Wednesday, March 7, 2001

WRITER: Phil Williams, 706/542-8501, [email protected]CONTACT: Jonathan Evans, 706/542-2229, [email protected]


ATHENS, Ga. -- When Norse explorers invaded Great Britain, they did more than slaughter the population, ransack the cities and scorch the earth, roaming to crack skulls with their clubs. They also left words, like slaughter, ransack, scorch, skull and club. The influence of Scandinavian language on English is substantial and well-known.

An English professor at the University of Georgia, however, has unearthed a Norse grammatical usage in a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle -- pushing back the first written evidence of a Norse word in what would become modern English by a century.

"Editors have been pouring over this manuscript for some 300 years--editors with unimpeachable reputations--and somehow they just missed it," said Jonathan Evans. "It's going to be interesting to see how other scholars see this discovery, but I think I've made my case for it."

Evans's research was recently published in the journal North-Western European Language Evolution.

What Evans discovered was a single word, but one that leaped out to him as he read from the Peterborough Chronicle one morning in his Old English class at UGA. The word was an analogue and early variant of their, which in the West-Saxon dialect of Old English should have been rendered as hiera or heora, but instead was written in the Nordic form theora. Was it just a slip of the pen? Did the Peterborough chronicler simply write the wrong word?

Evans thinks not. He believes that the Peterborough Manuscript's use of theora is the first datable example of Scandinavian-derived plural pronouns--modern English they, them and their-- to make its way into the English language. If he's right, then this example predates the standard first-usage of such words by about a hundred years. The issue of pronouns in Old English might seem far removed from contemporary life, but language, of course, is the currency of culture and life.

That English has borrowed words from Norse has been long known. Verbs such as raise, kindle, clip and scrub come from Norse, as do nouns such as cake, freckle, mistake and sky. Even in the 20th century, such crossover words as smorgasbord and ombudsman have arrived in English from Scandinavian languages.

Though borrowed from Scandinavian, they, them and their are important currently in the politics of language and gender, said Evans. The words are used often in contemporary language to replaced the older gendered pronouns he, him and his.

Linguists have long been interested in how words from the legendary Vikings moved into Old English and thence into Middle and Modern English. Old English was spoken and written in England before about 1100 A.D. The language, part of the Anglo-Friesian group of West German languages, had four dialects, one of them being the West-Saxon of the Peterborough Chronicle.

Only about 500 manuscripts that use Old English are in existence, and less than 300 of those are largely or exclusively in the language.

The Peterborough Chronicle is one of a number of copies of an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle first composed, probably in Wessex at the court of King Alfred the Great around 890. Though the original is lost, transcripts were made and kept in English monasteries, where new copies were made and taken to other cities and monasteries from time to time.

"Until now, the earliest we could date such a Scandinavian usage was about 1225, but since we know this version of the chronicle was made in 1122, it pushes the first-written example back more than a century," said Evans.

It was while reading from the annal associated with 449 A.D. to his class that Evans was jolted by seeing theora rather than heora. The passage in question describes the "vivid and picturesque" story of the arrival of two leaders and three boatloads of German warriors to the British Isles. The passage has long been considered either true history or a founding myth-depending on the scholar's point of view. Either way, historians have paid the most attention to the passage.

"Interest in the 449 annal as a historical document seems to have diverted attention away from the linguistic significance of the version that appears in the Peterborough manuscript," said Evans, "with little notice being given to the peculiarity of word-choice."

Evans admits that it's possible that the use of theora instead of heora could simply be a weary scribe's late-night slip of the pen. But he makes a strong case in his 70-page paper that, in fact, such an error would be extremely uncharacteristic of the Peterborough scribe. Moreover, the area surrounding Peterborough in England's East Midlands is known to have had significant interaction with Scandinavians from the Norse invasion.

Instead, Evans argues, the scribe simply used a form of the word in common use in the area at the time--the Scandinavian-derived th- pronoun form.

Since the Peterborough text of annal 449 is a 12th century copy of a manuscript from Canterbury Cathedral, which itself was copied from a northern version of the manuscript, unraveling the provenance of specific words in obviously tricky. Did the use of theora come because the scribe lapsed into a commonly used Scandinavian form or was it from other causes? Evans, as devil's advocate, admits some scholars might see the usage being caused by "inattention, carelessness, poor eyesight or . . . scribal error of the trivial, mechanical sort."

Indeed, Evans admits that at least two other medieval scribes produced the form theora through mechanical error. But by comparing other extant versions of the Chronicle and carefully analyzing the work of the Peterborough scribe, Evans ruled out mis-writing as the reason for the spelling variation.

"The scribe who wrote it was both a competent writer and a careful editor of his own work," said Evans.

Evans knows that such an argument is likely to be scrutinized closely by scholars, since it challenges assumptions about the growth of the English language that have been held for centuries. As one language researcher put it, "one man's error is another's valuable linguistic evidence."

In short, Evans's research, he trusts*, is far more than an educated guess*. While some scholars may think it's wrong*, Evans takes* the position that it's likely* that the Peterborough scribe wasn't using an awkward* word. He was just using his skill* and learning to thrive* in a living language.


*words borrowed from Norse (Scandinavian).