Kennings and Compounds

say what?

What in the world is a kenning? Sounds like cunning. Aha! Both words come from Old Norse kunna meaning “know” and Old English cunnan meaning “know.” Cunning originally meant knowledge. Only later it became a synonym for craftiness or trickery, probably because it also used to mean using magic arts. “Cunning folk” were people who supposedly helped their neighbors with tricky little problems of life like “Where did I leave my keys?” and “Can you get my daughter a good husband?” So they “knew” stuff. They practiced their methods, including spells, from the Middle Ages through the early 1900s. In Scotland, to ken means to know…you know like, “beyond my ken” in “Timid and shy and scared are you, Of things beyond your ken.” in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music or that other musical theater gem, Brigadoon where the confused Fiona says, “I dinna know…I canna (ken nae) say.”

Now, a kenning is a completely different thing, although it is related to knowing. If you could go back in time to England of the 800s AD, you would probably meet some Vikings. And they would be speaking Old Norse. Old Norse gave us words like berserk, club, slaughter…get the idea of their favorite pastime? The Anglo-Saxons who also raided and later settled England were cousins of the Vikings and shared a common Germanic, linguistic ancestry. Both Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets created kennings – compound words which were metaphors or comparisons of one thing to another by combining two seemingly unrelated words. The poets had a “knowing” about some deeper image they were trying to convey. My favorite is “whale-road”. Can you guess what this meant? Think about it. I will reveal later.

These kennings are almost riddles and they are the reason that Bilbo and Gollum have their riddle contest in The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language. He would have been very familiar with the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, including kennings and riddles. A kenning is a compound word which is a new way to look at something. It is something you need to figure out. But it’s not nearly as complicated as a riddle. The riddle in the fifth chapter of The Hobbit which I think captures the feel of the scene best is one of Gollum’s riddles,

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking

Answer: Fish

A kenning for fish might be scale-swimmer, or mail-swimmer. Ok, now some of you probably guessed that the whale-road is the channels of the sea. Giving an insight into the mind of an Anglo-Saxon, here are some of their kennings: battle-sweat (blood), battle-light (sword), sky-candle (the sun), bone-house (body), winter-spear (icicle).

Now, onto compound words. We have a lot of them in English. In my first blog post, “The Journey Begins”, I gave a very brief history of the English language. The Old English words that survive into Modern English are “meat and potatoes” words like prepositions, conjunctions, functional words that hold our thoughts together. The use of compounds has also survived… big-time. Railroad, moonlight, firefly are examples of closed compounds. Good-looking, sugar-free are examples of hyphenated compounds. This Germanic language compounding trait begins in Old Norse and continues in English and German. The Germans actually are the champs. Germans add and keep adding smaller words to create long chains. The longest ever created is: rindfleischetikettierungsuberwachungsaufgabenubertragungsgesetz, a 63 letter word for a law regulating the testing of beef. They finally dropped it officially in 2013. I guess it was even too long for the Germans. The man who shortened his name from Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, said of the length of some German words, “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:
These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.”

Ahh, the procession of words! We keep creating these wonderful nuggets of letters and sounds to express images. English is expanding with new words every day, including new compound words. I challenge you, my readers, to create some new words. How about some kennings? You can start with a base word that is like the kenning you will create. For example, road, in whale-road, is the base word which is like the channels of the sea. Couple it with a word which describes the base word, as whale describes what kind of road it is. Please give us your creations in a comment to this blog. Have fun, word-makers!….html

The Journey Begins

Say what?

A short journey into the history of English…

Hey, what was that you said?

Have you ever wondered, as an English speaker, why you say the words you do? Most people never give it a thought. The words they use are just taken for granted as useful tools for everyday communication. There’s no interest in where these words came from, right?

I say wrong. DNA testing for ancestors is a very hot topic today, and I’m willing to bet that people will not only want to know where they came from, but where their words came from as well. And so I begin this blog.

Influence on Language

If you speak Icelandic, Spanish, or Finnish you are generally using the same words which have been spoken for centuries. You’d say these languages are conservative. Especially if a country is isolated, there is less opportunity for new influences on the language from non native speakers.

But what about English? The roots of the English language are deep and wide and the results are a unique, linguistic flowering, largely due to the influence of invaders. Take a look at England. It’s hardly isolated. In fact, the British Isles have been a target for invaders for thousands of years. Every invader, and eventually settler, contributed to the evolution of the English language.

Anglo Saxon Influence

“But what does this have to do with me?” you may ask. Well, what if you were to say, “Let’s go to your house. I need to get something to eat.” You would be speaking an evolved version of pure Old English, the speech of the Anglo Saxons. Every word in those sentences is from them. Their words are the “meat and potatoes” words, the words that glue our language together. The Anglo Saxons were Germanic raiders that acted and looked a lot like their more famous cousins, the Vikings. They found the island with it’s doors wide open as early as 450 A.D. and walked right in.


And speaking of the Vikings, after plundering the British Isles, they eventually settled down and shared their language, Old Norse. If you wanted to choose some words spoken by that tough bunch of dudes, you might say, “Tuesday and Thursday I want to ransack the loft for that skirt!” They showed up in earnest in “Angleland” about 800 A. D.

Norman French

After the second millennium rolled around, we had another batch of bad boys take over and bring their words with them. In 1066, William the Conqueror from Normandy battled Harold and the Anglo Saxon lords at the Battle of Hastings. After they dispatched Harold with an arrow through the eye, they set up their French government and eventually influenced the way their English subjects spoke. Now, remember you wanted to eat at your friend’s house before? Let’s suppose you’re still hungry but don’t want to go to your friend’s house after all. You’ve found out that all he’s got is three day old cheese sticks. You might say, “Let’s rendezvous at the restaurant. I’m famished!” Well, most of that is basically Frenchified Anglo Saxon, which soon after the Norman French takeover would have been dubbed – Middle English.

As English speakers, we have a rich treasure of words at our beck and call. Mmm… and where does that fun, little phrase come from? Stay tuned… there’s another English expression which bears looking into! We will explore more secrets of the English language in upcoming posts.

Mary Atwood, May 2018