Korean. They have virtually identical syntax, yet they are completely unrelated genetically. Outside of the vocabulary that they both borrowed from Middle Chinese, they have essentially no words in common.

A question from someone who has only done a timy bit of linguistics:

> 3) Some Scandinavian languages have V-to-T movement (where temporal adverbs occur before verbs); English lost that a long time ago.

Is this like "Nu ska jag gå" (in Swedish)? If so, I don't understand that English lost it because "Now I will walk" is a fine translation.

A simple diagnostic for V-to-T movement is that an adverb occurs after the subject and a tensed verb. Compare French "Jean embarasse souvent Marie" to English "John often kisses Mary".

Linguists have hypothesized since at least the 1950s that verbs are introduced into derivations at a position adjacent to their complements: if they occur between subject and temporal adverb, they presumably got their by raising (because syntax is a tree structure and both Scandinavian and English are largely head-initial, "earlier" in the sentence is also higher in the tree) from base position to the tense (T) position above verbs. Hence "V-to-T movement".

If you want to learn which Scandinavian languages have V-to-T and which don't, and you can handle the jargon, check out this paper by Jonathan Bobaljik, a specialist in comparative Germanic syntax and prof at UConn:


Having studied linguistics I'd say the claim is sensationalist rather than sensational. English is a rather wild crossbreed of many European languages, all of which share the same Indo-European roots.

Old English is very closely related to Old Frisian and Low German. Later on English has been heavily influenced by Scandinavian, Romance (mainly French due the Norman invasion in 1066 - Norman French to be specific, which differed quite a bit from Île-de-France French at that time) and Gaelic languages to some extent.

You'll find salient features of any of these language roots but that doesn't make English a Romance or Gaelic language for instance, it's just that it has been influenced by those and hence adopted grammatical features.

The main reason for this is that Great Britain before the times of the British Empire was one of the most contested places in Europe.

Finally, some of the claims in this article are somewhat inaccurate. There were no Scandinavians and British people at that time, 'Danes' and 'Anglo-Saxons' would have been the correct terms.

I also have a problem with the claim that Norwegians find it easy to learn English because their languages are so closely related. The same has been said about Dutch not long ago.

Dutch and Norwegian are also closely related. It would be surprising if there weren't transitivity there—and IIRC there are examples where the relationship doesn't hold in both directions. I remember reading somewhere that Dutch speakers have an easier time understanding German than vice versa, despite both being similar.

There was a lot of trade between the two countries for some time. Norwegians would travel around to Bergen or other coastal towns on the west coast and then would trade with the Dutch and the Germans.

Well the Celtic peoples of Great Britain could arguably be called British...

They are usually called "Britons".

interesting article. This assertion does go against the last 200 years or so (since the Grimm Brothers) of thought about the origins of the English language. I'm not an expert but I did major in linguistics and have studied the history of the english language in some depth.

For me, the strongest points this new proposal has are the syntactical features that scandinavian and modern english share. Syntactical features i.e. sentence structure being adopted from one language to another is very very rare and when it does occur it happens at a much slower rate. There are a couple week points in the theory though. #1 and the article admits this, Old English is West Germanic. #2 Chaucer's english is vastly different from Old English but I don't think anyone would say its a completely new Language, there are too many similarities, shared vocabularies, etc, this has until now led everyone to believe modern english discends from old english and was mingled up with scandinavian and then norman french.

Also, almost all the syntactical similarities the article shows have to do with the split verb that modern english doesn't have. In german "ich habe gestern lange gearbeitet" is in English literally : "I have yesterday long worked" but translated should be "I worked a long time yesterday" . I think they'd need to give support that the split verb didn't die out, (which is kind of suggested in the texts of chaucer and his predecessors), but rather was something that never existed b/c the "original" language, in this case scandinavian, never had them in the first place.

Just a question, since my knowledge on this subject is very, very limited, but is it possible that the syntactic changes could be accounted for by a single parameter?

From what I recall, _The Atoms of Language_ makes the case that English went from SOV to SVO because a style in which very short sentences could be uttered in SVO arose and became popular, and within a fairly short period of time the L1 learners of English were mostly hearing SVO during their early years, so as they matured the head directionality parameter was set contrary to their parents. As I recall the book had some evidence to support this, but I can't speak to the quality of it. I'm also not sure how that would work with the antisymmetry proposal (which nicely explains other phenomena).

