Old English “Kennings”

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There are ways of expressing feeling in the Old English kennings that do not exist in the formal English of today. Even if I were to dream up some delicious new portmanteau here — some melding of “history,” “poignant” and “solitude,” say — I still would not be creating a true kenning. That’s because, in our tongue, words get their meaning from the order we put them in: “Poignant” would end up modifying “solitude,” instead of the words just hovering next to each other in figurative space. We who speak contemporary English are so reliant on word order that we are no longer as able as our forebears to create lyrical, associative, figurative meaning in poetry. We just can’t do the same things with our vocabulary. Old English speakers can treat metaphor as an occasion to innovate; Modern English simply tries to describe. Their poetry can turn skeletons into exploding nation-states; we have to focus on keeping our adjectives in the right places. But to our immense good fortune, Old English poetry has survived, and we know how to read it. The kennings are out there waiting for you — so beautiful, so different and so very, very old.

(Josephine Livingstone, “Letter of Recommendation: Old English,” NYTimes, 1-4-19)

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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9 Responses to Old English “Kennings”

  1. That’a i teredting. Thoughts?

    • Will try again – that’s interesting. Thoughts?

      • JMN says:

        I found this piece to be a touching paean to Old English, which I’ve never studied. The author says much more than what I’ve quoted here. She oversteps somewhat in drawing an absolute comparison between Old English and contemporary English as regards their respective capacities “to create lyrical, associative, figurative meaning in poetry.” I think all languages start virtually equal in this respect; to imply otherwise is to underestimate the resourcefulness of native genius. “Modern English simply tries to describe”? I don’t think so. Modern English does just fine. Still, I like Livingstone’s fervor. She’s described in the byline simply as a writer who lives in New York. I would read other writings of hers. My own language studies led me toward the Mediterranean (Spanish, French, Arabic), though I had to learn some German for ancillary purposes. I’ve often wished I had gone more toward my own “ethnic” puddle, if you will, which would have led me to Old English and other northern tongues. We Yanks have a weakness for giving ourselves origins, and I’m a proud descended Scotsman from Skye — my “ancient clan” associated with the Macleods, Campbells and McFies. No idea what that means (intermarriage?), and am sure my leg is pulled and I’m taken for a ride by the online genealogy merchants who want to sell me a tartan, but a man needs to fantasize whence he came. I recall being interested poetically in “runes” long ago. I wonder if they’re akin to kennings? Beyond my kenn (ken?).

      • I was trying to think of a kenning and my mind just went blank. Had to google for some. Then I tested myself, could I with modern English come up with some? Again a blank, I don’t think we naturally think like that anymore. But then I remembered, I use one alot – it’s because I can never, when picturing or looking at one, remember that a jet ski is a jet ski. I always call them water motorbikes!

      • JMN says:

        Now “water motorbikes” is a fine kenning if ever I saw one. It reminds me a little of one quoted from Beowulf by the author’s article: “whale road” meaning the ocean. You’ve given me the idea for a fun mental drill in odd moments, and that is thinking up kennings — if nothing else just to show that modern English can have its bardic moments, too, even if it’s not agglutinative!

      • Let me know what you come up with

    • JMN says:

      By the way, I answered your emended message, but I also like this version of the question a lot! It has… I dunno … an Old English ring? [chuckle] Hope you don’t mind my cracking wise.

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