North Sea language history

The research programme North Sea Language History combines studies in Middle English, Nordic historical linguistics and place-name studies together with the archeological study of ornamentation and runes.

The North Sea area, in our definition, includes those geographical areas for which the North Sea has been a focus of communication: the main route of trade, migration and conquest. It shades into the Atlantic area to the West, the Arctic area to the North and the Baltic area and Central Europe to the East and South. Cultural and linguistic exchanges link
the core area to more distant lands: the Vikings were present from Greenland to Constantinople, and later trade connections link the North Sea area both to the Baltic countries and to areas further south. From the sixteenth century, colonial rule and settlement have linked the area to far-off places all over the world.

Over the last two millennia, the languages spoken in this area have represented three main branches of Indo-European: Germanic, Celtic and Italic. Finno-Ugric languages are present in the north and east, while other non-Indo-European languages may survive in place-names and, possibly, Pictish inscriptions. The history of the North Sea languages has been shaped by migrations, conquests and trade contacts, giving rise to multilingual and multicultural communities. Writing has from the beginning been a multilingual activity, involving choices between codes of different status and function: Latin and the vernaculars, and, later, more or less institutionalised varieties of the vernaculars. The study of language history in the North Sea area is therefore necessarily a study of coexistence and contact.

The effects of language contact are, in general, highly variable and unpredictable in detail. This reflects the crucial point formulated by McIntosh (1994: 137): ‘what we mean by «languages in contact» is «users of language in contact»: language contact does not happen in the abstract’. Accordingly, a study of the social context of speakers in contact is crucial for an understanding of the effects of language contact.

For historical periods, this is problematic: even for relatively recent periods, the evidence is incomplete, and prehistoric language contact situations evade us altogether. The most promising approach is by the critical comparison of different types of evidence, including place-names, linguistic forms and language selection, as well as archeological evidence. For all these approaches, a shared concern is the mapping of patterns of data over geographical space, with one overriding research question: how do such patterns relate to the dynamics of social space, the actual contacts and interactions between real historical people. This question is the main focus of the research programme.

The most direct evidence for historical linguistics consists of written texts. The Middle English Scribal Texts Programme is a long-term undertaking within the programme, aiming to study and make available the written sources for medieval English. The main current task of the Middle English team is to produce a corpus of late medieval documentary texts (letters and legal/business documents) with a known date and place of origin; this project will make possible a mapping of medieval English written linguistic forms, as they were actually produced in each location, something that has not been attempted before on this scale. The project will also form the basis for a broader investigation into business communication through time, bringing in multilingual practices and international trade. This major undertaking is complemented by other text-centred studies: current PhD thesis projects study Norwegian court books as well as Middle English nonconformist religious writings and drama texts, while Inge Særheim has been studying early dialectal writing in Jæren.

Evidence for historical linguistics also includes present-day forms that may be used as a basis for the reconstruction of older forms. An important area here is place-name studies: because of their conventional character, place names tend to preserve linguistic forms that, in the vocabulary at large, have disappeared or gone through extensive change. The study of historical texts and place names complement each other in the study of historical variation and change: it is an important strength of the present research group that we combine expertise from both areas. We hold a collection of ca 150,000 place names collected in the Rogaland area, and the corpus of local documents will provide a large resource of English medieval place-names. One of the major tasks of the group over the next three-year period is to prepare this material for use as a scholarly resource, and develop a cross-disciplinary research project to harness it for the study of linguistic and cultural exchanges in the North Sea area.

For early periods, place-names and texts allow us to construct only a tentative and partial picture of a linguistic and social reality. In order to make sense of such material that we have, it will be important to place it in the context of other patterns that may be assumed to reflect the same sociohistorical reality. Here, the study of patterns of ornamentation and their relationship to contacts by trade and migration forms an important complement for the study of early language history. One particularly salient question from our point of view is the connection between English dialectal variation and the archeological evidence for migration from the West of Norway in the 5th-6th centuries AD.

The combination of these three research traditions to illuminate the social geography within which linguistic change takes place makes for an approach that promises to be much more powerful than the sum of its parts. The team includes many individual researchers who produce internationally recognized research and are able to provide good support for junior researchers both in terms of guidance and joint publishing. Stavanger is a natural centre for the historical study of the North Sea languages and is already beginning to be known for its research. With substantial holdings of linguistic and archeological materials and the build-up of high-level research competence, we are in a good position to make Stavanger a leading centre within this area of research.