I haven't read the Atoms of Language but this sounds plausible and is if I remember correctly, more or less, what is believed to have happened. The diachronic study of english from say 900 to 1300, shows a language undergoing drastic changes such as the loss of inflections, grammatical gender, and adoption of north germanic (danish) words and later norman french ones. The idea is that original SOV speakers of saxon were put under the heavy influence of the SVO languages of the danes and later (post 1066 - battle of hastings) that of the SVO normans. It would make sense, especially since even OE was not a truly pure SOV language and allowed a much freer word order due to the inflection system, which upon dying out forced word order to take on a much stricter form.

As an interesting side note to show just how big of a hack mixed up jumble of everything modern english is, the usage of the verb do, in elliptical sentences and questions such as "do you want some coffee?", is very rare in indo-european languages (only found in celtic langs such as irish) and thought to have been picked up during the time in which saxon speakers and celts were sharing the same island.

I find this proposal an interesting thought experiment, for sure, but replacing all the vocabulary except the grammatical words seems more likely to me than replacing just the grammatical words and the grammar and retaining all the other vocabulary. Are there any other cases of the grammatical words being replaced while the rest of the vocab was left intact?

The fact that there was so much and such dramatic change happening that either of those possibilities are reasonable suggests to me that we're not going to get a definitive conclusion anytime soon.

Numerous parameters in the sense in which Baker is using them in _Atoms of Language_ changed between Old English and early Modern English. The loss of V2 is controlled by the V-to-T parameter and T-to-C parameter, the loss of head-final VPs is a separate parameter, and so on. [Source: I'm a working linguist.]

So what would you say the odds are of fundamental grammatical words and particles changing (leaving the bulk vocabulary alone) versus several large syntactic changes on this order? My armchair understanding is that the later is a lot more likely.

Well some of those changes are not reflected in Scandinavian in general (many Scandinavian dialects have V-to-T, some have V2), so I'm not sure if it's actually relevant to the authors' hypothesis. But some of those changes also happened _in_ Scandinavian in recorded history. So the probability of these changes is relatively high given a 500-year span.

Borrowing "fundamental grammatical words and particles" (I'd go with "functional elements") is common too (the French of Prince Edward Island French is a famous example). That English has Scandinavian functional elements is uncontroversial, and previously was taken as evidence for contact, not descent.

Here's what I see as the facts underlying their claim. English went from a OV, V-to-T-to-C (thereby, V2) language to a VO language with no verb raising, in which it is similar to Scandinavian. I don't see how that's inconsistent with contact.

Thanks for clarifying this for me! I wish there had been a linguistics department at the school I went to, I'm sure I would have minored in it instead of philosophy.

Split verbs do actually exist in modern English. Schoolmarms may enphatically teach that they're flat-out wrong, but linguists have long maintained that English rules of grammar are descriptive, not proscriptive. Actual common use is what is considered to fundamentally dictate the rules, not vice-versa.

I'm not sure, but I think you're confusing split infinitives with split verbs. Split infinitives are definitely a schoolmarm invention (borrowed from Latin, where the infinitive is an inflection and thus inseparable). I think split verbs are here referring to the possibility of separating verbal auxiliaries from their verb.

I think by "split verb" he's referring to "separable verbs", where a particle, resembling a preposition, moves to the end of the sentence. This sometimes occurs in English, apparently violating the "schoolmarm" rule to not end sentences with a preposition.

c.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separable_verb

The concept to which you're referring is that linguists describe language without shaping it. Its like saying scientists don't make physics, they observe it. With sociological phenomena the distinction between dictating something and measuring it is finer, but it doesnt mean linguists hate prescriptive grammars.

I think he means to contrast English with, say, Spanish which has an actual governing, prescriptive body.

I googled to find the name of it for you and Wikipedia gave me a much better link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_language_regulators

As a primary English speaker, I find it both silly and abhorrent that they even bother but... eh. Whatever.

The joke I always heard about split verbs was, "I suppose then to uphold a bank is the same as to hold it up?"

Not to say that really contradicts the theory, though, as the single word "uphold" is essentially vocabulary, and could easily have been borrowed from a West Germanic language, irrespective of its grammatical implications.

I find the article very interesting being a Dane. Your sentence "I worked a long time yesterday" would be "Jeg arbejde lang tid igår" in modern Danish - exactly the same structure as the English sentence. This applies to most sentences in at least Danish/Norwegian(Bokmål) and English.

