Ambassador Claims Vikings ‘Brought Sarcasm to Britain’
For over two centuries, Vikings colonised, traded and raided their way through much of Britain before disappearing form the pages of history completely. That’s not to say they didn’t leave behind a legacy that’s still able to be seen and heard to this day. Over one thousand years since the raiders from the north landed on these shores, place names still ring with the sounds of Norse, and archaeological artifacts left behind are still being found. Now sarcasm, understatement and irony can apparently be traced back to the Viking era too.
Earlier this month the story below which originally appeared in The Telegraph reported on comments by the Danish Ambassador to the UK, who said the similar sense of humour between the two countries originates from shared cultural heritage. Read on…
It may be the bedrock of British humour, but sarcasm was actually brought to the UK by the Vikings says the Danish Ambassador.
The British use of understatement and satire is thought to originate from the Vikings, typically noted for raping and pillaging throughout history, when they brought trade from across the world to British shores.
This led to exchanges with Britons, and the Vikings influencing them with the words and expressions they used. These eventually became part of everyday language, seen in some of the words and place names we use today, and ultimately in our caustic sense of humour.
Sarcasm, irony and understatement are part of the “common heritage” between Denmark and the UK says Claus Grube. He also claims there are traces in comic tales used in the later Old Norse sagas, such as Orkneyinga Saga where an Earl goes out disguised as a fisherman, to help a farmer.
These sagas, largely from the thirteenth century and known for their “laconic humour, detail examples of comedy in the face of adversity, and also contain the roots of some Danish and English words showing more similarities in how we communicate.
Sarcasm is very much inherent in British humour,” Mr Grube told the Telegraph.
He cites contemporary episodes, particularly the “extreme popularity” of Monty Python in Denmark as an example of the shared sense of comedy between the two countries which he says shows evidence of a common cultural heritage.
“It has always struck me that in the UK we have the same sense of humour as in Denmark,” he added.
“We use sarcasm and irony, and we also like understatement.
“I think this forms part of our common heritage, stemming from the Vikings and some of the legacy they have left.
“I think this legacy forms part of the way we express ourselves and the way we interact and the way you use language.”
Mr Grube cites a typical British use of sarcasm, describing something as “it could have been worse”, as humour particular to both countries that he believes could stem from expressions brought to the UK from the Vikings.
“It was not all about raping and pillaging, the Vikings were trading as well,” said Mr Grube, who has been in the UK for six months but said he has been struck by the similarities in British and Danish comedy.
“You have a more open attitude to the world around you if you are living from trade.”
Mr Grube said trading led to exchanges with the Vikings and the inheriting of expressions and body language, which influence comedy today.
He added: “Humour is actually an important part of the way you express yourself.
“The use of sarcasm and irony is quite distinct from other countries. For example if you use that in France and Germany it will often be taken literally, and the humour lost.”
Mr Grube said this difference adds to his belief that humour in the UK and Denmark dates back to our shared history.
He also cites Dane Law as an influence on words in Britain. He added: “Words were inherited, especially in the geographical sense under what you would call Dane Law. But it’s not only geography, this introduced a legal system as well.”
Dr Matthew Townsend, an expert in Old Norse from the University of York, said examples of influences on English humour can be seen from a range of periods in history, including in Old Norse sagas which were largely written in the thirteenth century – three centuries after the Viking settlement of England.
He said: “Anglo-Saxon texts also show a fondness for terse understatement, often of a humorous kind: so, for example, the poem Beowulf declares of the haunted mere where Grendel and his mother live, ‘that is not a pleasant place!’
“So one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that such understatement is a Viking import to England, rather than a common tradition.
“But it’s certainly true that the Old Norse sagas offer abundant examples of laconic humour, often in the face of adversity. My favourite comes in Grettir’s Saga : the hero’s brother, Atli, is stabbed fatally through the stomach, whereupon his dying words are (more or less) ‘I see that broad spears are in fashion this year’.”
Ivar Berg, a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said while there were close interactions between Scandanavians and the English, he did not believe the Ambassador’s statement. He said: “There are parallels, of course – sarcasm and understatements are well known and highly regarded also in Scandinavia, but to pinpoint a direction of influence seems futile.”
Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer in Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said rather than one source, it was likely English humour had been subject to a range of influences over the last 1,000 years. Dr Ljosland said: “I believe that the English have developed and refined their sense of humour through the ages and that it draws on a range of sources of cultural contact, as well as being their own, of course.
“Personally, as a Scandinavian living in the UK, I find the English understated and sarcastic sense of humour hard to understand. It often completely passes me by.”
In the chapter ‘Poetry and fishing’ in Orkneyinga saga, humour is used to describe how an Earl manages to hide his identity from villagers by pretending to be a fisherman. The Earl, dressed in a cowl, goes fishing with a farmer and gives all his haul away, before climbing a slope where “his feet shot from under him where the rain had made it slippery and he tumbled down to the bottom of the slope.”
The passage is followed by a comic verse recited by the Earl, where he reveals his identity:
“Wittily the woman
mocks my wear
but she laughs overlong,
and may not laugh last.
Early I sailed out,
eagerly, and all fully
furnished for fishing
Who’d figure me for an earl?”