Poetic License with Old English Kennings

Poetic License with Old English Kennings

Kennings are word groupings that indirectly describe an object. They were popular in Old English poems, especially the epic Beowulf. Some are rather inventive and you can assume their creators might have gotten a chuckle out of their usage. The originals aren’t readable as they’re written in Old English, of course. But browsing through translations will unearth some very interesting combos.

First, though, kennings apparently were grouped in four different ways. There was the hyphenated version, which we see the most. That included such terms as “whale-road,” referring to the sea. A second format was the non-hyphenated version, which was simply two descriptive words that together formed a single reference. A third kenning style was in the possessive with the first word containing an apostrophe followed by an “s.” In the fourth arrangement, a preposition (such as “of”) was added in between two words. Sure, that all makes sense, doesn’t it?

It was a free-for-all when it came to making up kennings. Perhaps there was a competition among the monks and poets to be ever more creative with their use of words. One might refer to the body as a “bone-chamber” while another would call it a “bone-container.”

Some kennings were more alliterative, meaning they didn’t name an object but rather a “sense” of something. In Beowulf, one such term “night-helmet” referred to the cover of darkness.

The formula here is broken down into:

Darkness is related to night as a helmet is related to cover.

Now, there’s a fun challenge to create a new vocabulary of metaphors using some of today’s words.