I grew up in a part of the mainland UK that is closest to Scandinavia - North East Scotland and as a child (at least out of school) spoke in the thick local dialect known as Doric.

I was highly amused when someone pointed out the Norwegian terms for hospital and vacuum cleaner - støvsuger and sykehus are pretty much exactly how you would say "dust sucker" - "stoor sooker" and "sick house" - "seek hoos". Hardly surprising when you consider that considerable chunks of Scotland were part of Norway for a while (although not the part where I grew up, although there are quite a few battles in the area between Scots and Vikings).

I also grew up in Scotland. At one point I worked with a Swede and was interested to find that many Scots words are closer to their equivalents in Scandinavian languages than they are to those in English.

For example, "greet" for "cry" is clearly related to the Norwegian gråte or Swedish gråta. Likewise "kirk" for "church" is a lot closer to the Norwegian "kirke". These are the only ones I remember off the top of my head, but I remember there being surprisingly many.

edit: bairn (Scots) vs barn (Norwegian) for child just came to mind.

"kirche" is German for church - I think that may simply be very similar in all the dialects in contention!

I always found heffalump (English) / heffaklump (Swedish) was a funny similarity. And "arlskling" isn't a million miles away from "darling".

"And "arlskling" isn't a million miles away from "darling"."

It is, however, a million kilometers away. The "-ling" suffix here is from Old English, and was used in personal nouns. "Dēorling" is "dear-ling", or one who is dear. In modern English it's often used as a diminutive. (Eg, "duckling", "hireling".)

The "-ling" suffix also exists in other Germanic languages. For example, "Yuengling" is a brewing company in the US. Its name comes from "an Anglicized version of Jüngling, its founder's surname and the German term for 'young man'." (So says Wikipedia.)

The Swedish "älskling" comes from the verb "älska" (to love) and the same suffix. One page describes the suffix as "ordbildningsform som användes i fornsvenskan för att uttrycka litenhet", that is, a "word formation used in Old Swedish to express smallness", in other words: in the diminutive.

So while "darling" and "arlskling" end the same, it's because both language share a similar "-ling" mechanism.

The base word ("dar" and "älsk") have different background. The "dar" is from "dear", and the Swedish cognate for dear is "dry", which means "expensive" in modern Swedish. Consider "the price was too dear for me.")

That's why you shouldn't think of "älskling" and "darling" as being related words. They are as related as "yuengling" and "duckling", which isn't very.

Bad example then. But the suffixes are related?

I believe so. I researched it a bit more. According to http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=-ling&allowed_i... , which is a better resource than the sites I found earlier, it comes from Old English, meaning " 'person or thing of a specific kind or origin;' in masculine nouns also 'son of' (cf. farthing, atheling, O.E. horing 'adulterer, fornicator')."

It further clarifies: "Both these suffixes had occasional diminutive force, but this was only slightly evident in O.E. -ling and its equivalents in Germanic languages except Norse, where it commonly was used as a diminutive suffix, especially in words designating the young of animals (e.g. gæslingr "gosling"). Thus it is possible that the diminutive use that developed in Middle English is from Old Norse."

It appears then that "-ling" in Old English meant "person or thing of a specific kind or origin", which it shared with other Germanic languages, and grew to acquire the diminutive use after the Old Norse influence on English.

“auld lang sine” has lang for lenge, and sine for siden as well.

Does this mean that Scandinavian is a celtic language? :O

I wonder what the Norwegian for dreich is?

I only learned of "bairn" from the Broons - "loons"/"loonies" and "quine"/"quinies" was used where and when I grew up in Moray.

My mother's family are all from the Durham area and Norwegians speaking English all sound like they have an North-East accent to me. My grandmother now calls my daughters the bairns, pigs were always swine, etc. One of my mother's cultural touchstones as a child was the 'Oor Wullie' and 'The Broons' comics, which are actually scottish but close enough to NE English for her as a child to consider it part of her cultural sphere.

Now clearly my grandparents and family from that region all speak English, but it's quite different from the English spoken in SE London where I now live, so my daughters are picking up a cockney/Kentish dialect that's very much more West German.

So I don't think it makes a lot of sense to say that English is more this, or more that. It reduces down to saying that more people in England live in regions influenced by language family X than live in regions influenced by language family Y. But they all are speaking English.

I speak some Dutch and stofzuiger and ziekenhuis are also pretty similar to the Doric and Norwegian words - Germanic languages (of the Northern and Western types at least) seem to have a great deal of similarity.

