John Larrysson Column: An Unsung Hero

The other day someone told me that English is a funny language because there are so many things that don't make sense. She gave me unsung hero as an example and asked me if I had ever heard of a sung hero. To which I answered, of course I have! Do you have any idea what part of the world my name comes from? That brings us to this week's topic: How the Norse added to English.

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It is true that English has many unusual words, rule exceptions, chaotic spellings and things that don't make sense. However unsung hero is not one of them. As long as you understand the meaning fully it makes perfect sense.

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Over a thousand years ago the people of Europe lived in fear of the Norse (also called Vikings), who came from Northern Europe to steal their property, lives and land. The Norse also explored far away countries and did business with many people, which is mentioned less often. England was invaded by the Norse many times and they are a bit biased.

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In the culture of the Norse if some hero was very newsworthy, stories and poems were written (often only spoken) about them. These stories were called sagas and were sung in many houses. One of these sagas, and a personal favourite, is the Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. He was a great Norseman and he fought and sung his way across the land and seas of Northern Europe. He was a sung hero and is a famous poet and fighter. Some people who deserved to have a saga sung about them died unknown and lost in the world. They were unsung heroes.

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Many English words come from the Norse, because many Norse did business with the English and later invaded them and lived there.

A few of the many examples of English words from the Norse:


Nouns: Anger, bag, cake, freckle, husband, ill, knife, leg, raise, sale, ugly...



Verbs: Get, take, scare, want...



Pronouns: That, they, them, their...


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More than a thousand years ago, the Norse came to England. (I'll cover the Norman French some other time) Most of them came from the country of Denmark and stole land away from the English from Yorkshire to Norfolk. They ruled the English and the area became known as the Danelaw. Other Norse people came from Norway and lived in the northwest of England, from Strathclyde to the north of Wales. The Old Norse language they spoke was similar to Old English since they both had the same Germanic ancestry. The languages blended together to produce a new version of English. Many Old Norse words entered the English language. The Norse word skirt came to mean dress in English, but it had the same Old Germanic origin as the English word shirt.

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Old Norse and Old English got mixed when speakers of those languages tried to do business. One of the great advantages of having some of the Norse language added to English is that it made English easier to learn. Some of the difficult grammar of Old English (complex conjugations and declensions) had to be simplified. Modern English has much easier grammar than Old English.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.