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Jón the Fleming: Low German in thirteenth-century Norway and fourteenth-century Iceland


By: Alaric Hall

Low German influence is one of the most prominent characteristics of Old Norse in the later medieval period, but the processes whereby this took place are little evidenced. However, Laurentius saga, Einarr Hafliðason’s fourteenth-century Icelandic biography of Bishop Laurentius Kálfsson, provides anecdotal evidence for this that has been overlooked by researchers.

The anecdotes concern the linguistic (mis)adventures of a Low German-speaker in thirteenth-century Norway — the otherwise unknown Jón flæmingi (Johannes the Fleming) — and, perhaps uniquely in medieval Scandinavian texts, they also provide a representation of L2 Norse. Problematic and brief though this source is, it affords us valuable perspectives both on fourteenth-century Icelandic metalinguistic discourses and on the processes whereby Low German influence took place in thirteenth- to fourteenth-century Norse. Contrary to some recent assumptions, Laurentius saga suggests that Low German and Old Norse were not seen as mutually intelligible; it provides some support for the idea that Low German influence was responsible not only for loan words into Old Norse, but also for morphological levelling; and emphasises that in seeking vectors of Low German influence on Old Norse we should look not only to Hanseatic traders, but also to the Church.

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