I'm interested in the grammar issues that the OP raised, but wonder how true their assertions about the unlikelihood of change might be.

I am a native Danish speaker (my first language) and this article definitely rings true to me. I wouldn't go so far as to say that English is a Scandinavian language proper, but it was very easy to learn growing up.

Even as a kid growing up in Denmark, with all the British/American shows on TV (not dubbed) it was easy to learn a lot just by reading subtitles and following along. I give Saturday morning cartoon re-runs a lot of credit for helping me to learn. I remember sitting on a train with a friend of mine and us both realizing that we both knew a lot of English a year before we were going to start learning it in school.

I've found that most Scandinavians (or at least Danes) have a pretty easy time with English. Because the sentence structures are so similar, you're mostly plugging in English words that you're already familiar with and using the same sentence.

That said, on a deeper level, English is a very different language. That's most likely because it is such a cross between other languages.

While the similarities between Danish and English no doubt helped you, I think the fact that Denmark is a small country and so has less in the way of domestic media is equally important. You were exposed to English at an early age because it doesn't make economic sense to dub cartoons into a language with as few native speakers as Danish.

I'm personally not so sure. Because Denmark is a small country, it's a much closer-knit community than, say, the US. I grew up with a lot of Danish-created media, and paid as much attention to that as I did English-based media.

Any Danish kid born in the 80's (myself included) more likely than not has fond memories of watching "Bamses Billedbog" at 6pm on the weekends.

Also, plenty of cartoons are dubbed into Danish, so I'm not totally convinced about the economic argument. Denmark is a rich country with plenty of money to spend.

I agree and I would like to add that undubbed Cartoon Network is spreading English probably much faster than the BBC.

I've found that most Scandinavians (or at least Danes) have a pretty easy time with English.

I think it works the other way round, too, though there's an asymmetry in the fact that, whilst most Scandinavian speakers encounter English regularly, the reverse isn't true.

Nonetheless, even though I've never studied any of the Scandinavian languages, nor ever been there, I find it fairly easy to read written Danish or Norwegian. I went to a Christmas market at the local Norwegian church last weekend, and amused myself by reading all the Norwegian signs and inscriptions. With so many cognate words and an almost one-to-one mapping of word order, I could easily guess the odd word that wasn't immediately obvious.

(None of that either supports or refutes the Scandinavian hypothesis, of course. It's just an observation that there are significant common features and vocabulary.)

As an American living in Denmark for two years now, I would agree that that's true to some extent for written Danish, although it also helps that Danish grammar is just not that complex. But from a linguistic perspective, spoken language is often taken to be primary, and spoken Danish is not very close to mutually intelligible, even if you take a very generous view of it. It's nearly impossible for me to even parse spoken utterances into syllables, or produce most of the phonemes, despite some time attempting, because the phonology is just so dissimilar to English phonology. I find the Romance languages generally easier to approach from a phonological perspective (e.g. I can produce and transcribe Italian sounds vaguely competently, even if my Italian grammar and vocabulary is poor).

You're right that the spoken language has a greater claim to primacy than the written - there are enough examples of diglossia around the world.

However, I think you overstate the significance of phonology. Many native English speakers struggle to understand Glaswegians; partly, that's lexical, but mostly, it's phonological. It doesn't mean that it's hard, though, just that the listener is unfamiliar. An American dropped in Glasgow would soon learn to understand the locals, I feel sure.

You say that you've lived in Denmark for two years but still struggle to parse spoken Danish. That seems like slow progress: would it be fair to assume that you spend your time mostly in an English-speaking environment? I ask because I'm trying to work out to what extent Danish pronunciation is hard, and to what extent you just haven't had much exposure.

Obligatory for Danish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQkvqJJvR9U

More here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=danish+pronuncia...

Danes tolerance for Danish pronunciation is way tighter than Americans for English, so if a sound is just slightly off, we don't understand a word of what you're saying.

Mixture of both, I think. The fact that Danes speak quite good English, and don't expect foreigners to speak Danish, means that they switch to English as soon as they realize you aren't Danish, so it's quite easy to get by in English. But I've spent some time attempting to study the sounds, and I just cannot make most of them in a way that Danes can understand at all (e.g. saying place names, even those I've practiced!). To a somewhat lesser extent, I also have trouble parsing them, though I can recognize some stock phrases that I've heard often. Oddly enough, the Swedes I know can't actually communicate with Danes in spoken language either, despite written Danish and Swedish being nearly identical. They will typically switch to English to talk to each other, even though officially they're supposed to be able to communicate (Danes<->Norwegians and Swedes<->Norwegians seem to have more luck).

