The Vikings begin to carve their place in history

Vikings01 phillipmartin

Clipart kindly provided by

In the late 700s AD the Vikings of Scandinavia began to attack settlements all over Europe, including England, which explains their lasting impact on our language. They did not simply attack and leave with booty; they often immigrated to and settled in the lands they attacked. For a period of time the northern part of England, for instance, was under the control of Vikings; this was called the “Danelaw”. Vikings also set up colonies in France; the word “Normans” actually comes from “northmen”. They were farmers and craftspeople as well as raiders.

The Vikings did not call themselves by that name. They called themselves Danes; the word Viking comes from their expression, “to go a-Viking” – voyaging for trade or to raid vulnerable settlements.

Futhark phillipmartin

Clipart kindly provided by

Initially the Vikings wrote with runes. The name of this system was futhark from the order of the first six runes. They followed their own religion and had many gods; some had the same names as the Anglo-Saxon gods or were clearly similar. Eventually, however, the Vikings were converted to Christianity and began to use the Latin script with which we write today (or its archaic equivalent).

Odin was their most powerful god and corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon god Wodin (who gave us the name “Wednesday” if you recall).

Odin phillipmartin

Picture of Odin kindly provided by

The Vikings’ influence on English was very important. They even gave us some of our pronouns (“they” and “them”, for instance), which is unusual because most of the building blocks of English come from the Anglo-Saxons.

First activity: Go to Act 2 of the Ages of English timeline from the BBC:

Answer these questions:

1. What place-name endings come from the Vikings? Can you think of any place names in Australia with these endings?

2. Write down 6 common words that were given to us by this group of people.

3. What is the total number of words believed to have come from Old Norse (as a dictionary would call it)?

4. What is a “kenning”? Write down a Viking example and a modern example of a kenning. Make up some witty or poetic kennings of your own and add them in a comment at the bottom of this post.

5. Which English king managed to confine the Vikings to the Danelaw (a prescribed area in the north of England)? Amos will be able to tell you all about this particular King.

6. Visit this page to find out about the rights of Viking women, which were generally better than women in the rest of Europe. List their rights. What impact do you think conversion to Christianity might have had?

(clipart of Viking longship kindly provided by – in the public domain)

Viking longship from wwwclkercom pd

Second activity: Now discover what it might have been like to go a-Viking by tackling the Viking Quest from the BBC:

The Lasting Words of the Anglo-Saxons

Ros cartoon with tissue box (sick)I’m sorry I can’t be at school to see you today. I can barely speak. Luckily Ms Taylor can use her melodious and completely functional voice instead.

Anyway, I don’t need to be there to speak to you. I have the written word, that invention of the Sumerians that changed the world and created the study and recording of history. I also have this little blog, which receives the words I type and then flings them into cyberspace for you to find. Magic, isn’t it?

Of course, the Anglo-Saxons did not have the blogging option. Their communication was mostly oral. When they did write, they ripped their words into wood or stone, using the angular runic letters most suited to writing with a knife. Our verb to write is related to the German verb, reiβen or reissen, meaning to rip or to tear.

Beowulf_firstpage pd wikimedia commonsYet here’s the remarkable thing: across the gulf of time between those people 1500 years ago and the world today, their words have come to us. Their words became the language known by dictionary writers as Old English. Those long-ago farmers with their warlike stories and their riddles rich with metaphor gave us the building blocks of modern English, which has now become a world language. Who would have thought it?

There’s a resource that allows you to trace the history of our language from way back then. The wonderful BBC website has “The Ages of English Timeline”, which allows you to discover the history of English for yourselves. Judging from your startling, fluent and witty assignments on ancient Egypt, you love your language already. This timeline takes you back to its origins.

I have to warn you that it’s a little spooky to listen to a passage of Old English being spoken. It sounds oddly familiar and yet quite foreign.

medieval face from http medievalRead a scholarly account of the Anglo-Saxon contributions to English here. Don’t be put off by the word scholarly. It’s very interesting to find out how Old English was written. This will help you to read the Old English in Act 1 of the Timeline (link below this).

medieval face from http medievalLaunch the Ages of English Timeline from the BBC Website

The ? symbol on the top right tells you how to use the Timeline in the most productive way. Try to click on and read every detail for each of the first three acts. Listen to the spoken versions of Old English; for instance, the Anchor Riddle and the excerpt from Beowulf.

Map of Britain in Anglo-Saxon times from Wikimedia CommonsYou’ll notice that the language sounds a little bit like German. There’s a reason for that. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a Germanic language. Many of the words of Old English are very similar to modern German words as well as to modern English. The words that are similar in English and German are often the words that come from Old English: house (Haus), sheep (Schaf), brother (Bruder), sister (Schwester), midday (Mittag), hound (Hund), swine (Schwein), hundred (Hundert), etc. They are the common, everyday words, although now we use “dog” and “pig” more than hound and swine.

