In 1476, the first book printed by a machine appeared in England. It was a copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and it was printed by William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England from the continent.
At the time, English varied dramatically across the British Isles. Even between different English regions, dialects were so different that people often struggled to understand one another. And since there was no standardised way to write English, Caxton found himself facing a problem.
It was something he wrestled with right up until his death in 1492; in 1490, he’d printed a translation of The Aeneid, but in the preface discussed the problems of trying to print a book that could be read across the whole country.
To illustrate his point, he used an anecdote.
According to his story, a trading vessel bound for Zeeland in the Netherlands was forced to stop in the Thames because of low wind. A merchant on the vessel, a man named Sheffield, who was from the north of England, entered a nearby house and asked a woman if he could buy some ‘egges.’ The woman replied by saying that she didn’t speak French. This annoyed Sheffield, because he wasn’t speaking French. The situation was resolved by a passerby, who said he was asking for some ‘eyren,’ and the woman understood. Caxton concluded by writing: “What should a man write these days, eggs or eyren? It is hard to please every man because of the diversity and change of language.”
Caxton eventually settled on a standard form of English which he used in most of his books: a form based off his native southern accent. His efforts led to an increasing standardisation of both written and spoken English, which accelerated as printing grew more popular.
But as interesting as all that is, that’s not what I’m concerned with here. No, I want to answer the question I’m sure you’ve been wondering: why on Earth would they be called eyren? (Or ayrenn, or any other variant spelling that was used at the time.) Where did that strange word come from?
In fact, ‘egg’ is the intruder.
At one time, everyone who spoke English would have called them eyren. The word ‘egg’ came from Old Norse, and was adopted first in Northern England before slowly replacing good old Anglo-Saxon ‘eyren’ entirely.
As far as linguistics goes, this was rather strange. Usually when languages bump up against each other, they adopt words from each other for concepts they don’t have in their language. This is why, for example, so many words related to Christianity are Latin in origin: the Anglo-Saxons had no words for these ideas, so when the missionaries brought them over, they simply used the new Latin words.
But very rarely does a language replace the simplest and most basic words of another language, precisely because they’re so simple: everyone uses them, and they use them frequently. It’s hard to make someone just start using a different word for ‘leg,’ ‘ball’ or ‘sky’, for example.
But Old Norse did just that – because those words are Old Norse loanwords, too.
In fact, there are lots of common, basic words in modern English which are Old Norse in origin. And vocabulary wasn’t the only thing affected: English grammar and syntax changed dramatically as well, to the point where modern English resembles Norwegian much more than it does Dutch or German, even though Old English was closely related to them.
Why Old Norse?
There are several reasons for this.
First, it seems that Old English and Old Norse were mutualy intelligible to a certain extent. Some of the vocabulary was similar, and it seems speakers of the two could communicate with each other – they certainly seem to in texts from the time, which is not the case when speakers of either have to communicate with someone speaking a third language.
However, English grammar was much more complicated. One theory is that English speakers started using a ‘dumbed down’ version of English to speak to the Norse, and as their children heard this, they grew up knowing it as their native language, pushing those old grammar rules out.
But why would the English need to speak to the Norse, anyway?
Because there was extensive, long-term contact between the two cultures. The Vikings first raided England in 793, but had almost certainly been trading for long before that. In 865, half of England was conquered by the Norse and sparsely settled: this area was known as the Danelaw, and remained in Norse control for nearly 100 years. In that time, many Norse loanwords seeped into Northern English – including our beloved ‘egg.’
But even outside the Danelaw, the Norse were very active in the British Isles. Jorvik, or York, was a centre of trade in the Norse world, and the Viking trade routes extended all the way down to Baghdad. Meanwhile, their new trade city of Dublin in Ireland was the centre of the slave trade in western Europe – yes, the Vikings trafficked in slaves on a near-industrial scale, and they did good business in England.
Finally, in the Danelaw itself, the Norse didn’t conquer and drive the English out: they settled alongside them, and both cultures were fairly similar, so not much assimilation had to happen.
To understand this world, you have to put yourself in the shoes of an Englishman living in the Danelaw. If you went to a big market town, chances were most of the merchants would be speaking Norse. Your king spoke Norse, and many of your neighbours did too. These weren’t your enemies: they were people you saw on a daily basis, people who had lived there for generations – people who looked very similar to yourself. And the language they spoke wasn’t all that different from your own.
Over the course of a couple of centuries, it’s easy to see how the languages bled together. And since English was more complicated grammatically, it was easier for the English to adapt the way they spoke than it was for the Norse.
When English was being standardised in Caxton’s time, there had been a new influx of migrants to London. Many came from the East Midlands: educated, young, mobile, these people were willing to work, and in time their dialect became the prestige language of London, replacing French. Their dialect had a big influence on the Chancery Standard English that would dominate in future – and since they were from the East Mids, a place that had been part of the Danelaw, they brought their Old Norse idiosyncracies with them.
It Might Not Have Been The First Time
The most fascinating thing about all this to me is that, arguably, it might have happened before.
I’ve talked about the history of language in Britain before – in a guest post over on Kristyn Miller’s blog. In it, I talked about how the original Brythonic language of Britain endured centuries of Roman rule, only to be utterly wiped out by Old English in a century or two.
In the past, historians assumed that this wholesale replacement (even place names were changed) was evidence of a massive effort by the Anglo-Saxons to drive the native Britons off their land and seize it for themselves. In 2016, however, DNA tests seemed to show that Brits today have a significant amount of both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon DNA, suggesting a longer-term merging of people, and Susan Oosthuizen’s stunning history book, The Emergence of The English, which I reviewed recently, suggests there’s no solid evidence for a complete replacement.
Instead, she suggests that, with the fall of Rome, England’s trade sphere drifted away from the empire and towards Germany and Scandinavia. England was drawn into the Germanic sphere of trade and cultural contact, and folks became familiar with the language. Then, when the Anglo-Saxons migrated en masse and the two groups merged, Old English became the dominant language because both groups could speak it.
This is what appears to have been happening in the Danelaw, too. Despite modern DNA tests turning up very little evidence of Scandinavian DNA within the old borders of the Danelaw, in just a hundred years or so, Norse had a striking impact on English, replacing basic words and fundamentally altering the grammar.
Trade, it seems, has a big effect on communication. Who knew?