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The Name Skraeling
Q: I read your page on the Beothuk tribe of
Newfoundland and was surprised to see that you
translated Skraelings - a name the Vikings gave the
natives of Vinland, probably the Beothuks - as
I've read somewhere that "Skraelings" means skinny
people, while also holding the notian smallness of
stature (and compared to the Vikings they may well
have been skinny and smallish).
In Dutch and my native tongue Frisian (which are
related to the Scandinavian languages) the
adjectives "schraal" (Dutch) and "skraal" (Frisian)
do have the meaning of skinny & small - though these
words are not usually used to describe people.
Anyway, your translation of "heathens" can't
be right since (most of) the Vikings were
themselves still heathens at the time.
By the way, it was my understanding that the Vikings
used the term "Skraelings" for all the native
peoples of the America's, including the Inuit they
encountered in Greenland.
I hope I've been of some help.
A: Hello, and thanks for writing! I'm not actually sure where
the information about Skraelings being "heathens" came
from originally. It's possible that it was used
that way in later years, since it seems
like no one's completely sure what the word originally
meant anymore. The idea you suggest is interesting,
that it meant "skinny" or "scrawny" people. That might
possibly have applied to the Beothuks, but the idea of
anyone calling the Inuit skinny is somewhat hard to
believe! As I look into this a bit I see that some
people have proposed the word comes from an Old Icelandic
word meaning "to scream" or "screamers." That also
seems possible to me, since it seems that people often
name strangers who don't speak their language
something like "screamers" or "babblers" or "grunters"
("barbarian" has an etymology like that, and going in
the other direction, the Dakota Sioux called English
"the barking language!") In a modern Icelandic dictionary,
"scream" is listed as "öskra," so perhaps that (or an older form of it)
could have been the root of the word "skraeling."
Anyway, it certainly doesn't seem historically
possible that the word could really have meant
"heathen" in the early 11th century, so that _must_ be
an error. I've removed that reference from our page.
Thanks for the heads-up!
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Beothuk (Red Indians)
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