> Oddly enough, the Swedes I know can't actually communicate with Danes in spoken language either, despite written Danish and Swedish being nearly identical.

It's not that odd. Take threedaymonk's example: English is written almost the same way in New York and in Glasgow, yet an American in Glasgow might have some difficulty understanding people at first. And of course mutual intelligibility between Danish and Swedish will be lower than between New Yorker and Glaswegian.

Written Portuguese and Spanish are also very similar, and while it's possible to keep a "bilingual" conversation with some effort, I (a Portuguese speaker) and my Spanish-speaking friends just use English instead.

Native Swedish and Danish speaker here. I can confirm that Swedish people usually do not understand Danish, whereas Danes have an easier time with Swedish. I think Danish is just plain harder to understand, and I sometimes speculate that my early exposure to it has kind of hypertrophied my general language ability (I used to win awards for English vocabulary knowledge and that sort of thing in high school).

Interesting read on Danish infants and their slower rates of language acquisition: http://cphpost.dk/culture/quotdanskquot/danish-languages-irr...

> Native Swedish and Danish speaker here.

Interesting; are you able to switch between them without the Swedish bleeding into the Danish or vice versa?

For an amusing take on the complexities of spoken Danish, have a look at this Norwegian skit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-mOy8VUEBk

Quite often the Swedes have problems with Norwegian dialects or even their own Skåne dialect.

Its quite amusing to see two Swedish people that don't understand each other only to drop in to English to ask for directions.

Regarding the phonology, I'm not so sure they're that dissimilar.

As I understand it, English trickled down from the north of the British Isles. The further north you go in Britain, the more likely you are to hear some of the phonemes you would normally hear on the continent.

From my perspective, being a Yorkshireman, I find it easy to parse and understand the accents (and dialects, even though people say english doesn't have any dialects, which it clearly does) from all over the north of Britain that people below the danish line struggle with, such as thick Yorkshire accents, Geordie and Scottish. For me, that's English. All that stuff below the Danish line is wishy washy french.

Completely agree having lived in Denmark and my mother being Danish.

Jeg vil gerne have en kop kaffe = i would like a cup of coffee

That's my go to for similarity.

Well, your Danish looks like Dutch to me ;)

As a matter of fact, people here in NL say regularly that Danish and Dutch are 2 close languages. I'm pretty sure Dutch is not considered a Scandinavian language though.

Dutch is much closer to German to us (Danes) than Danish.

Just for the record, the weird looking "Jeg", which is very different than e.g. "Ich" (German) or "Ik" (correct me if I'm wrong, in Dutch). Jeg is pronounced something like e-I - much closer to English "I".

There are plenty of examples that are not similar as well. But I thank you for reminding me for hygge/fika.

Is the reverse true? Would I, as a native speaker of English, find it easy to learn Danish?

I just commented about this a bit above, but you've reminded me of a blog post I read years ago: "Why Norwegian is the easiest language for English speakers to learn" http://www.pagef30.com/2008/08/why-norwegian-is-easiest-lang...

I can't speak for Danish in particular, but I know the Scandivanian languages are all fairly similar. I know a little Swedish and am learning Norwegian and don't find them to be any harder than Spanish.

I had a bet with a friend once about how much a Big Mac costs in Reykjavik, and so to settle the bet I googled for a phone number for a MacDonalds in Iceland and called them up. I was answered in perfect, virtually accentless English.

Why would they answer the phone in English without knowing that you were a foreigner?

caller-id ?

My own 2 cents- my native language being french, I found that I "understood" english much better after learning danish - especially what I previously classified as "weird" (old?) english words like ale (øle), hound (hund) etc.

Learning related languages does help understand the connections between the languages. To continue your example, "dog" in German is also "Hund".

Etymonline says (of hound): O.E. hund "dog," from P.Gmc. hundas (cf. O.S., O.Fris. hund, O.H.G. hunt, Ger. Hund, O.N. hundr, Goth. hunds), from PIE kuntos, dental enlargement of root kwon- "dog" (see canine). Meaning narrowed 12c. to "dog used for hunting."

Expanding that a bit, it says: Old English hund "dog" from Proto-Germanic hundas (compare to Old Saxon, Old Frisian hung, Old High German hunt, German Hund, Old Norwegian hundr, Gothic funds), from Proto-Indo-European kuntos, dental enlargement of root kwon- "dog" (see canine). Meaning narrowed in the 12th century to "dog used for hunting."

