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Sir Gawain vs. the Vikings: ‘Difficult’ Old Norse Borrowings in Middle English

Thursday 19 November 2020, 5.00PM

Speaker(s): Prof. Richard Dance, Director of ASNC, St Catherine’s College, University of Cambridge

Tracing the influence of the early Scandinavian languages on medieval English vocabulary is a fascinating and complex task, with important consequences for linguists, editors and literary critics. Things are especially tricky when it comes to the rich and diverse lexicon of Middle English texts from the North and North Midlands,  particularly the self-consciously showy and frequently obscure word-hoard of alliterative verse.

This paper will offer a few highlights from Professor Richard Dance's etymological research into the language of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and will introduce the larger Gersum Project which has developed from it.  Professor Dance will focus on instances where the evidence for Scandinavian input is especially troublesome and, therefore, especially interesting. There are dozens of items in texts like Sir Gawain whose etymology is essentially ‘obscure’, but where Old Norse derivation or influence is one amongst several more or less convincing angles on  locating a word’s origins and figuring out its meaning.

By examining a selection of these colourful and remarkable words in the engagingly messy contexts of medieval multilingual Britain, Professor Dance will explore a few of the ways these supposed relics of Viking activity prove to be so ‘difficult’, considering some of the things this can tell us not only about the linguistic evidence itself, but also about the ways scholars have treated it. 


Location: Online by Zoom