Two Common Mistakes In English Grammar May Have Come From Scandinavia


Photo: Wikipedia

LAST WEEK we looked at Jan Terje Faarlund’s idea that “English is a Scandinavian language.” He thinks that West Germanic Old English died out in Britain, and was replaced by a language based on the Viking invaders’ Old Norse. Before we turn to the grammatical bits of his case, take note: Prof Faarlund hasn’t published his work yet. What follows is preliminary speculation on my part, based on his interview with the University of Oslo research magazine about his paper. The paper itself is still under review.Probably because he was dealing with a non-specialist audience, Prof Faarlund gave examples in modern English and modern (Nynorsk) Norwegian to show structures that are parallel in the two languages, but which are impossible in Dutch or German. Dutch and German are traditionally supposed to share a West Germanic parent with English. Prof Faarlund’s examples are meant to support the idea that English shares a North Germanic (Scandinavian) parent language with Norwegian, Swedish and Danish isntead.

Prof Faarland offers two examples of “Scandinavian” English: you can both split an infinitive and end a sentence with a preposition in Scandinavian languages and in English, but not in Dutch or German. 

First, the “split infinitive” in Norwegian, where the particle å, equivalent to English’s to, is split from the verb gjera/do.

Eg lovar     å  ikkje gjera det  igjen.

I   promise to not   do     that again.

Second, the sentence-ending preposition:

Detta har   vi     snakka om.

That  we   have talked   about.

I don’t know if Prof Faarland plans to discuss this in the full paper, but it so happens that both split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are controversial in some usage circles. Traditional but half-informed pedants claim that you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. Scholars and historians have pointed out that English writers have done both for centuries, and that everyone breaks these “rules” in natural speech.  For linguists, it is uncontroversial that split infinitives and prepositions “stranded” from their objects are part of English grammar. 

Why did some commentators decide they were bad grammar?  The traditional story is that these observers thought English should imitate Latin and Greek, and so “banned” these constructions, which are impossible in those language. What if, though, Prof Faarlund is right that stranded prepositions and split infinitives came from Norse? If they did, maybe they sounded rough, colloquial or foreign in English for centuries, taking a while to make their way into written prose.  Put another way, perhaps these structures rub some people the wrong way because they are bad Anglo-Saxon, not bad Latin.

First, the split infinitive. It does not occur in Old English, according to Olga Fischer in the “Cambridge History of the English Language”, vol. 2. This, she says, “must be due to the fact that to and the infinitive (usually marked by a dative inflection) were still considered too much a unity.” Instead, it turns up later, in Middle English, for example in “Layamon’s Brut”, a poem from about 1275:

and he cleopede him to, alle his wise cnihtes,/ for to him reade

“and he called to him all his wise knights (in order) to advise him”

Split infinitives have been found in every subsequent century of English literature. But only in the 19th did split infinitives really take off in writing. In that same century, commentators began noticing and condemning the practice. A pseudonymous writer, “P”, was the first to do so, in 1832. Is it possible that the construction sneaked into the language from the Vikings, but rubbed oddly up against native English grammar, so that it took a long time to be accepted?  Possible, but a millennium or so is a long time for a bit of grammar to wait in purgatory. Just one split infinitive appears in Shakespeare. If indeed the split infinitive came from Norse, its rise in frequency (and subsequent condemnation) is oddly timed, to say the least.  I wrote Prof Fischer, who replied sceptically: “This to element became loosened from the infinitive for a number of other syntactic reasons at the end of the Middle English period, but this has very little to do with Old Norse… It is not totally improbable that Old Norse strengthened this development, but even then the timing is still rather awkward.”

What about “stranded prepositions”? (This terminology is better than “ending a sentence with a preposition” for many reasons.) Here, the evidence is mixed. Again according to Prof Fischer, there were cases in which stranded prepositions were obligatory in Old English, as when a relative clause appears without a relative pronoun introducing it. A modern English example would be

the man we talked to

Her Old Engilsh example, coming from “The Marvels of the East” (ca. 1000 AD), is

Ðonne is oþer  stow  elrerdge    men beoð on

Then   is other place barbarous men are in

“There is another place where barbarous people live”

But she notes that in other kinds of Old English clauses, stranded prepositions are impossible or rare.  By contrast, in the Middle English period, “the possibilities for preposition stranding became greatly extended.” For the first time, relative clauses beginning with a wh-word (whichwhowhat, etc) and questions could strand prepositions. Again, she cites “Layamon’s Brut”:

nuste nan kempe, whem he sculde slaen on

“no soldier knew whom he should strike at”

Was this a natural spread of Old English’s preposition stranding? Or Norse influence?  Prof Fischer’s e-mail again: “It is quite possible that this use became strengthened by its use in Old Norse, in fact not unlikely, since the Northern English speakers spread to the Midlands and the South in the Middle English period, but that doesn’t at all prove that in English the feature itself is Scandinavian.” In other words, Norse influence is possible, but neither necessary nor sufficient.

So again, for those of you who have followed along all this way:  the Norse influence on English is clear, especially in vocabulary, and possibly in these areas of grammar. But Prof Faarlund has a tough job ahead of him to overturn many years of many scholars’ conclusions that English is West Germanic with Scandinavian influences, not Scandinavian with West Germanic influences.

As for why these two allegedly “Norse” bits of English syntax were singled out for scorn among the dozens or hundreds of innovations in English grammar over the last millennium, perhaps we’ll never know. Split an infinitive in print and you will still get letters to the editor. End a sentence in a preposition, and there are still people who will think you a boor. If you’re feeling cheeky, tell them “No, I’m just a Viking.” It may not be true, but it’s at least as true as the idea that you can’t end a sentence in a preposition.

(Thanks to James Rader and Kory Stamper, both of Merriam-Webster, as well as to John McWhorter.)

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