It's actually "dog" which is the strange one out. That site elaborates: O.E. docga, a late, rare word used of a powerful breed of canine. It forced out O.E. hund (the general Germanic and IE word; see canine) by 16c. and subsequently was picked up in many continental languages (cf. Fr. dogue (16c.), Dan. dogge), but the origin remains one of the great mysteries of English etymology.

(It looks like dog was applied to what we now call a mastiff, though I'm not sure.)

Since you know French, it makes sense that you find "dog" to be a normal term - apparently it comes from the English (?!) - while you are less familiar with 'hund' and its variants.

It helps that you learnt a germanic based language with French because English is 2 thirds of a mix of both.

again, the speakers of dutch (west germanic) have exactly the same experience, even though the article claims the grammar is shockingly different.

as a native english speaker, my experience in dutch & swedish classes has been that it's pretty much a wash between them for difficulty, so frankly i think this argument goes nowhere. (yes, dutch puts verbs at the end of subclauses. but 'Wegian puts articles at the end of nouns and has a funky medio-passive, so then where are you?)

Almost totally and utterly nonsensical sensationalist link bait, in the fact that languages are far more complicated than just those simple examples.

I am English (from near Anglo-Cornish/Somerset area), have lived in Norway (Bergen where they speak mainly Bokmål) and now live in Stockholm (obviously in Sweden, where they speak Swedish), and live with and understand the differences, plus I have spent some time learning the history of my mother tongue and the history of those countries.

Lets face it the the grammer structure is different, its the first thing an English person has to learn when learning Scandinavian languages. English heavily borrows from other languages. Swedish heavily borrows from French - there was a King who was obsessed with France and everything french, some Norwegian words are from Sweden. English borrows French words heavily for obvious reasons.

Bokmål adopted words from those countries that they traded with and he doesn't even expand into the different languages and dialects that used to be in the Norway that Nynorsk tried to consolidate.

The fact is that these languages have changed and are constantly changing based on trade, fashion, rule and migration and to singly say that English is a Scandinavian Language is at best trying to make a name for yourself and at worst ignorance of history.

> languages > Bergen speaking any form of normal Norwegian > Norwegian words are from Sweden

And you just lost any and all credibility you may have once had. You're just wrong.

I'm curious, I'm absolutely no expert in the field of linguistics, but it appears that linguists insist that the hierarchy of language families is a strict tree [1]. In OO terms, that there's no multiple inheritance.

Really, how unlikely could that be? Why can't English be both North and West Germanic?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_family "A family is a monogenetic unit; that is, all its members derive from a common ancestor, and all attested descendants of that ancestor are included in the family."

Think of it more like plant evolution from seeds that travel far and wide, it might be closer to the truth.

Um, I don't think I completely understood your analogy. Plants can have multiple parents. Why can't languages?

I'm of Chinese descent watching my children grow up in Australia is interesting. While they speak Chinese, they tend to think in English. This means that their sentence structure is totally messed up (from a Chinese standpoint).

Perhaps a similar thing happened in England. The vocabulary is Germanic, but the syntax is Norse.

A better way to put it is that the syntax is neither. There was that whole Danelaw episode to mess up the grammar. Along with word borrowings (which are pretty much inevitable when an adult population--the Viking settlers--is forced into something of a pidgin situation with a related language), there is going to be some damage done to word order and endings/affixes. And since both Old English (or, rather, the Old Englishes--there were regional differences among the Angle-, Saxon- and Jute-dominated areas), a set of languages very much like Old Frisian, and Old Norse were card-carrying Germanic languages with grammatical gender, which is largely arbitrary and the gender assignments didn't align well with each other, grammar simplified. The characteristic German habit of postponing verbs under various circumstances (which also differed between languages) gave way to a more streamlined and generally more consistent SVO. Gender was pretty much abandoned for words that didn't denote things having an actual sex. (Afrikaans underwent a very similar simplification under very different circumstances.) Rather than speaking English words in a Norse grammatical framework, people were speaking a mixture of English and Norse words in a common framework, avoiding the difficult subtleties of either language. But I'd imagine that the children of those Norse settlers (who probably had native British mothers) thought in the hybrid and spoke neither parent's language perfectly.