Anglo-Saxon furniture of about the tenth century from an old manuscript in the British MuseumAfter you have spent some time reading and listening to the first three acts of this timeline, leave a comment describing something that you found out about the history of English. Try to make it clear and informative for the benefit of others.

The Anglo-Saxons, Old English and some pictures from the Night of Notables

Wow, 7E! Your displays last night inspired and impressed me. I felt proud to know you. Here are just a few pictures. Remember that I can only publish with permission, so next week when I return we might have a slide show of all my other photos.

By the way, there is some work for you all at the bottom of these photos. It’s about the history of the English language. Feel free to use your i-pod earphones to listen to how our language sounded 1200 years ago. It’s spooky because you won’t be able to understand it, yet it’s just a little bit familiar too.

 Sam's slices of wisdomSam’s “slices of wisdom” from Lao Tzu – tasty and topical. Well done, Sam!
 Emma and Rachel MasonEmma, Rachel and Mason, looking very much at home in their costumes
 JamesJackJack looking seriously authentic!

Ocean question box

Steven’s brilliant question box for his display on Ferdinand Magellan. His gruesome stories of the exploits of Magellan (especially the bits about maggots, rats and sawdust), held many listeners spellbound, including me.

Steven's Ferdinand Magellan display

 RaymondRaymond puts some finishing touches to his display
 IMG_5688Claire told me that her favourite part of Alice in Wonderland is the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It’s no wonder that her display had some quirky and colourful crockery that caught my eye.


Ploughmen - facsimile of a miniature in anci A-S manuscriptFrom to be used freely); the inscription says, “God spede ye plow and send us Korne enow”.


  • Why is Wednesday spelt so strangely?
  • Why are English and German so similar in many ways?
  • Why are Christmas and Easter actually celebrated on the dates of pagan festivals?

The Anglo-Saxons provide the answer to all these riddles.

They were brilliant at riddles themselves. Nearly a hundred of their riddles have come down to us. Here’s an example for you to try to solve. It is from, where you can read others later if you have time.

A Riddle


I am all on my own,
Wounded by iron weapons and scarred by swords.
I often see battle.
I am tired of fighting.
I do not expect to be allowed to retire from warfare
Before I am completely done for.
At the wall of the city, I am knocked about
And bitten again and again.
Hard edged things made by the blacksmith’s hammer attack me.
Each time I wait for something worse.
I have never been able to find a doctor who could make me better
Or give me medicine made from herbs.
Instead the sword gashes all over me grow bigger day and night.
 Sutton_hoo_helmet public domain from wikimedia commons    

Helmet found at Sutton Hoo

Now, Some History…

When the Roman legions began to pull out of Britain in 410AD, the native Britons were placed in a precarious and untenable position. For hundreds of years they had had the most powerful military force in the world to protect them. Quite suddenly, that force was gone. They hoped that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Germanic tribes, would protect them from the Picts and Scots in the north who were disturbingly eager to overrun them.

Whoops! This turned out to be a bad idea. Starting in 449AD, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came and, liking what they saw, they stayed. Many Britons withdrew to Cornwall and Wales.

So why learn about these relatively remote Germanic tribes who decided to take over this small green island?

Well, they gave us our language. Sure, as time passed the English borrowed many words from other groups, including the Christian missionaries who brought Latin, the Vikings who contributed Old Norse, the Normans, who gave us many French words, and many others.

But the soul of the English language, the words that are the building blocks, the words that are learned by English speaking children at their mother’s (or father’s) knee, the words that are used in every sentence of English (including the word English itself) are nearly all from the Anglo-Saxons, as they came to be called.

Listen to Old English on the Ages of English Timeline at the trusty BBC website below. You will need to use your earphones. It sounds quite different from modern English, more German perhaps, and it is almost completely incomprehensible. And yet…every now and then, a word or a short sentence sounds very much the same. If you listen to the sound of the words rather than the words themselves, it can seem strangely familiar.

Listen, for instance, to the short passage from Beowulf at the site below, by clicking on the microphone and scroll picture. The last four words of this passage sound very familiar indeed.



(First click on the ? on the top right so that you know how to use the timeline.)

YOUR TASK: Create a Word file titled: The Ages of English

1. List the four days of the week that have come to us from the Anglo-Saxons and the four gods whose names they commemorate. (To find this out, click on Act 1, the beer mug.)

2. What kind of writing did the Anglo-Saxons initially use? What influenced them to change over to the Latin alphabet and what were some words of Latin origin that came into use at this time? 

3. Listen carefully to the Old English words of the Anchor Riddle by clicking on the jester figure. Try making up a riddle using the same style (but of course in modern English). Write it in your document and if it is clever enough to share, copy it into a comment for others to read.