June 19, 2006

Viking legacy fuels independent spirit of Yorkshire

By Olesya Dmitracova

YORK - Nothing about the tranquil-looking elderly women standing in a sunlit road in this northern English town brings Vikings to mind. Until you look at the name of the street -- Coppergate.

It reveals the legacy of the legendary warriors who settled in the modern-day English county of Yorkshire in the 9th century; "Gate" derives from "gata," meaning "street" in Old Norse, a medieval Scandinavian language.

This Viking connection runs through the place names, surnames and dialect of Yorkshire -- home to England's biggest Scandinavian settlements and a region renowned for cherishing its distinct identity.

This Viking link forms part of the area's character which, like regional identities everywhere, is the focus of academic research at a time of globalization and regional disputes.

"There's an element of northern separatism, which you can rather romantically -- unhistorically -- attach to the Vikings," said Matthew Townend, linguist and historian at the University of York.

"The Vikings don't respect authority, the Vikings don't want to be governed by some central government in the south of England."


The heritage of the Vikings has survived in Yorkshire for 1,000 years, out-lasting the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons who populated the region previously and the Normans who arrived later.

"The most obvious thing is the map: there are hundreds and hundreds of Scandinavian names," said David Parsons, lecturer in English at the University of Nottingham.

The Vikings often combined people's names and nicknames with Old Norse endings "-by," "-kirk," "-twaite" and "-wath" to produce memorable place names, such as the village of Ugglebarnby, which can be translated as "the settlement of the owl-bearded."

Place names gave rise to surnames, including Hornby, Danby and Hecklerby.

"Almost in any village around here you will find people with such names. Most surnames have a very regional origin, they arose in the Middle Ages," Townend said.

The Scandinavian influence is also apparent in the English language in words like "husband" and "sky" and heavily used linguistic units such as "there."

"The borrowing of important grammatical words suggests a very high level of influence, which is rather different from the effect that French had on the language," Parsons said.

Borrowed French words are often used in literary English and to describe sophisticated lifestyles, while Scandinavian words name features of landscapes and types of fish, he added.

Some words of a distinct Scandinavian origin such as "laik" for "to play" are used only in northern parts of England.


To outsiders, Yorkshire flaunts its Viking history with a pride many say is trademark of the region.

The Viking museum in York, the Jorvik Center in Coppergate, is a feat of archeological research and computer-aided reconstruction, as well as a major tourist attraction alongside regular Viking and Scandinavian festivals.

Many shops and guesthouses have the word "Viking" in their names. A local radio station is called Viking FM. "It is a sort of a local identity that appeals to the tourists and that presumably local people feel to some degree," Townend said.

Among Yorkshire's famously forthright people, this pride in the past has also fueled a feeling of uniqueness.

"We are gobby!" said Jessica, who works at the Yorkshire Museum in York, explaining that "gobby" means "loud" in Yorkshire dialect.

"Northerners still like to feel that they are different from the people in the south ... and the Vikings can be used as an emblem," Townend said.

Nicola, who also works at the Yorkshire Museum, said: "Yorkshire people are very proud of being from Yorkshire -- more probably of being Yorkshire than English."

Not everyone credits the Vikings with this distinct identity. Parsons said the socioeconomic background of Yorkshire people in a rural region played a greater role in defining their character than medieval history.

It may be precisely this jigsaw-puzzle nature of modern-day regional identity that attracts multidisciplinary research on regions and regionalism.

"It's a topic that seems to bring together a lot of different trends, it seems to hit a lot of buttons," said Robert Crawshaw, organizer of a series of seminars at Lancaster University on "Regions and regionalism in and beyond Europe."

"I thought it was a timely theme," he said. "There is a current development in thinking that regional identity ... can co-exist happily with global control, whereas global control and nationhood are quite often in contrast with each other."