Mainland Scandinavian languages have also simplified somewhat, but in the time since native Norse speakers had a direct influence on English. The Danes that occupied northern Great Britain spoke something that looks and sounds a lot more like Icelandic or Faroese than modern Danish, Swedish or Norwegian. To suggest that the simplification of grammar in mainland Scandinavia after the Norman invasion of Britain is the reason for English's current structure is to posit a sort of quantum entanglement between languages.

Correlation is not causation. I still hear mostly English (highly dialectical English, but English of England nonetheless) when I listen to recordings of modern Frisian. I hear something merely related to English when I listen to Scandinavian languages.

I didn't study linguistics, but I'm an English professor and my first thought was of Beowulf -- an Anglo-Saxon poem that takes place entirely in Scandinavia. Grendel, in fact, lives in Denmark.

I've been teaching myself Danish (a little) and this rings true to me. Mostly Danish feels like English but with different pronunciation, and occasional non-cognates. Danish certainly feels closer to modern English than German does.

Estonians have an easy time too,[1] learning English apparently. So clearly English is also a Finno-Ugric language.

[1] Based on the fact that almost all Estonian youth (16 - 26 years old) can speak English properly.

But being serious for a moment: Wasn't it during Old English that English was mostly heavily influenced by Old Norse? Who can forget the Norwegian, Danish and Jutes' invasions? As an example, just look at Beowulf, famous for being a work in Old English.

In this link, the author highlights that Old English uses the Dutch/German approach to sentence structure. (Although, a “Ich lese das Buch” / 'I read the book' / »Jeg læser bogen« structure is also possible in German.)

But Middle English is actually mostly heavily influenced by French (1066 and all that), and surprise surprise, French also uses a SVO (subject verb object) structure, « je lis le livre ».

Maybe he should have used better examples.


Edit: German grammar.

Do you have access to a wide range of media in English that isn't dubbed or translated from an early age?

Oh, I am not Estonian. But Estonian television is not dubbed, merely subtitled.

I just don't believe that 'X population is generally good at speaking Y language' means that 'X's mother tongue is related to Y' is a sound argument.

Given the location and history of England, English is probably the biggest mutt of the Indo-European family.

Hindi/Urdu and other subcontinental languages are also Indo-European and their lands have histories and linguistic influences at least as colorful as England's. But English has got to be in the running.

It's not sensational to claim that English is Scandinavian. German and English are both descended from Norse, so they are both Scandinavian if you go back 1500 years.

What this linguist is saying is that modern English is more Scandinavian than Old English. But Old English was never spoken throughout the island, back then many British inhabitants spoke Norse! So I am not surprised that over time, they standardized on a language halfway between Old English and Norse.

Middle English developed around 1100. Take a look at this map of languages circa 900:


No, English is not thought to be descended from Norse until this press release: see Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_languages#Diachronic]. It's thought to be related to the modern Scandinavian languages by a split that occurred around two millennia ago. You're confusing "descended from" and "related to".

Linguists, like biologists, draw a distinction between "descent" and "convergent evolution" (with "lateral gene transfer" being like what linguists call "contact-induced change").

[edited to add wiki link]

Thank you, I stand corrected. I believe they are still both Scandinavian. Proto-Germanic, which all of these languages descended from, was spoken primarily in Denmark and Sweden:


Yeah, but you're still sensationally wrong. PGe may have been spoken in Scandinavia, but that's not even close to what people mean when they say “Scandinavian languages”. That means “North Germanic”, or, languages which are descended from Old Norse. As opposed to every other Germanic language, like German, Frisian, Dutch, Old Saxon, Old English, Gothic, etc.

This really isn't a sensational claim -- English has long been called a creole!


As a Norwegian having lived in English-speaking countries for many years, I find the conclusion plausible, but the evidence lacking.

We do share a lot of the same rules for word order as English. There are, however, notable exceptions.

For instance, if the sentence starts with another word than the subject, then we swap subject and verb.

If we ask a question, then we start with the verb. Of course, this is done with 'to do' in English, and there's a nice, archaic sound to it if one simply place the verb first ("Went you to the store?").

In the sagas it is written that at some point earlier in history, the vikings and the inhabitants of Great Britain (the island) understood each other.

With all the wars, conquests and migrations done by people of a similar language, it is hardly strange that one cannot pinpoint exactly what English is. At the time, one may summarize the situation that the Norwegians and Danes were organized(1), as well as the Normans, whereas the inhabitants of Great Britain were less so. The language of power, the courts and records will disproportionately influence the common language.

