The Viking mark on my language and landscape

When Briton Matthew Gentry began taking Swedish lessons, he didn't expect it would help him rediscover his own roots.

The Viking mark on my language and landscape
A Viking reenactment event in Sweden. Photo: Ludvig Thunman/TT

Ah'm gan laikin in't beck.

That might not make much sense to anyone reading this, although technically it is in English. Perhaps if I put it in Swedish it might be better understood to some:

Jag går och leker i bäcken.

Or in plain old English: I'm going to play in the stream.

Like any good newcomer to Sweden, I began taking Swedish lessons. With English as my native tongue, I had the advantage that anyone with a shared Germanic route in their language has when learning Swedish – so many words seem familiar that it is a little easier to anchor them in your mind. For example, the classic lyric Jag trivs bäst i öppna landskap, can basically be understood in English – “I thrive best in the open landscape”.

What surprised me, however, was the amount of words that stirred up a lesser-used part of my dialect, something much more local and rooted in history. Raised in Cumbria, the picturesque rural region in the North West of England, next to the Scottish border, I have a less common set of colloquial words to draw upon that I didn't expect to be using once I left my home country, beyond amusing people with the still-used Cumbrian sheep-counting system.

One of the first words I learned in my Swedish lessons, gråta – to cry – sounded suspiciously familiar to greet, the Scottish term for cry, as in this phrase: greetin' like a wee bairn – crying like a little child. Which brings us to another common word: barn, meaning child in Swedish is equivalent to bairn in both Scottish and Cumbrian. Bra (good) is braw in Scottish.

A brief conversation with Tommy from the Cumbrian Dialect Society revealed many more, including some old Norse that is no longer present in Swedish, like hlaupa meaning 'to jump'. In Cumbria, we often lowp ovver yat, meaning one often 'jumps over the gate', a favourite and necessary pastime when cutting across the cow fields on country walks.

READ ALSO: Viking warrior found in Sweden was a woman

Matthew Gentry grew up in Cumbria in the UK. Photo: Matthew Gentry

So why then were so many words, even those that have been lost in Swedish, remained largely unchanged in my local slang?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a very simple historical explanation. In the eighth century, the Nords began invading Britain. Fans of the HBO show Vikings will be familiar with Ragnar Lodbrok, the ferocious ruler who raided and pillaged much of Northern England. Well his sons, Ivar the Boneless and Halfdar Ragnarsson, took it a step further and set about conquering parts of the country.

By the year 886, they had established a second kingdom within England, covering the Northern and Eastern parts of the country as well as Southern Cumbria on the West coast. These regions came under what was known as Danelaw, a rule of law that lasted for almost a hundred years until Eric Bloodaxe was driven out of Northumberland.

The Vikings may have been driven out eventually, but it seems that, even though little physical evidence of them remains, a hundred years was more than enough to indelibly effect the language and landscape. As well as the impact on the local dialect, the Nordic invasion left its mark on place names all throughout my home county. These place names in Cumbria can be divided between those with an old Cumbric name, and those with a Nordic one. So many end with Dale, from the Nordic dhal for valley; we go walking through the fells (fjäll); many streets and towns across Northern England contain kirk in their name, from the Swedish kyrka, for church, or by, meaning homestead or town.

So, we can end up with the name Kirkby Lonsdale, meaning the 'Church town in the valley of the river Lon'. And it seems the Nords even still hold a claim over England's highest point: Scafell Pike bears the name derived from Sker (cliff) fjäll, and pic (peak) from the old Norse. It's also a name that returned home to the Nordics hundreds of years later in the 1970s with the Swedish/Irish folk group, Scafell Pike.

The Cumbrian dialect and place names reflect an element of the English language that is lost in time, more resilient to the ever-changing nature of every-day English, and so gives us a link back through history. Although the physical presence of the Vikings is long gone, except for a few buried trinkets, their impact on British culture remains.

The re-emergence of much of my local language in my Swedish lessons reminded me that despite the conflict and bloodshed hundreds of years ago, there is a shared history and culture present that goes right down to our roots. Perhaps that thought will warm me a little as I settle in for another Swedish winter.

Matthew Gentry is a life sciences technical writer based in Stockholm. He moved to Sweden in 2013. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.