Language Succession

Dennis King donncha at
Wed Jan 27 00:15:59 UTC 1999

JoatSimeon at

>The general rule would seem to be that a thin stratum of immigrant
>conquerors loses its language and takes up that of the majority.

The experience of Old Norse speaking invaders/settlers in the Hebrides
and the Isle of Man seems to bear this out.  In Lewis and Harris, the
Vikings, if it is safe to call them that, were temporarily dominant
enough to leave a large number of Norse placenames on the ground, which
have survived to the present in Gaelicized form.  Furthermore, the
Gaelic of the islands has some eccentric phonological features, such
as pre-aspiration of voiceless stops and devoicing of voiced stops,
which appear to be a Norse legacy.  Otherwise, the Norse language
didn't survive there.

The situation on Man seems to have been more complex and a lot more
interesting.  Manx Gaelic lost a lot of grammatical features that
Irish and Scottish Gaelic have retained, such as the copula, which
was replaced by the substantive verb, the distinction between the
palatal and non-palatal consonant series, the autonomous [unspecified
subject] verb forms, most declensional forms, and so on.

All these losses have been noted in semi-speakers of certain Irish
and Scottish Gaelic dialects which are on the verge of death.  The odd
thing about Manx is that these were features of the language way back
when it was still vital and intact, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Why these signs of "decay" in a vital Gaelic dialect?

The interesting theory lays this at the feet of the Norse,  who
politically dominated the island ca. 900.  After a few generations of
intermarriage, there would have been three languages going: Norse,
Gaelic, and Norsified Gaelic (with all the defects of modern semi-
speakers).  The speakers of proper Gaelic would have been people of
low status with whom the Norse did not see fit to intermarry, while
the speakers of "broken" Gaelic would be the offspring of higher status
Norse-Manx alliances.  These families would have continued to dominate
the island, and after some generations have lost their Norse, by which
time their "broken" Gaelic would have become established as the prestige

If this scenario is true, a corollary to the rule "that a thin stratum
of immigrant conquerors loses its language and takes up that of the
majority" would be that a slightly thicker stratum transforms the
majority language as they adopt it.  Was this what happened to English
after 1066 and all that?

Dennis King

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