1) Organized in the sense that they had picked up how to maintain power from the remnants of the Roman empire. Vikings used, among other things, to serve as the imperial guard of Constantinople.

edit: removed an asterisk that caused formatting changes

The article gives a one-sided.

For example, while enumerating the similarities between the Scandinavian languages and English, it fails to enumerate differences (e.g. Scandinavian languages have suffixed articles while English, Old English and German have articles before words).

It gives us some examples, but fails to give a large picture (e.g. what is the share of Norse words in the N most frequent words).

indeed; smacks of cherry picking. I would also have liked to see those stats compared with the same ones for German, since that was also part of the hypothesis.

While watching the English subtitled "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" I was surprised by how many time I didn't need to read the subtitles.

Obviously I'm have no knowledge of linguistics, but maybe there's something to this theory.

It's an interesting argument; however I am a little dissuaded by the fact that half of the support for the claims of similar syntax between Norwegian and English (split infinitives and placing a preposition at the end of a sentence) are generally considered poor grammar in English.

They're considered "poor grammar" for historical reasons (mainly because they're impossible in Latin), not because they are not understood (compare to "I the dog kick" which is ungrammatical in a much more rigorous sense). From a linguistic standpoint what's interesting is what is understood and what isn't, not what is the most proper.

Those protests were popularized by grammarians who learned grammar thru a Latin lens, so, to them, being used to the Latin grammar, this construct in English looked incorrect. From a Germanic language context, though, it's perfectly normal.

They're not poor grammar at all, since grammar is determined by the consensus of the speakers, and they have spoken (so to speak).

This is why we think German and Dutch to sound quaint and love the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.

Let's not forget that Old English also puts prepositions at the ends of sentences! That's not a valid argument for a claim of closer affinity toward Scandinavian than Old English.

So if English is derived from Middle English which arose when the existing inhabitants of the British Isles took on the language of the newly arrived Scandinavians... where did Old English come from?

Second paragraph:

    Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is a West Germanic language,
    which the Angles and Saxons brought with them from
    Northern Germany and Southern Jylland when they settled
    in the British Isles in the fifth century.

Actually its still not 100% understood and still being studied

This is the most useless academic 'discovery' I've ever seen. Am I wrong?

The number zero was considered useless for a long period of time [1].

A certain piece of academic information isn't useless just because you can't think of a use for it, so I'd say yes, you're wrong.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Zero-The-Biography-Dangerous-Idea/dp/0...

> The number zero was considered useless

It still is as far as I can tell. Try adding/subtracting it - it makes no difference. Multiplying it just gets you back the same useless number no matter what. Dividing by zero? Don't even go there!

I can't tell if you're trolling or being willfully ignorant?

Zero represents the state of "nothingness" - the universe before anything exists. The blank slate, tabula rasa, etc. The empty page before you write anything it.

Zero is a very deep concept and it is far from useless. See the book "Zero: history of a dangerous number".

Being funny I think.

I'd think it's actually a valid point though, if the question is put in the form: Does zero (or its reciprocal) have any existence beyond being a useful theoretical construct? Can the physical world actually reach zero, or only asymptotically approach it?

Is the universe infinitely big? Can infinitely small things exist? Can a thing be said not to exist (ie. we have zero of it), or is there always a miniscule probability of it spontaneously appearing due to quantum effects? Is a vacuum really empty? If we have zero, how do we measure it in the face of quantum uncertainty? And so on...


Edit: grammar

>Can the physical world actually reach zero, or only asymptotically approach it?

Five minutes ago, I had zero apples in my hand. At this exact moment, I have no way of knowing how many apples are in my hand due to signal delay and processing time.

Numbers as we know them are only useful for describing the past, but at that task they can work perfectly.

Rather, your brain is telling you that you had zero apples in your hand five minutes ago. Given that any measuring tool (including a brain) is a physical system, isn't it also subject to fundamental uncertainty?

Granted that the probability is negligibly small for uncertainty causing two measuring devices (such as my brain and yours) to return different answers for how many apples were in your hand five minutes ago, but is it truly zero?

Also granted that in practical terms it's not worth arguing over, and I don't propose that such possibilities should be taken into account in everyday life.

We may have flawed measuring devices, but they are attempting to measure something with a real, constant value. The fact that we are not directly connected to reality doesn't mean that reality is an illusion.

If, in reality, there were zero apples in my hand, I could say that I was holding one apple, but then I would be wrong.

Yeah, learnin' is dumb.

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